15 Great Films About Failing Relationships

Features
by The Playlist Staff
June 28, 2012 11:58 AM
17 Comments
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“Scenes from a Marriage” (1973)
Originally shot for Swedish TV, running almost five hours long, Ingmar Bergman’s exploration of a disintegrating marriage slowly decaying and then imploding over time is one of the director’s most painfully claustrophobic and devastating later-era efforts, and perhaps he could articulate the picture all too well -- the auteur was married five times and he fathered nine children (one of them was Liv Ullmann’s, but the director and his regular actress were never married). Starring Ullmann, naturally, (their child had been born seven years earlier) and the late Erland Josephson (a Bergman regular who also starred in Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice”), “Scenes From A Marriage” tracks the couple's crumbling marriage over a few years with some painful milestones along the way including an abortion, extra-marital affairs, divorce, other marriages and an anguished, unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation. Originally airing in six parts on Swedish TV, the piercing and yet unsentimental drama features a naturalist, hyper-realistic cinematic style filled with incarcerating, excruciating close-ups that don’t let up, and bitter and unmerciful monologues (one shudders thinking about being married to Bergman). Also featuring appearances by Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjö, when the series hit the U.S. it was cut down for an almost three-hour theatrical release where it won several plaudits including a Golden Globe nomination for Ullmann and a Best Foreign Language Film nod. 30 years later, Bergman would release the unlikely sequel featuring the same couple again, now in their 70s, called “Saraband,” but it wouldn’t possess the same cruel bite nor tragic puncture of two lovers trying to mend fences, but realizing the damage has been done. Making themes of abandonment, loneliness, fear and regret all too real, it’s rare that a collapsing onscreen relationship is this haunting.

"The Squid and the Whale" (2005)
"The Squid and the Whale" (2005)

The sins of the father are revisited upon the son in Noah Baumbach’s unsettling, moving and genuinely funny resurgence - coming eight years after 1997’s pleasant but unmemorable “Mr. Jealousy,” “The Squid and the Whale” serves as a high watermark for Jeff Daniels, here portraying a stiff and stuffy intellectual who holds on to self-made grandeur until the world gives out under his already unsteady feet. His formerly celebrated career fading fast in the rearview, Bernard Berkman is satisfied undercutting his wife’s (Laura Linney, excellent as always) success while his two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), soak up the drama and flounder without guidance. There’s so much to the film that focusing on the shattered marriage feels like a disservice, as Baumbach manages a tender balancing act, never losing sight of the pain pulsating at the heart of the film but knowing full well the imperfect joy of laughing at the stubborn, hurtful, loving, and misguided actions we visit on one another. Daniels is superb, dryly relating to Walt that he dismissed his long-time (and probably long-suffering) agent because the latter “made a disparaging remark about the Knicks at a party.” His scenes with Linney are among the best in the film, understated and marked by longing between the two spouses, standing on opposite sides of a gulf that is unlikely to ever be repaired.

"The War Of The Roses" (1989)

It's fair to say that most of the films on this list, films dealing with broken or dying relationships and marriages, are not big-budget studio comedies that proved to be huge hits. But then again, most big-budget studio comedies are not like Danny DeVito's "The War Of The Roses," as gloriously nasty a black comedy as has ever been financed by a major corporation. Using a somewhat unnecessary framing device, lawyer Gavin (DeVito) tells a client (a pre-"Simpsons" Dan Castellaneta!) about Oliver and Barbara Rose (Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner), a once blissfully happy married couple who, as they became more and more wealthy, learned to loathe each other. Things finally reach a head when Barbara is relieved when she thinks Oliver is having a heart attack, and they agree to divorce, but that's only the start of an ever-escalating war of attrition that will ultimately have fatal consequences. DeVito smartly keeps other parties out of it, focusing entirely on two people who simply hate each other, but the nasty, Roald Dahl-ish tone is kept on course by the identifiable emotions at play; anyone who's seen, or been part of, a collapsing marriage will recognize what's going on, despite the heightened feel to everything. Indeed, DeVito gives each moment an almost comic-book feel, regular Brian DePalma DoP Stephen H. Burum shooting with a collection of imaginative camera angles that keep the movie from ever feeling too heavy. Douglas and Turner, two talents whose comic skills are somewhat underrated, are both terrific as well, each playing roles not dissimilar to those they've taken before -- Oliver isn't a world away from the Gekko-like yuppies that Douglas made his name on, Barbara could almost be an older Matty from "Body Heat." And perhaps most impressively, the film has the courage of its convictions; moralizing framing device aside, DeVito sees things through to their bitter, bloody conclusion, without much redemption for anyone involved.

"Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)

A film version of "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" almost certainly shouldn't have worked. A three-hour stage play, reduced to two hours, set in a single location, and with language and subject matter that the MPAA would never give their Seal of Approval. A first-time director with no movie experience. Two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with a famously tempestuous marriage themselves, both playing significantly older than their real ages (the characters are in their 50s, but Burton was 41, and Taylor 34). Oh, and shot in increasingly unfashionable black and white too. And yet it worked like gangbusters, picking up 13 Oscar nominations (the only film to ever get a nod in every category it was eligible for), and remaining an enduring classic today. Edward Albee's play -- about an older married couple, George and Martha (Taylor and Burton), who invite young counterparts (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) for late night drinks, with things swiftly descending into virtually all-out warfare -- is one of the finest dramatic achievements of the 20th century, and Ernest Lehmann ("North By Northwest") expertly pares it down to a more palatable length without making it feel compromised or truncated. Nichols' direction (it's remarkable to think he'd only helmed stage plays before this, and even then with only a few years of experience) keeps it claustrophobic, and yet cinematic, aided by Haskell Wexler's glorious lensing. And the performances are impeccable, particularly in the titanic turns by Taylor (who won an Oscar) and Burton; fiery and furious and tortured and loving. Close to 50 years on, it's still a remarkable achievement.

-- Oliver Lyttelton, RP, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor, Mark Zhuravsky, Sam Chater,

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17 Comments

  • 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?

  • 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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