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15 Great Films About Failing Relationships

15 Great Films About Failing Relationships

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.

“5×2” (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 “5×2,” 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.

“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.

“Husbands and Wives” (1992)
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.

“Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979)
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.

“Martha” (1974)
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.

“Modern Romance” (1980)
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.

“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 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-“SimpsonsDan 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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