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Everything I know about love I learned from Antoinette Jadaone

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Julia Baretto and Joshua Garcia in "Love You to the Stars and Back." Screenshot from IWANTTFC/YOUTUBE

Spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the films discussed.

If anyone ever asks me to define what love is, I would simply point them to Antoinette Jadaone’s films.

I know movies are hardly the best resource to learn about the facts of life, much less love, but there is something sweetly tragic and authentic about Jadaone’s filmography, which, despite being shoehorned in the romantic comedy category, has less to do with cinematic romance than actual relationships, and really isn’t as funny as it is unnervingly real.

Take the groundbreaking release of her 2014 film “That Thing Called Tadhana.” Jadaone threw in existential anxiety, socioeconomic worry, and personal insecurities to an otherwise typical rom-com formula, and the result is a widely relatable, if a little painful, movie about human connection. Jadaone reintroduced relevant love stories to a new generation, not by fully exposing the nitty-gritty of it, nor by blowing it up to a saccharine standard, but by meeting audiences somewhere in the middle.

The unique triumph of “Tadhana” and her other films that followed it is that they are equal parts tragic (owing perhaps, to her desire to instill realism into rom-com tropes) and hopeful (an inherent trait of big studio productions), but instead of taking away from her stories, this compromise uplifts them. It sets up the writer-director’s philosophy on modern-day relationships: love is a constant give-and-take that is always, somehow, worth it.

Think of JM De Guzman and Angelica Panganiban at the end of “Tadhana.” They spent most of the time getting to know each other in a deeply personal and enviable way, only for her ex to show up at the eleventh hour, hindering any possibility the leads might have of getting together. Or recall Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil in “Alone/Together” (2019) They never get the timing of their reconciliation right, so for most of the story, they have to watch each other end up with other people, with Enrique’s character even fathering a child. Frustrating incidents like these punctuate Jadaone’s films with a sad realism, but before viewers are pulled so far down that they decide to renounce love forever, hope springs. The last thing we see in “Tadhana” is JM driving happily to some unknown caller/lover, while “Alone” closes off with a scene placing Liza and Enrique side by side, together once more. Vague, but hopeful still.

JM De Guzman and Angelica Panganiban in "That Thing Called Tadhana." Screenshot from CINEMA ONE ORIGINALS/YOUTUBE

Perhaps this delicate balance between pessimism and optimism — an important quality in both storytelling and relationships — is best exemplified in the 2018 film “Never Not Love You.” At a convenience store patio, the characters of Nadine Lustre and James Reid discuss the future of their fragile relationship. Nadine wants to keep it long-distance, but James doesn’t. He admits that Nadine’s growth is painful to watch because it seems to distance her further away from him.

Nadine is clearly hurt by the confession, but she chooses her next words very carefully. She could resurrect James’ many failings as a boyfriend, or she could reiterate the need to be pragmatic at this point in their lives. Instead, she inches closer to him, cupping her hand as she does around his, and offers a simple “I love you.” I love you, like it’s the answer to all their problems. I love you, like it means something more than just plain zeal.

In less deft hands, this scene may come across as trite and cheesy, but because Jadaone has put these two through so much, fleshing out their personas right before our eyes, it feels redemptive, earned even. As cliche as those three words sound, we all live to hear them a little more, especially if they’re as selfless and heartfelt as they are here.

This trademark vulnerability can be traced back to films such as “Before Sunrise” (1995), which is often compared to Jadaone’s work owing to the dialogue-heavy treatment of relationships. ” At one point in the film, Celine (Julie Delpy) wonders, “If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know it's almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.” Why risk so much for love — why bother hurting or waiting or sacrificing for it? It’s a question many have tried to answer, especially through art, but Jadaone already has hers and it’s for a taste of this very connection, this real-world magic.

That’s why conversation is always front and center in a Jadaone film. Viewers might come away from a screening of “Never Not Love You” unable to recall why exactly James Reid has to fly off to London, but they’ll always keep with them the intimate exchanges he had with Nadine, whether it’s a conversation about dreams in a Zambales lake or a marriage proposal in bed.

James Reid and Nadine Lustre in "Never Not Love You." Screenshot from VIVA FILMS/YOUTUBE

One of my favorite moments of vulnerability in Jadaone’s films is slightly less dramatic, though. It takes place in a budget resort on the outskirts of the city, where lodgers are cramped in a shared pool, laughing and drinking in gay abandon. The night is cool and young, dotted lovingly with stars, and looking wistfully at this all is Joshua Garcia. Soon he’s joined by Julia Barretto, who is made to look like an outcast in tacky clothes, choppy bangs, and a makeup-less face, but she’s glowing nonetheless. She hands him a Sapporo beer, and they drink in silence before she asks, “Anong iniisip mo?”

This scene from “Love You to the Stars Back” (2017) might seem like your typical rom-com setup, where the pretty leads are bound to be swayed by the night’s idyllic allure and charm their way into each other’s arms. But instead of drunken flirtations or gimmicks about who-sleeps-where, the two just share their honest musings on dreams, tattoos, and aliens. The dialogue that transpires is so endearingly plain and earnest, it feels almost intrusive to watch.

I can’t recall how many times a conversation almost exactly like this (with perhaps more pretension involved) has kept me up all night wondering if I was, indeed, in love myself. We, too, shared unlikely aspirations over a can of beer. We, too, exchanged mundane details about our mundane lives with keen and genuine interest. We, too, tried to play down our burgeoning feelings by burying them in bad jokes and pseudo-philosophy — excuses, really, to keep each other company.

I used to doubt the validity of these experiences because they were leagues away from the intense passion I supposed love was. I thought that you had to chase your partner to the airport or declare your feelings in front of hundreds of strangers to be considered a bona fide lover. Likewise, I thought I had to be cheated on, rejected, or bereaved to truly feel heartbroken. As it turns out, these ardent depictions, enjoyable as they are onscreen, are just that: depictions. Heightened simulations of love for the masses.

Real love is somehow less climactic and more affecting than that. If Jadaone’s predilection for the subtler things in life has taught me anything, it’s that I could just be walking along Maginhawa with the boy that I like in deep silence and still feel the same electricity one feels in a kiss. Or I could simply look at the same boy in a crowded restaurant and somehow feel the crushing weight of our imminent end. It’s in muted and dual moments like these where real passion reveals itself, and by choosing to dwell in them, Jadaone has proven to be a veritable voice of love.

Her stories carry in them nuggets of truth about the inner workings of the heart, how it clicks and clacks in our current landscape. The answers are all there, bare and scattered like the thoughts of her strikingly verbose characters. All we have to do is watch.