10 great break-up films

Mudslinging, melancholy and the upheaval of moving on... Marriage Story joins a bruising tradition of break-up movies, from Casablanca to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

14 November 2019

By Leigh Singer

Marriage Story (2019)

The opening of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is deliberately deceptive. We hear, in turn, voiceovers from both partners, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), over scenes of contented domestic life as they relay compliment after compliment about each other; as partners, parents, work colleagues (he’s an acclaimed New York theatre director; she’s a well-regarded actress and his star leading lady).

Only then does Baumbach deliver the kicker: these are letters they’ve been asked to write by their therapist, to remember the positives they once felt about one another, as they stand on the precipice of separation.

It’s a simple but very powerful idea: the worst break-ups (and the one in Marriage Story gets pretty vicious), unless the relationships were utter car crashes from the outset, surely have buried within them somewhere the seed of true affection and best intentions. Do we become completely different people from the ones with whom our spouses fell in love? Or does the balance between endearing quirks and unendurable habits shift irrevocably with time, overfamiliarity and years of imagining alternate realities to the one you actually lived and ostensibly chose?

Many will scour Baumbach’s scenes and characters’ traits and flaws for similarities to his own high-profile split from and subsequent union with two much-loved actresses and former leading ladies. But roman-à-clef gossip aside, the key to Marriage Story is how painfully astute and incisive, unsparing and, yes, amusing it is at dissecting an all-too common, though presumably initially unplanned, journey that many couples make. And in that respect, it stands alongside the diverse films below.

The Awful Truth (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey

The Awful Truth (1937)

Leo McCarey’s effervescent, seemingly effortless comedy lounges gracefully atop many a list of the great 1930s and 40s romantic farces, and for good reason. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant’s carefree socialites, Lucy and Jerry, both suspect the other of having an affair, set a divorce in motion and then conjure up a panoply of elaborate role plays, fake outs and innuendo-laden banter to figure out that they’re perfect for each other.

If the outcome is never seriously in doubt, the pleasure comes from the deft blending of verbal jousting and physical pratfalls through the sheer class of all concerned. Watching this first of three Dunne-Grant screen pairings, there’s a strong argument that she was his ideal leading lady. It’s a perfectly matched battle-of-the-sexes that refuses to draw blood but instead revels in the glorious truth that a lasting relationship’s performative fun is best when sparring with a truly equal scene partner.

Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Casablanca (1942)

– “Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
– “But what about us?”
– “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
– “When I said I would never leave you…”
– “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that… Now, now… Here’s looking at you kid.”

Bogart and Bergman, Hollywood’s noblest, most iconic, quotable break-up. Anyone who says otherwise is, frankly, misinformed.

Journey to Italy (1954)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Journey to Italy (1954)

Ingrid Bergman again, here directed by her then-husband Roberto Rossellini in this landmark drama. Bergman and George Sanders play English spouses – she a melancholy romantic, he a hardened cynic – travelling to Naples to deal with an inherited villa. Finding themselves forced together for the first time in years, they finally realise the true distance between them (the film’s alternative UK and US titles were The Lonely Woman and Strangers).

If Rossellini’s reputation was forged through his groundbreaking neorealist work, this later film pushes through to newer terrain. He uses the foreign landscape as a desolate mirror of the couple’s alienation, and the moment in Pompeii where they witness the excavation of two entwined people, long buried in volcanic lava, is devastating. That the travellers’ surname is Joyce recalls the ending of their namesake Irish writer’s seminal short story, where not volcanic ash but snow ultimately covers both the living and the dead.

Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Ingmar Bergman’s mid-70s epic, either in its original Swedish television miniseries form or three-hour film incarnation, is his final word on damaged relationships and the fragile institution of marriage – a subject on which the five times-wed, inveterate philanderer was something of an expert.

Two of Bergman’s most stalwart, skilful actors, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, are Marianne and Johan, well-to-do parents who, in the opening filmed interview, present as an ideal couple and family. Yet the fissures in this facade, and attendant unfulfilled desires, niggling self-doubts and raging resentments, soon open wide. It’s brutal and unfiltered work, depicting the buzz of infidelity, the pain of separation and the conclusive, universal realisation: that, even if unsustainable, the solace of someone who knows you inside out somehow remains. Not for nothing is the final chapter terrifyingly entitled ‘In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World’.

The War of the Roses (1989)

Director: Danny DeVito

The War of the Roses (1989)

US cinema had quite a run of prestigious, serious-minded relationship crisis movies in the 1970s and 80s (Kramer vs. KramerShoot the Moon, much Woody Allen), but none delivered a jolt of pure malice like Danny DeVito’s savage black comedy. The shock was augmented by having Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, hitherto known for their romping Romancing the Stone adventures, now stomping each other into the ground as wealthy yuppies Barbara and Oliver Rose, whose divorce turns into a full-blown war zone.

