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Katharine Hepburn's Summertime is the greatest Valentine's Day movie

Valentine's Day movies are as easy to come by as fake Murano glass in Venice. There are the classic Hollywood romances with their soft-focus close-ups of starlets' absurdly perfect bone structures, rom-coms that begin with endearing and enviable meet-cutes, and the watch-it-while-ugly-crying-with-a-pint-of-ice-cream movies that you'd never admit to loving (even if you can recite every word of the reconciliation monologue). There's even a set of aggressively anti-Valentine's Day movies out there for people who are single and loving it, darn it!

But by my money, the single greatest Valentine's Day movie is David Lean's 1955 film Summertime. It doesn't typically make it onto the lists of what to watch on Valentine's Day — or even the lists of the overlooked movies to watch on Valentine's Day. Some people might even think, with its bittersweet ending, that it isn't really a good Valentine's Day movie at all. But anchored by Katharine Hepburn giving one of her all-time great performances as a lonely American yearning for a "wonderful, mystical, magical miracle" in Venice, it is a surprisingly perfect celebration of the seasons of love.

David Lean — the legendary English director of films like Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Brief Encounter (1945) — once said of Summertime that "I've put more of myself in that film than in any other I've ever made." It's an odd little movie, though, for a number of reasons, and not the least of which is the fact that it even got made. Lean largely set the film outdoors and on location in Venice (a rarity at the time, due to the expense of shooting exteriors) and used pricey Technicolor film that drinks up the city scenery: the overflowing pots of flowers, the moody shadows of the alleyways, the golden wings of the angels on St. Mark's Basilica, the girlish pink of the bows that Hepburn's character, Jane Hudson, wears in her red hair.

But Jane is no girl anymore; "nobody's older than me," she says as a self-deprecating joke at one point. Hepburn, though radiant in the film, was either 47 or 48 at the time of shooting; the accounts conflict, though either way, she was not exactly a traditional, dewy, young romantic Hollywood protagonist. Even half a century later, it is still rare for middle-aged women to get to be the focal point of a romance. Jane excuses her spinsterhood by explaining that she's "the independent type, always have been," and she's come to Venice by herself, all the way from Ohio, after saving up her "fancy secretary" money for years.

But her dry humor is clearly a shield for her loneliness, and not a very good one at that: in wordless, private moments, her face falls with embarrassment and self-pity and the repeated rejection from her fellow travelers, whom she tries to befriend. On multiple occasions, her expression is tight with the effort of pridefully holding back tears. For the whole first half hour of the film, there is no love interest for Jane at all; instead, she wanders the city by herself, noticing the couples that always seem to appear everywhere when you yourself are alone. "Two," she remarks much later, with envy, to a friend who is having marital troubles, "is the loveliest number in the world."

Yet true to the promised magic of Venice, Jane eventually has her meet-cute: a local Italian who calls the waiter for her when she can't get the cameriere's attention on the piazza. Jane notices the stranger's open attraction to her — something she's spent a quarter of the movie longing for — but shies away from it, awkward and rigid as she tries to escape the encounter without meeting his eyes again. Later, she accidentally runs into the man in the antique shop he owns, when a red glass goblet in his window lures her inside (as if a cruel reflection of Jane's situation, the goblet is the only of its kind immediately available, without the match to make it a pair). Finally, the stranger — whose name is Renato (Rossano Brazzi) — comes to find Jane at her hotel, where she again shies away from his attention. "You make many jokes," he tells her as she repeatedly deflects him, "but inside I think you cry."

Jane begins to open up to Renato, finally trusting herself to be swept up in something she doesn't fully control. She has the dizzying excitement of falling in love, but also the bitter disappointment of stumbling onto a secret that shatters her fantasy. "You are a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat," Renato scolds her for her expectations in the famous line (once amusingly censored for its suggestiveness in the U.S.). "'No,' you say, 'I want beefsteak.' My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli." Alas, dated as it is, the film is not always above the romantic stereotypes about Italian men.

As is suggested by the film's title, there is an undiscussed ephemerality to Renato and Jane's relationship. The warm loveliness of a European summer eventually turns to the crisp bitter mornings of its autumns; trips end, and you have to go home again. Love also comes; just as commonly, love also goes.

But the point of Summertime — and perhaps the point of Valentine's Day, too, once you get beyond the Hallmark cards and jewelry sales — is that we ought to enjoy every connection we form for exactly what it is. It's not a question of how long it lasts, or what's come before it, or what will come next. At any individual moment, if we are lucky, love can be as simple as Renato describes it to Jane: "We saw each other. We liked each other. This is so nice."

You can stream Summertime for free on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, and Kanopy, or rent it on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, and Vudu.

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