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15 Great Films About Failing Relationships

by The Playlist Staff
June 28, 2012 11:58 AM
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After doing the rounds on VoD for a few weeks, where many of you will have seen it, Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" starts to roll out in theaters from tomorrow, and we can't recommend it enough; it's a messy, sometimes frustrating film, but a deeply felt, beautifully made and wonderfully acted one, and we named it last week as one of the best of the year so far. It is not, however, recommended as a date movie, fitting into a long cinematic tradition of painful examinations of broken, decaying, collapsing or dead relationships.

After all, it's one of the more universal human experiences; unless you get very lucky, everyone who falls in love will at some point have the wrenching experience of falling out of it, or being fallen out of love with. And when done best in film, it can be bruising and borderline torturous for a filmmaker and an audience, but also cathartic and healing. To mark the opening of "Take This Waltz" (and again, we can't emphasize enough that you should go and see it), we've pulled together a selection of our favorite films revolving around the end of love affairs, relationships and marriages. Of course, it's a subjective and somewhat random selection, and certainly not definitive, so if we've missed your favorite, you can speak your piece in the comments section below.

"5x2" (2003)
The concept of telling a story backwards is not, at this point, a boldly original one; Harold Pinter had done it with "Betrayal" decades ago, and Francois Ozon's "5x2," which like the Pinter play shows the dissolution of a relationship over the years, starting at the end and picking up with the first meeting, followed right on the heels of both Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible." But Ozon's piece is defined not just by its tight formalism -- as the title might suggest, 5 self-contained scenes of roughly equal length -- but by what it doesn't show, what's absent in the gaps of months and years that we don't see. Beginning with the divorce hearing of Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) and Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), after which they go to a hotel for one final fuck, we track back through a dinner party that shows their relationship in its final fractures, the birth of their child, their wedding night, and their first meeting, each sketched out with the director's fine ability to say a lot with a little, and never feeling gimmicky in its structure. It's a bleak film, to be certain -- as with Noe's, the 'happiness' of the ending/beginning is undercut by what we've seen coming before/after. But there's also a specificity and a compassion to the relationship in question; no one partner is more at fault than the other, and it feels more that they're two people who simply weren't ever meant to be together. It's one of the most incisive and powerful films about marriage in recent memory, and deserves entirely to sit alongside Bergman, Fassbinder, Nichols et al.

“An Unmarried Woman” (1978)
Less the depiction of a crumbling relationship, like most of the films in this piece, than a portrait of what happens in the aftermath. Something of a mainstream breakthrough for Paul Mazursky, one of American cinema's more underrated talents (the man behind "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "Enemies: A Love Story," among others). It's a pretty simple set-up; well-to-do New Yorker Erica (Jill Clayburgh) thinks she has pretty much the perfect life, which swiftly implodes when her husband (Michael Murphy) tells her he's in love with another woman. She gets divorced, goes into therapy, starts dipping her toes into the dating scene, and eventually falls for a British artist (Alan Bates). Aspects of the film feel a little dated at this point -- not least Bill Conti's score -- but Mazursky treats everything with a light touch without ever sacrificing character integrity, and creates something close to a contemporaneous equivalent to the 'women's pictures' of the 1940s. Mazursky always wrote well for women -- as is clear in the scenes with Erica and her friends, which are forthright and funny, a clear precursor to something like "Sex & The City" -- but Erica might be his finest creation, a complex, ever-evolving character, and Clayburgh (who sadly passed away in 2010, having completed a wonderful cameo in "Bridesmaids"), in a career-best performance, makes every inch of her transformation into not just an 'unmarried' woman, but an independent one, credible and compelling; one can't help but feel she was a little cheated when Jane Fonda beat her to the Oscar for "Coming Home" (the film and screenplay were also nominated). It says something about the lack of progression in Hollywood that a part like this still feels like a rarity.

