If "Husbands and Wives" has a moral, it's that marriage is not the happily ever after -- just the "after." It's Allen's usual cast of Upper East Side-residing, bundle-of-neuroses individuals waxing lyrical about relationships. The film follows two married couples and best friends -- Gabe and Judy (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) and Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) -- the latter of which have decided amicably to separate, or at least they say it's amicable. Jack and Sally test the dating pool and the limits of their own independence and dependence on each other. Meanwhile Gabe and Judy find the base of their relationship shattered, as Gabe finds himself attracted to a young precocious student (Juliette Lewis) and Judy develops feelings for a man in her office (Liam Neeson). The ensemble all perform brilliantly, in particular Davis as the brilliant and uber-neurotic Sally who was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for her excellent turn in the film (Woody was also nominated for his writing). The film, shot in documentary style with seemingly few lights and effects to pretty things up, does nothing to endear you to the "ugly" characters, but aesthetically it's a very inspired move, a breath of fresh air and B-12 shot to the creative energy of the film. The dialogue, as always, is on point, and lightens the heaviness of watching relationships decay when the people within them refuse to change.
Even though it’s now slightly dated, what makes Robert Benton’s “Kramer Vs. Kramer” still essential to this day is how expertly it captures the raw-nerve emotion that divorce and displacement between two people evinces. The story is mostly seen through the eyes of Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman, in one of his finest, most affecting performances) a successful ad man on the way up, who comes home one day to find out that his emotionally unstable wife Joanna (Meryl Streep, also excellent) is leaving him to find herself. In addition, she leaves him in charge of their young son Billy (Justin Henry). With nothing left to do but face the new life ahead of him, Ted forges on, doing his best to be a model single father all while dealing with the emotional fallout from his divorce (see the film’s memorable french toast sequence). And his devotion to his son is certainly without question (the scene where he runs Billy to the hospital after a fall at the playground and talks him through getting stitches is a moving illustration of their bond). But Ted’s world is rocked again when Joanna returns over a year later from California, and seeks custody of their son. What emerges is an absolutely ugly battle in court, where they are both ruthlessly broken down by attorneys, with every nuance and choice made by Ted and Joanna turned over, examined and blown out of proportion, which results in the case leaving no one happy. While the court system has advanced since then, what “Kramer Vs. Kramer” gets so perfectly right and real are the paradoxical lengths two people can go to hurt each other, even though deep down, they still care for one another as well. While the script errs perhaps on making Joanna out to be too much of a villain at times, these moments are superseded by many more that capture the bruised and complicated wake of feelings that are left after a breakup. “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is a wonderful portrait of hurt and healing that rightly understands that even divorce and bitter feuds can’t always completely untie the connection a couple may have had before. And the film’s final, moving closing moments get that sentiment just right.
A Sirk-ian drama of domestic unhappiness -- the lead character even gives out "Douglas Sirk Road" as her address at one point -- like many Fassbinder melodramas, "Martha" places the titular female naif in a situation of emotional distress and then makes us watch, squirming helplessly, as she is put through escalating crises and disabused, practically brutalized, of all romantic notions. A film that could have been sarcastically titled "The Good Wife," the melodrama centers on Martha (Margit Carstensen) who goes from one bad situation to another, and can arguably be called a bleak study in both cruelty and the capacity for human submission. While on vacation with her in Italy, Martha’s controlling father suddenly dies of a heart attack and she's forced to return home to Germany and take care of her mother: an alcoholic spinster and a grotesque, revolting human on every level who attempts suicide by pill overdose any time Martha tries to do anything against her wishes. Liberation seemingly comes in the form of Helmut (‘70s Fassbinder regular Karlheinz Böhm getting a juicy lead turn), a handsome and wealthy gentleman who wants to marry her and whisk her away. It all sounds well and good until Helmut reveals his true colors as a sadistic, domineering sociopath. We’ve seen this story countless times in Hollywood -- generally B-thrillers starring Tom Berenger or Patrick Bergin -- but Fassbinder’s 16mm TV film is no slice of late-night entertainment; it’s a punishing exercise as Martha continues to psychologically bleed at the hands of her abusive, tyrannical asshole of a husband. Eventually her humiliating capitulation turns into paranoia and then near-derangement that ends tragically. It’s not always easy to watch, but it is a cutting chronicle of domestic abuse through Fassbinder’s own amplified take on Hollywood ‘50s melodrama.
It might be a comedy, and it might have an ending where the central couple end up together, but "Modern Romance" is just as bruising as some of the other films on this list. Albert Brooks' follow-up to his 1979 directorial debut "Real Life" (once again co-written with Monica Johnson), this sees the comic play Robert Cole, a movie editor desperately trying to finish a dreadful sci-fi movie while constantly breaking up, and getting back together with, girlfriend Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). He can't live with her -- the two drive each other nuts -- but he can't live without her either, coming off like a junkie going cold turkey within a few hours of ending, before obsessing about the possibility of her being with other men. It's one of cinema's most poisonous relationships, and there's an admirable and complete lack of vanity in both central performances (it's a shame that Harrold didn't get better work after this), even if it's firmly told from the male point of view. Brooks was growing as a director as well as a performer; there's an impressive control and clarity in the framing, and the film runs a lean, unindulgent 90 minutes, never outstaying its welcome. Curiously, it was actually a favorite of Stanley Kubrick, who called Brooks up after its release and asked the writer/director "How did you make this movie? I've always wanted to make a movie about jealousy." And if that's not a recommendation, we don't know what is.