These offbeat romances occupy a small but growing sub-niche of both the science fiction and fantasy genre and the romance genre. Some might be called science fiction or fantasy films at their heart, with romance elements. Others might be called romances at heart, with fantasy or science fiction elements. Regardless of how the viewer chooses to see each individual film, they clearly all cross boundaries, and tell strange tales with unexpected twists, in the tradition of mind-bending cinema.
I’ve ordered them in what I consider ascending order, and chosen fairly recent films, all in the English language. I could have chosen a number of foreign films to appear in this list, for example perhaps the charming French film, Amelie, or another French mind-bending masterpiece, The Double Life of Veronique. Perhaps I’ll write a separate review for some of those foreign films which might fit this odd cross-genre group of films.
In any case, each of these stories has delightful romantic elements than any lover of romance films should enjoy, and each of them has enough unexpected twists and turns to entertain any lover of mind-bending films.
Orlando is a film adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel. Woolf is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of modernist fiction. The film was written and directed by Sally Potter, and stars Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane.
Orlando, the central character of the film is a man who lives four centuries, and barely ages past thirty. At the midpoint of the film, Orlando awakens from sleep one morning changed from a man into a woman. As a man, Orlando seems to be nearly entirely loveless, but upon awakening as a woman, the film shifts gears, and tells a tale of romance.
The story was Woolf’s satire about self-important nobles, and was intended as a portrait of her lover, Vita Sackville-West, who, much like Orlando, lost her ancestral home. The film is visually stunning, and while the plot is slow-moving at times, this surprising and delightful tale is compelling enough to make the slow parts worth the wait.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is a film adaptation of a novel by Audrey Niffenegger. The script for the film was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, author of the famous mind-bending romance, Ghost, which didn’t quite make this list. Actually, I had it at position 10, but bumped it for Orlando, which I personally find to be a more compelling mind-bender. The Time Traveler’s Wife was directed by Robert Schwentke, and features performances by Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.
The story takes the viewer on a journey through time, shown out of sequence, or rather, in the sequence experienced by the time traveler, Henry, played by Bana. Due to his hops through time, the story is presented out of chronological sequence, or rather, out of the sequence experienced by his wife, Clare, played by McAdams.
As a romance, the film ranks quite highly in my opinion, as it displays a love that can resist all obstacles, including time and tragedy. We see these lovers fight about some very serious issues. They weather betrayals and odd twists of fate, yet never give up on their love for one another, no matter how difficult times or situations become.
Directed by Michel Gondry, a director made famous by his earlier film (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), which also appears on this list, The Science of Sleep is an odd fantastic voyage through the dream world of a strange introverted young man, Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal). He is unable to tell the difference between his dreams and reality.
After the death of his father in Mexico, he travels to France to live near his mother. He meets Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who inspires him to new heights in his creative works.
He falls for her quickly, and being shy and introverted, he must release his more emboldened self from the dream world in order to become the type of man who can win her affections.
This quirky, offbeat fantasy is delightfully humorous, visually entertaining and colorful, and sweetly romantic all at the same time. It tells a beautiful tale of a man overcoming his shortcomings to live into the romance he desires deep in his heart.
Written and directed by Brad Anderson, a writer and director of numerous mind-bending tales on both television and in film, Happy Accidents is a very unconventional tale of romance starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Happy Accidents is a quirky story about Ruby (Tomei), a woman who has had a string of bad relationships with broken men she’s continually trying to “fix.” She encounters Sam (D’Onofrio), an introverted, odd, but charming man, and they fall hard and fast for each other.
As their relationship deepens, however, Sam reveals he’s not the person he’s portrayed himself to be. He claims to be a time traveler from the year 2470 who has jumped backward in time in an effort to escape prosecution for the murder of his sister, a crime he didn’t commit, and to seek out Ruby, who he saw in an historic photo.
Ruby becomes convinced she’s found another man who needs to be fixed, and spirals out of control, never sure whether to dump him for his problems, keep him because he’s an incurable romantic, or have him committed to an institution. Could Sam really be from the future, or is it all just some romantic fantasy inside his head? In the end, does it matter? Will Ruby and Sam find eternal love, or miss their opportunity?
Perhaps principally a fantastic comedy, a primary undercurrent of Being John Malkovich is the story of the twisted love triangle between the film’s three principal characters. Craig Schwartz, an offbeat and unsuccessful puppeteer, played by John Cusack, is married to Lotte, played by Cameron Diaz. He’s got a crush on Maxine, played by Catherine Keener.
Craig tempts Maxine into going into business with him when he discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, and they begin selling tickets at $200 a piece into Malkovich’s head. He hopes to seduce her, but she becomes obsessed with Lotte, but only when she’s inside the mind of Malkovich.
