Like anything that simultaneously imbues us with happiness, anxiety, and vitality, a kiss is not some frivolous sign of affection between two participants; it’s one of those rare and fleeting acts that transcend space and time, capable of becoming one of those special memories that, no matter how hard we try, we cannot be expunged. That momentary fusion of two souls is a quintessentially human act, one that fuels a third party’s fascination and envy. Some kisses, however, are awkward, forced, or nauseating, inciting viewers’ fascination by virtue of their lack of fluidity and smoothness. In any case, the kiss has the power to arrest viewers’ attention because it is, in and of itself, a narrative—whether that narrative is romantic, comedic, or unsettling.
Obviously, then, the kiss has been a huge part of cinema since its inception. A moving picture fills in what cannot be conveyed by the written word with regard to a kiss. The Notebook, for instance, has one of the most lauded kisses in recent cinematic history, and the film illustrates the power of film to convey the degree of passion and romance that makes a kiss special. Seeing Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams flounder through the rain to meet each other for a passionate embrace and kiss is an affective overload, one that arrests viewers’ attention, no matter who they are.
Of course, some kisses arrest viewers’ attention for other reasons. In Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s kiss is freighted with so much more than just romance. Fighting the bigoted mores of their society and their own narrow-mindedness, the two break out of their proverbial prison and grab hold of their freedom to love whomever they want. In that film, the kiss is perhaps more poignant than the dialogue, as it opens up a host of implications for the two participants.
And so, one cannot disregard the power of the on-screen kiss. It is a language of its own—the language of love, if you will. It makes more noise than bluster, transcending socioeconomic demarcations, language barriers, and cultural differences because everyone understands a kiss. But one thing is certain: despite its universality, the on-screen kiss and its context mean different things to different viewers. But you already know this.
In celebration of kisses in all their manifestations, this list looks at ten classic on-screen smooches. These smooches vary from romantic to awkward to shocking, and some are a conflation of all three. Attention has been given to compiling a diverse list of kisses, so some readers might find their favourite smooch painfully absent. As they say in the language of love: C’est la vie!
10. The Notebook—Noah and Allie
After mentioning this film in the opening, could we have left it off the list? The kiss from The Notebook that this list highlights needs no introduction. Even those who have stubbornly refrained from watching this film have heard about this kiss; in fact, the kiss is probably why those people haven’t seen the film! And yet, deep down in the marrow of everyone’s soul is a yearning for precisely the kiss that Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) engage in. The inclement weather and the setting cannot be overlooked in describing this kiss, since it serves as a physical obstacle that amplifies their misgivings. When they kiss, then, it feels like Noah and Allie fought so hard to get there, and the journey makes the payoff exponentially more gratifying.
9. Say Anything…—Lloyd and Diane
Cameron Crowe’s 1989 classic teen drama, Say Anything…, popularized John Cusack as the loveable misfit. Ione Skye plays Diane Court, whom Lloyd Dobbler (Cusack) falls intensely in love with. Diane comes from an affluent, upper-middleclass upbringing, whereas Lloyd comes from an austere, less-affluent one. In classic Romeo-and-Juliet fashion, the two transgress socioeconomic bounds and develop a romantic relationship that burns rather brightly. The scene in which the two of them kiss in the car, enveloped in a blanket, epitomizes why this film is so special. Instead of playing the conventional masculine role, Lloyd begins to shake as he softly caresses Diane’s face. Diane settles him down, subverting any reductive idea of gender roles. The two seem meant for each other.
8. Gone with the Wind—Rhett and Scarlett
No list of classic kisses would be complete without a nod to Gone with the Wind, Viktor Fleming’s classic drama about a torrid, yet doomed, love affair between the suave Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and the obdurate Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). As is widely known, the film is an epic set during the American Civil War, and Scarlett is on the losing end, as her life at the Tara Plantation begins to unravel with the Confederate Army’s demise. Though the film ends with Rhett and Scarlett sundered, the scene in which Rhett forcefully kisses Scarlett is the stuff of movie magic. If only Scarlett would have realized then that she loved Rhett, she would not be so destitute in the film’s closing moments.
