The friend zone: art, music, films and more about platonic love

From Michelangelo’s male muse to Sex Education’s best pals, we pick five passionate but ultimately chaste partnerships


Michelangelo’s Fall Phaeton, 1533.
Michelangelo’s Fall Phaeton, 1533. Photograph: Artefact/Alamy

When he was in his 50s, the Renaissance genius Michelangelo fell in love with a young nobleman called Tommaso dei Cavalieri. This drawing is one of the gifts he gave him: it even has a note asking what Tommaso thinks of it. But Michelangelo also wrote poems in which he insists his love is platonic, drawing on a philosophical conception of love as something that can raise you to the spiritual. Michelangelo knew and understood Plato, even comparing himself with Socrates who Plato says lay all night beside his boyfriend, chastely. Jonathan Jones



Thérèse Liotard and Valérie Mairesse in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t.
Thérèse Liotard and Valérie Mairesse in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t. Photograph: film company handout

Boyfriends and husbands come and go in French director Agnès Varda’s thoughtful drama, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t; what stays constant is a decade-spanning friendship between two women involved in the feminist movement in 1970s France. In 1962, Pauline, a 17-year-old student in Paris, helps Suzanne, a struggling mother in her 20s, finance an abortion. Ten years pass and they reunite at a demonstration for abortion rights. Pauline is now a free-spirited folk singer whose songs affirm her right to bodily autonomy and Suzanne is the professional manager of a family planning clinic. They drift in and out of each other’s lives, reuniting on occasion and sending each other postcards when they’re apart. Varda made the film in 1977, two years after abortion was legalised in France; its unfortunate renewed political significance is joined by a much-needed celebration of female solidarity across ages, personalities and eras. Rebecca Liu



The Village Idiot by Steve Stern,

In Steve Stern’s biographical novel The Village Idiot, the sophisticated Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani befriends the far more unworldly Chaïm Soutine, who has fled to Paris from a Russian shtetl. Modigliani does his best to help his friend lose his innocence, dragging him round the brothels and bars of the City of Lights, plying him with absinthe and involving him in crimes. But it’s the respect and love Modigliani shows his fellow artist that leaves the longest, loveliest impression in this boisterous, big-hearted book. Sam Jordison



Ncuti Gatwa as Eric and Asa Butterfield as Otis in Sex Education.
Ncuti Gatwa as Eric and Asa Butterfield as Otis in Sex Education. Photograph: Sam Taylor/Netflix/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

The chemistry and love between best friends Otis and Eric is perhaps the most successful and convincing of any relationship in Sex Education. Certainly their love is more believable than that between their main romantic interests, which often feel forced: Otis and Maeve, Eric and Adam. They are incredibly opposite people, both in character and motivations, and it would be easy to reduce their bond to the fact that they both sit outside the social hierarchy of Moordale secondary school, but they are united by an ability to read each other’s emotions and confide their deepest insecurities. Theirs is a friendship with ups and downs, too; one that instructs us to think about the commitment we owe our platonic relationships and the work they require to maintain. Jason Okundaye



Please Don’t Make This Weird by Tinyumbrellas
Please Don’t Make This Weird by Tinyumbrellas Photograph: -

We’ve all been there; hitting it off with someone great, wondering if romance is on the cards, and then experiencing the plummeting realisation that you’ve got very carried away with the wrong end of the stick. Never fear: connection comes in many forms, and on Please Don’t Make This Weird, Leeds-based newcomer Tinyumbrellas manages to find the sweetness in being “just mates”, weaving it into a gorgeous ukulele-accompanied olive branch of genuine friendship. Even if the beginnings are tentative (“Please hold me near / But keep me at a distance”), there is no knowing where this story might lead. Jenessa Williams


Jonathan Jones, Rebecca Liu, Sam Jordison, Jason Okundaye and Jenessa Williams

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