Craig sees Malkovich as his route to the heart of Maxine, as well as to making puppeteering into a major craft. He uses Malkovich’s body to become famous and get close to Maxine.
His twisted methods ultimately fail when he’s betrayed by Lotte and Maxine, who end up living happily ever after. While the film is more darkly ironic than romantic, it still qualifies as a romantic tragedy. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, this film easily qualifies as one of the greatest mind-benders ever created.
Cashback is a lesser-known independent film, based on a short film, and directed by Sean Ellis. It stars Sean Biggerstaff as Ben Willis and Emilia Fox as Sharon Pintey.
The film begins with the breakup of Ben and Suzy, played by Michelle Ryan. She’s his first love, and to his dismay she moves on with another man almost instantly, leaving Ben with a horrible case of insomnia. With nothing to fill his time, he takes a night job at a local supermarket.
Using his creative imagination (or perhaps some supernatural ability) he imagines stopping time, and then he immortalizes what he sees by drawing it. The viewer is never sure if he’s really stopping time, or if it is all in his head.
Ultimately, this does not matter, as the real story here is about his developing obsession and love for Sharon, the checkout girl at the market. His creative flights of fancy eventually lead him into her heart, and to the cure for his insomnia.
This film is visually stunning, as the scenes of frozen time are quite artistically staged. Ben moves about his motionless world, undressing people and drawing them nude. The way these scenes are filmed creates an odd, haunting feeling that is likely to remain with the viewer after the film.
Like Being John Malkovich, this film was written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. Adaptation is a strangely autobiographical work of fiction about a work of non-fiction, The Orchid Thief, being adapted fro the screen by Kaufman and his fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman.
The story of The Orchid Thief is very difficult for Charlie to adapt. His lighthearted and less-talented brother, Donald, however, seems oddly able to help translate this non-fiction book into an interesting script, and is keen to make money writing scripts.
Within this story is the story of Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, falling in love with John Laroche, an orchid hunter with a certain charm, and fascinating personal history. This romance, while not taking center stage of the script, is an integral part of the story.
The twists and turns the story takes, common to all Kaufman scripts, qualify this as quite an amazingly crafted mind-bender.
The Fountain, written and directed by Darren Arronofsky, one of the greatest directors of mind-bending cinema, stars Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman. The tale is split into three separate time periods, spanning over a thousand years.
In each time period, a love affair between Tomas/Tommy/Tom (Jackman) and Isabel/Izzy (Weisz) is central to the motivations of Tommy. His desire to please his love, to save her from death, and deliver her to immortality fuels his quest for the Tree of Life.
In the final, futuristic part of the story, he seems to be having a love affair with the tree itself, who is now substitute or surrogate for his memories and feelings for Isabel/Izzy.
His love simply will not die, and drives him to the very ends of the universe in an effort to rescue the tree, or is it Isabel herself? With the surreal images and haunting themes, it becomes impossible to tell where the line between reality and fantasy lies, and where the line between his immortal quest and his love lies. Perhaps there is no line? Perhaps they are all one and the same.
Directed by David Fincher, another one of the greatest directors of mind-bending cinema, and written by Eric Roth, author of numerous mind-bending scripts, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is based on a short story originally written by the great American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, and the woman he loves, Daisy, is played by Cate Blanchett. The mind-bending aspect of the story is the fact that Benjamin was born with a rare disorder that causes him to age backwards. As he passes through life in reverse, he encounters Daisy numerous times along the way.
Their love, of course, is a tragic story, as his condition makes an ongoing relationship an impossibility. Regardless, Daisy loves him beyond measure, and can scarcely bear to give him up when the time comes.
Weaving together an epic tale of fantasy and romance, Fincher treats the viewer to a tale of love that, unfortunately, will not survive the Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Without any doubt in my mind, I grant the top spot in this oddest of genres to the epic science fiction tale of romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Written by Charlie Kaufman, and directed by Michel Gondry, two names that appear elsewhere in this same list, it weaves together an odd cyberpunkish tale of a device that can wipe a person from one’s memories, and the wounded, embattled love affairs left damaged in its wake.
Jim Carrey stars as Joel, and Kate Winslet as Clementine, an oddly mismatched couple. Joel is a quiet, withdrawn man, and Clementine is an oddball free spirit.
In a fit of anger and dysfunctional relationship issues, Clementine uses a new piece of technology to erase Joel from her memory. This causes Joel to become furious, and he seeks out the same technology in order to have Clementine similarly erased from his memory. As the process begins, however, he changes his mind and tries to file her away in other memories, where she does not belong.
Will their love survive the erasure of their memories of one another?