7. Casablanca—Rick and Ilsa
This list would be remiss without including the beautiful kiss from Casablanca, Michael Curtiz’s classic about two lovers who fortuitously cross paths again after the war tears them asunder. Played by the indomitably smooth Humphrey Bogart, Rick Blaine runs a club in the Moroccan town of Casablanca, where he re-encounters his former inamorata, Ilsa, played by the resplendent Ingrid Bergman. World War II and all of its attendant difficulties preclude permanence in their relationship, so the two spend their fleeting moments together nostalgically recalling their time spent in Paris. The kiss that this list highlights happens during the flashbacks to Paris, and its luminosity lends Rick’s line to Ilsa in the final scene—“We’ll always have Paris”—poignancy.
6. American Beauty—Lester and Colonel Fitts
Sam Mendes’ compelling and painful magnum opus, American Beauty, features this list’s most jarring kiss. The film starts out with Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), in an unconventionally omniscient position, telling viewers that he will be dead by narrative’s end. From start to finish, Lester flouts the life he used to live, doing everything exactly opposite. By contrast, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) is Lester’s new neighbour who adduces a fiercely homophobic persona throughout the narrative. But in a moment where he is deceived by the appearance of things, Colonel Fitts incorrectly infers that Lester is gay and has been sexually stimulating Fitts’ son. Fitts approaches Lester and, with a forced kiss, reveals that he is, in fact, gay. Lester, who is not, rejects Fitts’ advances, and the misunderstanding leads to the film’s tragic climax.
5. Lost in Translation—Bob and Charlotte
The final kiss in the final scene of Sofia Coppola’s bittersweet romance, Lost in Translation, is a mixture of weirdness, romance, and sadness. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a faded and disenchanted actor, and Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a precocious young beauty who is neglected by her boyfriend. The two form an unusual bond while in Tokyo, as he cannot stand being the spokesperson for a Japanese brand of liquor, and she has started to question her relationship with her ambitious boyfriend. Their lives are vastly different, despite their shared loneliness. That latter fact makes the final kiss, though brief, painful and moving.
4. Brokeback Mountain—Ennis and Jack
Ang Lee’s moving drama about two gay cowboys, Brokeback Mountain, features several poignant kisses between the two protagonists, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively. Because of their society’s rigid and unforgiving mores, the two must conceal their homosexuality and mutual attachment. However, during one of their assignations, after pitching a tent and making a fire, the two come together for a dangerous kiss that opens up a host of potentially negative implications. Had they been in a more liberal society, the kiss would have been like any other.
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—Joel and Clementine
Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those rare romantic films that plays with the trite formula and gets it right. This film is not a mere romance between Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), but a painful celebration of what two people had, as Joel desperately tries to retain all of his bright memories of Clementine. The scene in which the two kiss underneath the sheets would be cloying if it weren’t for the film’s unique structure, one that has the audience going backwards with Joel as he remembers the piquant moments of his romance with Clementine. The kiss is powerful because the audience feels compassion for Joel.
2. Before Sunrise—Jesse and Celine
Played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively, Jesse and Celine are the main characters from Richard Linklater’s classic film, Before Sunrise, a film that is light on narrative and instead follows the couple as they perambulate around Vienna. The scene in which the couple first kisses illustrates the unique mixture of nervousness and excitement that characterizes young love. It is an energizing, yet sober, kiss. Thankfully, Linklater does nothing to dress up the scene or make it mawkish.
1. Match Point—Nola and Chris
Match Point is one of Woody Allen’s most successful forays into the genre of tragedy. Played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Chris Wilton is a failed tennis professional who projects himself, and at times is forced, into an upper-class milieu. He meets Scarlett Johansson’s character, Nola Rice, a struggling actor who likewise finds herself amidst London’s upper-class epicureans. Though they are each attached to the siblings of this rich family, they begin to fall for each other. Like The Notebook, what ensues is a passionate kiss in the rain that binds their fates together, though in this film that binding has tragic consequences.