Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: A Brief History of Breakup Movies

By  · Published on February 15th, 2011

Modern romance and the movies are arguably dependant on one another, as movies have a long history of affirming the idea(l) of the perfect relationship. Hollywood movies in particular have developed a mastery at the formula of bringing imperfect individuals together into perfect couplehood and framing marriage as the closure of all previous conflicts and difficulties. Many romance movies, thus, teach us what romance and couplehood are or, perhaps more dauntingly, what it should be. That romantic films are a staple in the box offices of commercial movie theaters to reparatory screenings or are marathon’d on television every Valentine’s Day is evidence of our ritual association of considering real-life romances in fictional terms. It is rare that movies, especially Hollywood, seem to do the opposite: reflect the distinction between ideal romance and the ostensible “reality” of relationships in all their complexity, grittiness, slow development, necessary problems, and (most of all) subtlety.

Perhaps the most evident turns cinema makes in this direction is in the break-up movie, that rare narrative that situates itself as a disruption from the normal mode of portraying couplehood through representing its antithesis, the dissolution of a couple. The most recent example is Blue Valentine, the great Cassavetes-style, character-driven psychodrama about a couple who continue making the wrong turns and can’t make it work despite, or because, of themselves. Breakup movies from the light – (500) Days of Summer – to the heavy – Blue Valentine – often self-consciously (either by testament from the filmmaker like in the latter example or in testament of the film itself, nuance be damned, like the former) articulate their calculated distinction from the typical romantic narrative formula. While the break-up movie doesn’t rear its head very often, but Blue Valentine and (500) Days are certainly with precedent.

So now that Valentine’s Day has come and gone, let’s take a look at ten rare (but hardly comprehensive) examples of movies that dare to portray the other side of relationships.

Contempt (1963)

Godard’s most aesthetically beautiful film is also his saddest in pure emotional (rather than political) terms. As a screenwriter named Paul works on a new adaptation of Ulysses for Fritz Lang, his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is pursued by a shameless Hollywood producer. What begins as unstated tests of loyalty (Paul lets Camille go off to see what she will do, Camille gives Paul the chance to prove whether or not he will force her to stay) becomes an explosive realization of a love lost, decidedly reflective of Godard’s own divorce with his muse and wife Ana Karina. The film gets the anxious and maddening emotions surrounding jealously and possession exactly right while critiquing its own objectification (and, by association, that cinema at large) of the female body “owned” by one male or another.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Based on Edward Albee’s play, Virginia Woolf finds young stage director Mike Nichols making his first feature film about the crude, vulgar, childish, and vengeful fights (mainly through the use of the most brilliant of ugly language) between a couple who lost love long, long ago and are all too aware of this fact. Starring real-life on-and-off powercouple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the film shows how unchecked animosity can grow into an awful parasitic force between a couple for which there is no cure, and the saddest part of it all is that the whole drunken charade is witnessed by a young couple who can’t help but eventually see the potential for a dark future of their own rearing its head if they’re not careful. Superficial invention of a life that could have been is the only thing that keeps the couple together long enough to tear each other a new one.

Annie Hall (1977)

When (500) Days of Summer’s narrator proclaims that “this is not a love story,” implying that this isn’t love as we normally come to see it in movies, the statement conveniently ignores one of the greatest love stories of them all, Annie Hall. It just so happens that one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic comedies was also one of its best breakup movies, and that’s because it treats both with equal sincerity. Falling in and out of love is painfully and comically real in this film (like when Woody Alvy Singer tries to recreate a favorite romantic memory over crabs with a new date), but the comedy is essential to the tragedy. This is a film for everybody’s honest breakup, for the time everybody has lost somebody special that they just weren’t mean for. And not since Jaws has a movie had such an influence on the way we think of sharks.

Bad Timing (1980)

Nicolas Roeg’s horrifying masterpiece would benefit from appropriating Contempt’s title. Of all the films on this list, it’s second only to Antichrist in how disturbingly it portrays a couple’s reluctant separation. It’s not enough simply to shut each other out for the dysfunctional pair at the center of this film (played by Teresa Russell and, in one of the oddest but surprisingly fitting casting choices ever, Art Garfunkel), they must destroy one another, first through sexual mind games (Garfunkel is a shrink, Russell a free spirit) then through violence in place where intimacy used to be. A story of what happens when one can no longer get off through control, Bad Timing’s nonlinear structure ingeniously literalizes how one loses a sense of time and space in a contentious, competitive relationship.