"Blue Valentine" (2010)
In one of the more head scratching rulings handed down by the MPAA, Derek Cianfrance’s brutal look at a dissolving relationship got hit with the dreaded NC-17 rating for a scene involving cunnilingus (a longstanding no-no for the organization, see “Boys Don’t Cry”). With the R-rating restored, the picture was free to open in theaters - a premiere that was a long time coming, and immensely bolstered the reputations of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. While the former received an Academy Award nomination, the latter was inexplicably shut out, but not to worry, “Blue Valentine” is hardly an awards-driven picture, opting instead for an emotionally hectic, complex and naturalistically acted record of spouses fighting to reignite a passion that has tragically eluded them. Cutting between the youthful past of promise and possibility and a crushing present where even the air feels hesitant to intrude on some of the conversations, Cianfrance lays bare all the things people choose not to talk about until you beg him to stop. Williams and Gosling are unforgettable and “Blue Valentine” a simple story masterfully told.

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  • Sidney DeLeonardo | April 8, 2014 10:48 PMReply

    This is one of the best lists I have ever happened upon.

  • Dore | January 25, 2014 1:48 AMReply

    One of my favorites is Story of Us with Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis.

  • d town | July 5, 2012 2:55 AMReply

    they brought up kubrick... but what about "eyes wide shut"?

  • Jim B | July 4, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    We Won't Grow Old Together by Maurice Pialat

  • COLE | July 2, 2012 12:11 PMReply

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

  • laura | August 3, 2014 1:08 PM

    Agree. Number 1.

  • bapi | June 29, 2012 3:43 PMReply

    (500) Days of Summer?

  • jingmei | June 28, 2012 10:58 PMReply

    This article is fucking great.

  • Alexia M | June 28, 2012 6:59 PMReply

    Movies on subjects we deal with everyday are my favorite stories to watch. It’s difficult enough to make our lives more fulfilling when everyone else is spilling over a happy ending, which as a society isn’t what we are dealing with at all. A lot of my time is spent away from my family with frequent business trips for Dish; having realistic movies as a companion makes me feel less alone. Blue Valentine is a wonderful film about the sadness and difficulty relationships face today, given Gosling and Williams ability to express pure passion into their characters. My hubby and I try to get together even when we are not physically sharing time with a movie night; we starting subscribing to Blockbuster @Home for this purpose. It gives us a chance to do something together via the live streaming options when we can’t cry together on the couch like we love watching a great film like Revolutionary Road.

  • Gabe NotToro | June 28, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    It's unthinkinable that this list can exclude John Cassavetes' FACES.

  • MAL | June 28, 2012 3:48 PMReply

    Glad to see “Scenes from a Marriage” on the list. I happened to see it (the full 5+ hour version) while I was in the midst of a separation and I practically melted watching it -- it was like looking into a relationship mirror (and not a pretty one). Its realism and its emotionally devastating power are felt almost exclusively through dialogue rather than action, which is at once biting and cruel and sensitive and caring.

  • cory everett | June 28, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    Hated "Take This Waltz" for the most part, but love this list.

  • Rohit Ramachandran | June 28, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    Fool. Where's A Separation!?

  • anonymous | June 28, 2012 1:56 PMReply

    A Separation?

  • Nate | June 28, 2012 1:08 PMReply

    How come Revolutionary Road was not the list?

  • Oogle monster | June 28, 2012 9:03 PM

    Agreed. Blue Valentine and Rev Road are 2 of my favorites.

  • Scott Mendelson | June 28, 2012 1:03 PMReply

    Thanks for mentioning/remembering Crazy Love. I was lucky enough not to know the original story (and the trailer revealed little), so it still ranks as one of the most 'jaw on the floor shocking' documentary narratives I've ever seen. While No End In Sight and/or Taxi To the Dark Side were arguably the 'best' documentaries of 2007, Crazy Love is easily among the most flat-out entertaining of the last several years.

  • Glass | June 28, 2012 12:27 PMReply

    Awesome list. I'd add Eyes Wide Shut to it. That's like a relationship horror movie.

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