“Titanic” was the first movie to wed a front-and-center, starmaking youthful romance to a big budget action-adventure spectacle, and to win BIG at it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it paved the way for current hits like “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games.” But as an aspirational figure in a romantic teen epic, Rose Dewitt Bukater eats Bella Swann and Katniss Everdeen for breakfast.
Whereas Bella is entirely defined by her willful consignment to her teen dream (she has no convictions or priorities beyond “love”), and Katniss Everdeen has few clear priorities beyond the mere survival of herself and her family (this is the fun and the limitation of the dystopian protagonist), Rose combines these values…and has a few more besides.
As much as I teased Titanic’s wraparound narrative when the movie was first released—the grandma with the necklace on the boat, free to die at last; the whiff of The Even Greater Generation piousness that hovers over her scenes with the entranced members of the salvage crew; what I took to be the filmmakers’ lack of courage that we could identify with a story set in the past that stayed in the past—upon seeing its rerelease last night I take all those criticisms back. The whole point of the movie’s romantic narrative—and what makes “Titanic” such a useful corrective to the values of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games”—is embodied by that framing device: in the time between the film’s present and its past, Rose went and had a life. She lived for more than love: she lived for experience.
Sure, it’s a bit too romantic, Jack’s near-death preoccupation with her doing so (“have lots of babies!”), especially when he would’ve been saying “I’m so cold, bitch you’re lucky I’m letting you rest your fatass on that headboard.” But as an imperative for viewers—“live an actual life”—it’s a lot more challenging than anything the current youthquake fantasies currently ask of us. (As multi-film franchises, what these films ask of us is not to go out and live, but to continue indulging our escapism with them.)
And now that I’ve had time to come full circle from laughing at Celine Dion’s theme song for Titanic, to absolutely dreading hearing it, I can appreciate how the lyrics “my heart will go on” speak to the movie’s theme in ways that are less-than-totally saccharine. Rose’s heart won’t go on just for her Leo, but for herself: her life, her experiences. James Cameron’s feminism, however crude, is also potent and powerful. Gripping Jack’s hand while floating near-death on that headboard, the rescue boat passing them by, she—realizing he’s gone—says “come back, come back,” pleading with Jack not to be dead. And at some moment as she repeats her refrain, we realize she is no longer mourning Jack but weakly—and with gathering strength and insistence—attempting to call the life boat back. To save herself. (This is up there with the most beautiful moments in popcorn cinema.) Fighting for her right to work other jobs, screw other men, see other things, accomplish things and make mistakes and yeah maybe settle down at some point and have some babies.