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15 Great Films About Failing Relationships

by The Playlist Staff
June 28, 2012 11:58 AM
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“Carnal Knowledge” (1971)
Oddly, "Carnal Knowledge" was marketed as a comedy upon release, but to this writer it's more of an incisive drama of modern day struggles with sex, relationships and coming of age from resident romantic cynic and director Mike Nichols. The film follows a couple of college roommates, Jonathan and Sandy (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel), who together obsess over their various sexual misadventures and eventual conquests. Sandy pursues the seemingly pure Susan (Candice Bergman) – who Jonathan secretly and simultaneously dates and beds (first no less). After college they go their separate ways, but while Sandy marries Susan, Jonathan pursues everything in a skirt, bedding a dozen odd girls a year – yet is still unable to find his physical ideal (break out the tiny violins) until he meets Bobbie (Ann-Margaret) who's all T-and-A all the time. Their passion fizzles to dramatic blow-outs (he yells, she cries) that end in an overdose and divorce. As they grow older, Sandy and Jonathan grow more and more disillusioned by the opposite sex – but while Jonathan is angry, Sandy simply falls into complacency and nonchalance. Though the film's frank discussions about, and depictions of, sex (a condom on screen, quelle horreur), are hardly as shocking now as they were in the 1970s, the characters' detestability and blatant misogyny are still as unsettling as ever. Jack Nicholson is the stand-out star and Nichols, to his credit, reigns the nastiness in (somewhat) and keeps the performance from being a caricature. "Carnal Knowledge" remains a timeless and emotionally resonant portrayal of the uglier side of the male sexual psyche.

"Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" (1958)
It might be a little bowdlerized by censorship demands in its adaptation for the screen (star Paul Newman and writer Tennessee Williams criticized the changes to the film version), but "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" still stands as one of the finest portrayals of an unhappy relationship from a writer who specialized in such things. In a pair of electrifying performances, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor play Brick Pollitt and his wife, Maggie 'the Cat.' He's an alcoholic former track star who spends his time drinking himself into a stupor, she's frustrated and teasing. Visiting Brick's home in Mississippi for his father, Big Daddy (Burl Ives)'s birthday, it emerges that Papa Pollitt is dying, and that Brick retreated into his drunken stupor after the suicide of his best friend, who he was seemingly in love with (though you have to read between the lines a little more in the film version). It's less successfully opened up than some of the other big-screen Williams adaptations ("A Streetcar Named Desire" being the obvious high watermark), but ever-underrated helmer Richard Brooks otherwise does a great job of modulating the tone and tempo, and the three central performances (plus Judith Anderson as "Big Momma") are thunderous, and particularly impressive given that Taylor's husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash -- on a flight that she was also meant to be on -- halfway through the shoot.

"Crazy Love" (2007)
It's the ultimate love story… Sort of… This 2007 documentary, directed by Dan Klores and robot enthusiast Fisher Stevens, tells the story of sleazy New York attorney Burt Pugach and his wife Linda Riss. The two romanced but after Riss found out Pugach had a wife and child, she left him. He didn't take it lightly. After threatening her with bodily harm (or death) if she left him, Pugach hired a couple of underworld goons to throw lye in her face – blinding her in one eye and permanently scarring her face. Pugach was then sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The entire time he continually wrote to Riss, and upon his release the two dated again and this time got married. It's like the Two-Face story from "The Dark Knight," done in a twisted romantic comedy style. As fucked up as the romance at the heart of "Crazy Love" might sound, it's also oddly uplifting, in the weirdest way possible. It's a testament to the enduring power of love (and forgiveness) and the ways in which relationships can transform and reveal themselves. The golden vibe does dissipate somewhat when you realize that Pugach was later accused of threatening another woman who he was having an affair with. Still – it was fun while it lasted, and the documentary, embroidered with a rollicking, kitschy energy (elaborated upon and refined, years later, by Errol Morris in "Tabloid"), sweeps you up in its singular, drunk-on-love sentiment.

Goodbye Again” (1961)
Starring Ingrid Bergman, French crooner-turned-actor Yves Montand, and post-"Psycho" success Anthony Perkins, Ukranian filmmaker Anatole Litvak’s "Goodbye Again," and its difficult love triangle, must have been rather controversial in its day. Centering on a relatively happy 40-something couple Paula (Bergman), a successful Parisian interior decorator, and Roger (Montand), a philandering business executive, their relationship is still a very unconventional one: both are divorced and soured on the concept of marriage, and yet the two are very much committed. Well, to a point. The rakish Roger still openly engages in "meaningless" flings with younger, pretty things, but Paula accepts this as being just "his way." But the nature of love and their loose, Roger-convenient relationship begins to transform when the son of one of Paula’s wealthy clients, a young 25-year-old suitor named Philip (Perkins) begins to take a shine to Paula, appreciating her in an adoring light that she realizes she hasn't felt in years. Meanwhile, Roger's open trysts begin to morph into lies when a young French tart (Michèle Mercier) convinces him to take her away for several weekends -- Roger and Paula’s precious special times. This leaves the door open for the romantically callow and smitten Phillip to try his best on the lonely and increasingly unhappy Paula. Eventually the worn down and confused Paula gives into Phillip's unrelenting advances and leaves Roger who now realizes the hotness has worn off his girlfriend and all that’s left is an annoying and demanding child. Yet haunted by the special connection they have, Paula and Roger eventually recognize their mistake, reuniting and leaving Perkins -- who won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his animated and passionate portrayal -- in the dust. Ultimately more of a superficial melodrama compared to some of the cutters on this list, "Goodbye Again," is still a decent little flick and a memorable cautionary tale about taking love for granted.

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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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