It’s framed as a cautionary tale by DeVito’s lawyer, and we’re spared nothing as their sunny (empty?) soufflé of a marriage curdles: vicious verbal jousts, booby traps and physical abuse using their possessions, symbols of pampered, unexamined lives… it’s all unfair game. The sole compromise is Turner not turning their dog into paté, but otherwise, to its final hand-off rejection, this is bare-knuckle Hollywood brawling, dealing low blows with glee. 

Three Colours: White (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Three Colours: White (1994)

Often overlooked as the palate cleanser between Blue and Red’s magnificently formal, self-conscious haute cuisine, the middle film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s parting trilogy is, fittingly for its ‘égalité’ theme (from the French Revolution’s ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ framework), their equal. A scrappy, neorealist tragi-comedy largely set in Kieslowski’s native Poland, it follows the humiliating return of Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a meek Pole whose younger, glamorous French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) abandoned him in Paris, and his desperate, later vengeful attempts to get her back.

Kieslowski’s acerbic observations about post-communist Poland striving to fit into modern (western) Europe dovetail beautifully with Karol’s own faltering mission. There’s no little irony in that; only by playing dirty might he get both the result and respect he craves. It’s a tough, sometimes cynical outlook, but, as ever with Kieslowski, imbued with a latent, compassionate sense of forces at work beyond our full cognisance or control.

Happy Together (1997)

Director: Wong Kar-wai

Happy Together (1997)

No current filmmaker styles doomed romance like Wong Kar-wai, be it unconsummated (In the Mood for Love), fantasised (Chungking Express), or repeatedly tried and failed, as in this luminous 1997 falling-out-of-love story. Two Hong Kong men, Lai (Tony Leung) and Ho (the late Leslie Cheung), attempt to jump-start their volatile relationship on a trip to Buenos Aires. But the change of scene provides merely a new backdrop for old, abusive habits, and, without money, both remain geographically stranded and emotionally in limbo.

Wong’s fragmented editing and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s experimental, unsettled look help convey the couple’s disorientation from each other and themselves. Bouts of depression and promiscuity restart. The Iguazu Falls loom large. Eventually a third man enters the frame, and Lai’s final stirrings of resolve stem from a belated realisation that only by breaking a toxic cycle of togetherness might one possibly start to be truly happy.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Director: Michel Gondry

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

It’s one of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s great, surreal (and, arguably, most universally resonant) what ifs: what if you could erase all knowledge of the person who broke your heart? It sounds like a neat, clean post-break-up solution, which is what persuades Clementine (Kate Winslet) to flush Joel (Jim Carrey) from her psyche via Lacuna Inc’s memory-wipe technology; and he, in a fit of pique, to attempt the same. Only then Joel realises that the good stuff disappears with the bad, and isn’t the good stuff what makes it all worthwhile?

A mind-blowing mash-up of Kaufman’s high-concept fatalism and director Michel Gondry’s DIY lyricism, Eternal Sunshine is simultaneously lo-fi sci-fi, knockabout comedy and deeply introspective tragedy. All its giddily inventive flights of fantasy are grounded in the bittersweet awareness that, while Lacuna’s ethically dubious surgery (“technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage”) sounds addictively appealing, love is life’s ultimate, unforgettable drug.

A Separation (2011)

Director: Asghar Farhadi

A Separation (2011)

The opening scene of Asghar Farhadi and Iran’s first (of two) best foreign-language film Oscar-winner, has central couple, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), unload their respective grievances to an unseen official. She wants to leave the country for a better life for their daughter; he won’t leave his ailing father who has Alzheimer’s disease. Farhadi’s formal interview introduction deliberately recalls Ingmar Bergman (see above), but one of A Separation’s manifold strengths is how its stalled relationship is only part of much wider social instability.

Unlike Farhadi’s typically elliptical approach, the film is direct, even confrontational. His brilliant script becomes an ensemble piece: middle-class Nader and Simin’s problems soon envelope the impoverished family of pregnant Razieh and mentally disordered Hodjat. Farhadi structures revelations like a legal thriller, drilling down into each character’s motivations and expertly mining the various layers – familial, religious, political – that underpin a cross-section of Iranian society, tightening the screw on a couple, even a culture, on trial.

Midsommar (2019)

Director: Ari Aster

Midsommar (2019)

If Ari Aster’s 2018 breakthrough Hereditary was a sly, satanic take on the family melodrama, he’s been far more forthright in calling this folk horror follow-up his version of a break-up movie. Sure, it involves a Nordic cult, hallucinogens and ritual sacrifice but ultimately aren’t we really watching a trippy tale of empowerment, as victimised Dani (Florence Pugh) is finally able to reject her manipulative boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on an idyllic, rural Swedish retreat?

Christian and his bro students, for all their intellectual, anthropological airs, are the embodiment of ‘Ugly Americans’ abroad. And their ill-disguised superiority over Dani, couched in diffident bonhomie, receives a fittingly beatific comeuppance. Despite Midsommar’s murderous pagans, the focus here is clearly on Dani overcoming family trauma and a passive-aggressive partner. And if not all relationship catharses require the climactic, er, bear necessities here, that’s just Aster’s wicked blend of humour and horror blazing through.

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