Fantasy films are often overlooked, dismissed as unimportant next to gritty dramas and more real world rhetoric. To dismiss fantasy film as trifling fairytales, though, is a mistake. Even the most phantasmagorical films can be vital and intensely relatable, as these five cinema masterworks prove.
La Belle et la Bête (1946)
No matter what may come, this will remain the definitive live action adaptation of the immortal French fairytale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont about a grizzled beast and his captive who falls in love with him. Artist Jean Cocteau directed this film with a surrealist's touch – when Belle (Josette Day) enters the Beast's (Jean Marais, who also plays the brusque, unpleasant Avenant) castle, she enters another world. Leaving behind the imperfect idyll of her family home, Belle must confront the complexities of love and identity while lost in a place that seems to make no sense at all.
Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu is set in 16th Century Japan, but given that Japan was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II when the film was made, its themes of death and decay seem immediate and confronting. On the verge of making it big with his craft, potter Genjuro is forced to leave his family when war comes to their tiny village. He meets a beautiful woman by whom he is enchanted, before realising she is a ghost stuck in the world of the living until she finds love. With gorgeous cinematography and a slow, luxuriant narrative, Ugetsu hovers between the worlds of the living and dead like no other film.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Woody Allen's pensive low fantasy film is pervaded by the melancholy and pessimism that marks his later works, but bundles it up with a whimsicality typical of his broader comedy films. Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, who works as a waitress by day, and by night goes to the movies to escape the realities of the Great Depression, and her abusive husband Monk (Danny Aiello). After seeing the glitzy rom-com The Purple Rose of Cairo over and over, one of the characters notices her and steps off the screen. What follows is an often silly, madcap love story in which Cecilia falls for her screen idol come to life, and film executives try to wrangle him back on screen. Be careful, though – The Purple Rose of Cairo will bring you back to earth with a crash.
Tropical Malady (2004)
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films always have a touch of the fantastical, mostly granted by the wild jungles of Thailand. They cross between urban and rural spaces as easily as they pass through time, between truth and myth. Much of his brilliant Tropical Malady takes place in the wilderness and follows two distinct, but thematically intertwined narratives. The first half of the film is a low-key romance between two men Keng and Tong, and the second an encounter in the woods with the ghost of a tiger shaman. In evoking mythology, the film creates a sense of exploring things that are hidden, forgotten, or ignored. The quietness of the film's romance story bleeding into the dark fantasy of its second half in ways that are endlessly thought provoking with no simple answer.
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
The horrors of Franco's Spain following the Spanish Civil War are transmuted into a child's brutal fantasy in this masterwork of Gothic horror. The central character is Ofelia, and like many child protagonists she is displaced, left to her own devices while chaos and cruelty preoccupies the adults around her. One night she encounters the towering faun Pan (played by master of transformation Doug Jones), who believes that she is the reincarnation of Moanna, princess of the underworld. Blurring reality and fantasy, as well as contrasting Ofelia's small world with the events taking place around her, Pan's Labyrinth creates a surprisingly complex and ambiguous morality - a fairy tale for adults that's just as gruesome as the notorious fairytales of old.