Last week in Toronto, the incomparable, undeniable, painstakingly beautiful Jane Birkin landed in a tiny concert hall in the city's west-end arts district. The chanteuse-slash-actress-slash-icon, who went to Paris from London in the late '60s, is known as much for her talent as she is for her fashion sense and the Hermès bag that borrows her name - and for her great romance with equally-iconic French actor and singer Serge Gainsbourg. Birkin, who has performed scarcely and selectively as she approaches 65 (today is actually her birthday), was in town for her Serge Gainsbourg & Jane via Japan tour, a 30-city trek that finds her singing the songs of her greatest love, now and forever.
Gainsbourg passed away almost 20 years ago, and although his other love affairs were storied and highly publicized (Brigitte Bardot among them, for example), Birkin has never stopped loving him. I didn't attend the show, but you don't have to see her live to know what the two meant to one another. Although they never married, and were together for just over a decade, there was something else, something more there. You can hear the everlasting-ness of that love in their songs, timeless and almost torturous to those who themselves have loved and lost. You can feel it in the interviews she gives about him, how she describes his legacy and his vision, and his profound effect on her life. You can see it in actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter they have together. It's etched in Birkin's face, in her laugh lines, written across her life.
And then I started playing those favourite records, her records and his, and wondered about the world's best romances, both real and imagined, past and present. Is the so-called "Great Love Story" dead?
It doesn't take a pop culture aficionado - one who scans all the gossip blogs or watches E! News - to know that the state of romance, or as it is reported in the press like it was with Gainsbourg and Birkin, is in a panic, a state of continual slaughter. Often enough, you'll find said panic staring back at you at the supermarket checkout, in the form of yet another celebrity failure or a political family values-type scandal. It also doesn't take a statistician to know that divorce rates are rising, marriages are changing, and people love each other differently. (I mean, hello, I figured it out.) But it's true: romance, and the tales of great love that it produces, is changing. Frankly, we're seeing a lot less of it, and I'm starting to lose my religion a little - if, in fact, you can count love as a religion.
Through my father, I came of age alongside weekly screenings of black-and-white movies with grand gestures and hopeful storylines like Casablanca, or set in backdrops akin to Grand Hotel, and I learned from them, willing my future entanglements to work out in the same way. (They haven't…yet.) Through the development of my own taste, I grew into movies like Sleepless in Seattle and devoured novels like Wuthering Heights for their absurdly perfect, almost remarkably feasible, plot points of forget-me-not's and together-forever's. And I think that's the way it is for most people - we take our cues of great loves, or the possibilities of them, through our cultural conditioning. Once it was literature, then film, and now, our perceptions - and often realities - can rely on the ins-and-outs of Hollywood to dangerous extremes. But when we think about the "greatest love story," it's hard to think of anything before this century - literally. Britney and Justin? Brad and Jennifer? Dolce and Gabbana? All of Adele's lovers? All over. And, even if we're struggling to find examples of 21st century modern romance, what defines this sort of tale, a tale that we'll talk about for centuries to come, imprinted in our written word, on the records of the future?
A few years ago, a British television channel polled readers to find the greatest love story to promote its "Summer of Love" theme. First place: Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. (Too classic and perfect, like I said.) On the list of the top 20 titles, most of the supposed romantic touchstones came from English authors with works like Romeo & Juliet, Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Eyre. Interestingly enough, the most recent story to make the cut, placing at number eight on the list, was 1957's Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a tale of loneliness and corruption set against the Russian Revolution of 1917. It makes you think, surely, there must be something in literature written recently with, say, a contemporary take - we're talking near-millennium-grade here - on how people come together, but with a sophistication and an esteemed, public opinion that makes a story like Bronte's, well, a story like Bronte's. (And I refuse to think that the mere passing of time has anything to do with a novel's cachet.) Erich Segal's Love Story (1970)? Candace Bushnell's Sex & The City anthology (1997)? What about Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed (2010) even? These were all written in different decades, during different social phenomena and cultural shifts and women's rights, during different paradigms of what constituted a real "human experience."
A part of me feels, and the facts don't help, that we're moving further away from an era that prizes these sorts of stories - and the mystery, marvel, and intrigue within them. It's as if literature was the first to give up on such love tales, "modernizing" or "gentrifying" the potential for great love stories as the classics know and speak them, likening them to simple Harlequin paperbacks. But is the trade-off worth it? This shift has allowed romance to be reflected in the more real, more human, and, by default, more miserable ways than it actually is in real life. There isn't a veiling of emotion and nuance anymore: we want what we want, and we need - nay, demand - it to look and feel as "real" as our relationships do outside of fiction.
Or, if the written word doesn't appear to be enough right now, perhaps it's because we're in the middle of a new shift of registering human experiences, and in documenting the love stories of our time. And while we might not prize fictionalized accounts of such things anymore, or, if we do, question their true validity, there definitely isn't a shortage of grand gestures or great loves IRL, or in real life. In many ways, history's greatest triumphs of the heart have been restricted to a sort of folklore about them or what we think we know of them from the rise of mass media, a presence that itself continues to distort relationships with paparazzi and the celeb-driven economies of film/music/television.
Everyone wants to believe they have the greatest love story ever, or sometimes never, told. Personally, I always thought that when I found the one who would put up with me and vice versa, that it would rival even the tightest of folk like, say, Beyonce and Jay Z. But now, it's possible and plausible that anyone, myself included, may have a shot at claiming the prize; it can be as simple as searching YouTube. In 2009, a video of a wedding party dancing down the aisle to Chris Brown's "Forever" became an international sensation, and has garnered over 71 million views since being posted. When you watch it, you can't deny the surge of energy you feel from this random, private-citizen couple - and what looks like a stellar supporting cast - simply celebrating their union with a little fun. And you know that they're just going to make it work. And last forever. And, duh, it makes you smile. (It makes me cry.) Kind of like a great novel or a movie, no? This five-minute video has all the fixings of a proper cinematic climax, so to speak. But this is better, because this is real. In February, a Toronto couple married for more than 60 years and lovers through the Holocaust, found themselves as finalists in Live! With Regis and Kelly's own search for the world's greatest love story, more proof that we want to see real world triumphs reflected back at us. And last spring, an engagement video went viral (with 21 million views to date) when a man created and screened a movie trailer as a precursor to a proposal to his girlfriend sitting in the theatre's audience. They got married last week. It's gestures like these - and the smart, daring, so-in-love people who perform them - that show how perceptions, and our receptions, are changing towards "great" romances. Not only will we continue to hear about these events, but they will live on in the Interwebs for all time. Or maybe it's that every romance is truly great, and now, more than ever, we can consume as much as we want, or as much as the people's cinéma vérité will give us.
Arguably, yes, amidst publicity stunt marriages and badly-publicized endings, the great romance may just be dead to us in any sort of expected way. But there is hope: Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti (watch The Last Emperor), Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Bella and Edward, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne. (I mean, if you can handle Ozzy then that must be true love, right?) I know our modern examples might not look or seem that glamorous or "classic" right now, but let's give it about a century? Or just make me a YouTube video of your engagement, okay? Deal.
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