Closer (2004)

Mike Nichols returns to Virginia Woolf territory with this story of a love…square? Two couples play loyalty games with double crosses and twists and turns worthy of a Mamet thriller, except in this case the object of the con is emotion and affection. Once again adapting a play, Nichols has his characters act out their relationships almost completely through dialogue, resulting in some of the best/most terrible breakup monologues in recent cinema. As a result, all actual sex is shrewdly left off-screen, and the particularities of intimacy are just as shrouded from the audience as they are to the victims of the cheat. Intimacy is left in its natural place while talk of sex pervades, leaving the implicit competition of sexual performance up to audience imagination.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The divorce movie is but one subset of the breakup movie (or is it the other way around?), and Noah Baumbach’s breakthrough shows the breaking of the home at its most unflinching. This is the breakup movie told from the perspective of those whose lives have literally been created by the relationship and how the thing they formally considered to be eternal is coming apart. The result is a complete shift in the relationship between parents and children (the children each choose a favorite parent as they are being herded back and forth between living spaces) as well as an awful route to sexual awakening on behalf of the children (the horrible realization that the parent is a sexual being in the context of understanding one’s own burgeoning sexuality, either too soon or too late). Unlike many films, The Squid and the Whale treats divorce neither too lightly nor with hammed fists, simply bestowing a wincingly straightforward representation of reality.

The Break-Up (2006)

Nominally the most obvious film on this list while in so many other ways the seemingly most ill-fitting, The Break-Up, while hardly a great movie, provided a fascinating litmus test for what was ostensibly a tentpole summer rom-com. The film proved to be hardly funny at all, not necessarily because of a lack of inspiration like most studio films of the genre, but because it (at least, in the spirit of its marketing) attempted to mold something funny out of a subject that categorically isn’t. While seeing what was supposed to be a funny film about funny people breaking up, audiences realized that they don’t see or seek out many breakup movies for the precise reason that the film performatively proved (many comic setups have a depressing payoff to an almost subversive degree). What resulted was something of a contradiction: a failure of a big studio comedy while simultaneously something rarely seen in movies of its type and scale, that is, the uncomfortable lack of closure one experiences once they realize the couple isn’t getting back together and everything is messy and unfunny rather than happy and neat. One can’t make a film without a breakup without really making a film about a breakup.

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Sam Mendes’s return to suburbia finds the likenesses of the 90s’ most beloved fictional couple reunited to enact a story of Eisenhower-era repression, the façade of love and contentment, and yet another couple whose difficulties manifest themselves in increasingly contentious fights and, ultimately, an act of violence. While reiterating what everything from Nicholas Ray to Mad Men to Far From Heaven have already told us about the era, Revolutionary Road is ultimately a story about the house as a prison, an inescapable cage of conformity and complicity where fantasies and ideals go to die. It’s ultimately not the couple itself that’s responsible for their own unhappiness: it’s those darn 1950s.

Everyone Else (2009)

Essentially to Germany what Blue Valentine is to the US, Maren Ade’s film explores the dynamics of a married couple whose bond is tested by the seeming nuance of small personality traits that gradually but tumultuously push the couple into incompatibility. Everyone Else is remarkable for its subtlety in dealing with the small tics and teases that may or may not make up the characters’ demise. That the fate of the couple remains shrouded is essential: if they stay together, the represent simply yet another couple who have problems in growing intermittently closer and further away as time goes on and as dreams die, a couple that exists pervasively but one rarely shown onscreen; if they break up, this is a break-up film that reaches its climax not through the chaotic accumulation of bad will but simply through the breaking point of monotony. The couple is never portrayed as wholly loving or unloving, once affectionate and now distant; instead, the film portrays the difficulty of relationships as an oscillation between the two.

Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier’s retelling of Biblical legend’s very first couple is terrifying in its effect because of its dual familiarity and abstraction. The couple here is torn apart through the death of a child, a routine but affecting cinematic story told time and again in anything from In the Bedroom to Rabbit Hole. At the same time, however, the repercussions of this disunion are of Biblical proportions. The psychiatrist-patient relationship suggests trouble brewing implicitly long before the events of the film, but the despair at the loss of the being the couple’s union has created takes on a life of its own, literalizing every awful emotional pain one could feel from an emotional schism through manifesting a series of explicit and gory schisms relating the couple’s physiology. Worst. Breakup. Ever.

There, there. Soothe your broken heart with more Culture Warrior

Related Topics: ,