Never let go, Jack: Love languages and their representation in film

Saturday, February 20, 2021 - 2:21pm

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Coupledom in film is tricky — can the nitty-gritty of a relationship capture an audience, or do you go for the heart-warming romantic comedy? Is the “after” more important than the “happily ever”? Half the time, I don’t even know what I want from a relationship, let alone what other people want. Despite the fun film tropes that can come from this kind of uncertainty, there is a level of stability that we’re all looking for in a good film couple. Where that stability comes from we can only guess, but in the spirit of organization and stereotyping people based on their communication styles, what better way to look at the language of love in film than with love languages?

The five love languages include quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service and receiving gifts. And while I’ve never put much stock in these relatively arbitrary communication preferences, they do provide an amusing reason for me to re-watch some of my favorite films. And, in categorizing famous film couples by their characters’ respective love languages, it might even be possible to find what differentiates the endearing pairs from those you just want to break up through the duration of the movie (or franchise).

Beginning with a classic, consider Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice.” For those of you unfamiliar with Jane Austen’s most famous coupling, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s meet-cute consists of a ball and a poorly-timed insult from Darcy. This is a tragedy, given Elizabeth’s clear affinity for words of affirmation and George Wickham’s ability to string a few pretty words together. While the two are originally book characters, they’ve inspired several on-screen adaptations, including one where we get to see Keira Knightley in her element in a period piece and Matthew Macfadyen with sideburns to spare. Eventually, after having observed Elizabeth’s caring nature over the course of the story, Darcy (and his propensity for acts of service) confesses his love in the pouring rain. It’s a love story for the ages with Knightley and Macfadyen bringing some Hollywood glamour to the Victorian lovers.

Another definitive couple that I would be remiss not to include is, of course, Jack and Rose from “Titanic.” Rose, as the sad rich girl of the story, obviously thrives on quality time. As she forlornly walks around the decadent upper decks of the Titanic, it’s clear that no one has really taken the time to get to know her; her loneliness almost makes you wish the Titanic would hit the iceberg faster. That is, until we meet Jack, a strapping young man on his way back to America, living life on the edge despite his lack of family. Both characters seem to flourish with quality time, spending every waking moment together once they finally meet.

I always thought that having the same love language could make for a boring storyline, but the beauty of “Titanic” is the clear-cut setting — and ending — of the relationship. The relationship plateaus Jack and Rose may or may not experience in the future become irrelevant as the whole affair takes place on a doomed cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic. We’re all bound to do some crazy things in the open water. So, stepping out of the comfort of your typical love language should be low-hanging fruit, a feat achieved on the lido deck while your soon-to-be-wed fiancé makes you want to jump off the boat and your soon-to-be-dead lover keeps you from jumping off said boat.  

In a less ’90s example, consider Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky, the stars of Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” franchise. Despite its contemporary setting, “To All the Boys” creates the kind of nostalgia for high school that can only come from saturating a movie in warm filters and the naivete of youthful love. That said, I have never wanted a couple to break up more than Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky. 

The classic fake-relationship-turned-real trope of every young adult romance novel ever ran its course in the first film, and though the couple gave Netflix a lucrative set of movies, I’ve struggled to believe the viability of Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship. Granted, if I was sure they would be together forever, there would be no plot, no intrigue keeping me on the couch giving Netflix my views. Without the immaturity of these characters, you lose the tension that arises as a result of their inability to recognize each other’s love languages.  

Differences in love languages do not make a breakup, a fact that is made abundantly clear by any relationship website that talks about love languages. However, a pairing’s failure to accommodate these differences is another story. Despite being fake, or maybe because of it, Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship is the healthiest at the beginning of the first film. Why? There is a contract that details what each wants out of the arrangement.

Maybe signing a relationship contract isn’t all that romantic, but the general idea is the same: Communication is key. When emotions come to a head in the third installment, you’d think Lara Jean and Peter would know how to talk to each other, but no. Lara Jean fails to recognize Peter’s need for words of affirmation on several occasions, very cavalierly dropping that she wants to go to New York University with no plans to transfer to a school near Stanford, where Peter is heading. This fact also laughs in the face of Peter’s need for quality time to make a relationship work. That being said, the relationship that does work in the third film is between Lara Jean and New York City. New York understands her desire for quality time, opting to send her on an adventure to reclaim a couch in the middle of the night. Falling in love with a person might be nice, but falling in love with a city, with your independence, can lead to a whole new world, one where the person you love knows exactly what you need, no questions asked, because that person is you.

Love languages serve the purpose of simplifying the things we want from our partners — I need to spend time with you or I need you to tell me you love me. But they also remove the nuance from something as complex as human emotion. This is obvious even with a couple as simple as one from a romantic comedy or drama meant to restore your faith in love, if not for James Cameron’s decision to kill off young Leo. Even something as trite as the relationship between Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner in “Valentine’s Day” is hard to label with specific love languages. Nonetheless, they’re a fun and entertaining way of trying to communicate with your partner, and if they give me something to talk about besides Noah Centineo’s amazing hair (or lack of a neck, you choose), then by all means explain love languages to me.

Daily Arts Writer Emma Chang can be reached at emmacha@umich.edu.


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