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Searching for the new Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino
Rudolph Valentino

As the nights draw in, the BFI is offering something to keep us warm and purring with satisfaction. The institute’s blockbuster season for 2015 is Love, a celebration of everything sexy, sentimental and swooningly romantic. It’s a capacious theme, but a winning one. For myself, I am never happier than when I am sobbing my heart out at an old film.

You’ll be glad to hear, however, that I managed to restrain myself on Tuesday morning, at the official press launch for the season, which offered a whirlwind romance with the history of love on screen, from GA Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) to Brief Encounter (1945) to Trainwreck (2015). The BFI’s Rhidian Davis gave the presentation, which was a real joy, but his love train hit a bump when he arrived at the modern romcom. Judd Apatow’s growing influence over the genre was, he said, as if the little boys who wince when film stars start kissing are now directing the love scenes themselves. Modern romance is drowning in irony, and Seth Rogen is no Hugh Grant, he lamented.

That sounds about right – but I hope it’s not true. Perhaps this is just nostalgia, I thought, crossing my fingers. Maybe we never get over our first screen crushes, or could it be that old age knocks the corners off our screen romances, making vintage affairs seem more universal? Romance has been declared dead before, in fact. I have written a chapter for the BFI Love compendium, all about romantic films in the silent era – and believe me, at the dawn of the 1930s, plenty of critics believed that synchronised sound had murdered the art of love on screen.

The question that really made me channel my inner Carrie Bradshaw, with a winsome tilt of the head as I pushed open my laptop, arose at the Q&A afterwards. Jenni Murray was the chair, and her panellists perched on Mae West pout sofas were the BFI’s Davis and Laura Adams, director Mike Newell and screenwriter Tess Morris. It was Murray I think, who asked: where are the new Valentinos? The panel was stumped. Do we even, they pondered, need Rudolph Valentino any more?

For many a silent film fan, that’s a terrible question. Who could live without Valentino? Who would want to? Certainly, when he died young, hundreds of young women famously felt unable to carry on. For many a cinephile full-stop, the thought of a world without a Valentino figure is a glimpse of a hideously barren future. If we agree that the cinema taps into our collective subconscious, then where would our dreams be without a dream lover? Won’t anyone ever seduce us, and leave us breathless again?
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