When we talk about love

Film - Philip Kerr finds Americans lost for words when it comes to expressing real emotions

''I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that . . . Here's looking at you, kid."

This self-sacrificing little speech by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) to Ilsa Lund Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman) at the climax of Casablanca (1942) is a classic of romantic dialogue in cinema. But even if one discounts the possibility that Rick blows Ilsa out because he is really a closet gay - witness the "beautiful friendship" scene with the subtly homosexual Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) that follows - there remains the strong possibility that Rick's "hill of beans" line reveals an important truth about American cinema and its attitude to love.

Most of the American screen romances of recent years - Annie Hall (1977), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), While You Were Sleeping (1995), As Good As It Gets (1997) and What Women Want (2000) - have also been comedies. It's almost as if Americans think there is something vaguely embarrassing, or perhaps even un-American, about being in love.

By contrast, European cinema suffers no such inhibitions, and French film-makers in particular have always treated love with greater seriousness and reverence. Indeed, it is possible to argue that while American cinema has for years explored, as a general leitmotif, the right to bear arms, the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut and even Jean-Luc Godard has explored the right to bare the soul and sometimes, as a corollary, the flesh.

Sentiment, in the pejorative sense of conveying mawkishness, is about the only kind of human feeling that has played consistently well in American cinema. John Ford comes to mind in this respect; but a good modern example of what I'm talking about is The Deer Hunter (1978). Here, both the central male love affair between Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken and the central heterosexual love affair between De Niro and Meryl Streep are hardly articulated at all, and the only feelings that any of the characters are able to express are patriotic ones, when De Niro, Streep et al sing "God Bless America". Far from being the syrupy scene many people thought it was, Michael Cimino's ending is nothing if not ironic. Even pathetic (in the non-pejorative sense of the word).

Outside New York and Los Angeles, Americans don't feel comfortable with the English language. Which is a polite way of saying that outside the big cities, most Americans are plain inarticulate. Just look at Dubbya. And he's the president. This is the reason why, unlike the French, Americans don't tend to make serious films about love, and why, on the rare occasions when they do, the films don't really work. Americans just can't talk the talk.

XX/XY tries very hard to look like a French New Wave movie - the title is reminiscent of Godard's Masculin Feminin (1966), or even Claude Lelouch's Un Homme et une Femme (1966). There is even a French song over the titles and a menage a trois to get the first reel rolling (you can't get more French than that). But thereafter the sensibilities are uniquely American and, as a result, the whole thing never quite convinces.

When New York animator and aspiring movie-maker Coles (Mark Ruffalo) meets Sam (Maya Stange), the attraction is immediate. Sam invites her best friend Thea (Kathleen Robertson) to bed with them, which seems to Coles like a dream come true, until jealousies destroy their carefree threesome. Ten years later, their very different lives converge once again and Coles realises how much he still loves Sam. But can he risk everything to tell her the truth?

It might help if Coles could express himself. The trouble is that no one in this movie is able to articulate anything very much. Asked why he did something, Coles invariably answers: "I don't know." Asked how she feels about something, Sam invariably answers: "I don't know." And all the time, what they really mean is: "I don't know how to say what I feel."

Which just goes to prove that in order to fall in love with someone, it is necessary to have read about it first. A bit of Shakespeare, perhaps. Or a French movie.

XX/XY is an interesting if not particularly compelling film. Like most American indie movies it is technically well-made, but since none of the three principal characters in this lovers' triangle is ever able to string more than three words together - with the possible exception of Claire, played by the excellent Petra Wright - ultimately it's rather a frustrating experience. There is even a moment when Coles tells Sam that he wants to make "art house movies no one will ever see" - which, in any film other than this one, would sound like a joke.

XX/XY (15) is on general release from 24 October

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for childhood