Unhappily ever after? 10 great films about struggling romances
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is about a couple, but it isn’t necessarily a love story: Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy) are happily married until a tragic event shakes them and separates them. It’s no Blue Valentine, but it’s no The Notebook either—the movie depicts two people united by marriage and trauma dealing with their grief in very different ways.
That plot alone might not sound entirely intriguing at first glance, but director Ned Benson created three separate films out of the story to create three different experiences. There’s Them, which opens Friday and weaves together both Eleanor’s and Conor’s stories, then Her, a film that focuses on Eleanor’s perspective, and finally, Him, a movie that zones in on Conor’s experience.
This film is one of many that tell the story of a struggling relationship in an original way—there’s 2004’s sci fi-tinged Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example, and 2012’s unsympathetic Take This Waltz. Here’s a list of 10 of those films that stand out from the past 10 years.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
The couple: Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey)
Why it stands out: Eternal Sunshine doesn’t shy away from the impossible: After Clementine and Joel’s relationship ends badly, they both seek out a firm that promises to wipe their memory of the times they spent together. And it works. Their story isn’t told in chronological order—in fact, the movie begins with Clementine and Joel meeting for the first time the second time and goes on to detail their time together, from their relationship’s initial ecstasy to its ultimately debilitating downfalls. This style introduces the viewer to the chaos of their relationship and leads to the question: How much do we really want to forget?
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The couple: Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger)
Why it stands out: Jack and Ennis’ story is one that proves love isn’t always enough. After becoming romantically involved on a work trip, the two separate and go on to marry women and have children. But more than their own lives keeping them apart, their own feelings are working against them: Both men have been taught from a young age that homosexuality is a sin, so their love is tinged with guilt and tragedy, taking the age-old tale of forbidden love to a heartbreaking new level.
Blue Valentine (2010)
The couple: Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling)
Why it stands out: In most movies about a relationship falling apart, there’s one element that was the tipping point. Someone cheated, someone died. But in Blue Valentine, there’s no one thing that caused Cindy and Dean’s relationship to deteriorate; there’s no point you can look at and go, “that’s where it all went wrong.” This makes watching the film even more painful, because there’s no way to know how to fix it if you don’t know what the problem is.
Like Crazy (2011)
The couple: Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin)
Why it stands out: Like Crazy starts as any other romantic movie when Anna and Jacob meet, fall in love, and become enraptured with one another. But when Anna is forced to leave the United States for her home of London, their relationship is repeatedly threatened by the throes of long distance and changing feelings. The film often takes on the perspective that this couple will succeed against all odds, until the realization hits that it’s a very real possibility they might not. This transition from, “Look at the young, cute couple!” to “Look at this on-again, off-again couple!” is jarring and in no way prepares you for the ending that, while not concretely happy nor sad, offers anything but a resolution.
Take This Waltz (2012)
The couple: Lou (Seth Rogen) and Margot (Michelle Williams)
Why it stands out: When one-half of a couple goes off to be with someone else, it’s usually because their current significant other is seriously lacking. In these situations, you sympathize with the one who’s leaving. He sucks, you say, I’d leave him too! But in Take This Waltz, Lou isn’t so bad—sure, he focuses on his chicken more than his wife sometimes, but all in all, they have a pretty sweet relationship. So when Margot leaves Lou for Daniel (Luke Kirby), it’s an acknowledgement that sometimes people are simply driven away by the promise of something new. But as a wise older woman says in the film, “New things get old,” and Margot isn’t invincible to that truth. What ordinarily would be a sympathetic character becomes a flawed one, ultimately portraying a realistic portrait of relationships—and humans in general.
The couple: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant)
Why it stands out: We all at one point become old, yet despite that fact, it’s something rarely focused on in films—especially romantic films. But Anne and Georges’ age is what makes Amour special. The film doesn’t try to gloss over the hardships that sometimes come with growing old, and instead paints a picture of a couple who, despite their lasting love for one another, just cannot figure out how to sustain their relationship with their ongoing physical and emotional challenges.
Before Midnight (2013)
The couple: Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke)
Why it stands out: Before Midnight is in the third in a trilogy of films following this couple, and it addresses the harder parts of relationships by putting Céline and Jesse in a hotel room at movie’s end to fight it all out. The movie doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable, and watching the two yell seemingly unforgivable things at each other is almost unbearably tense, effectively mirroring the feelings of actually fighting.
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
The couple: Emma (Léa Seydoux) and Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos)
Why it stands out: Blue is the Warmest Color doesn’t just tell you the story of Emma and Adèle; it forces you into their world. This immersion makes the film instantly memorable as one not just about a relationship but as one diving into a relationship and the subtleties of it, the parts that often get overlooked in movies in favor of drama and show. This alone would be noteworthy, but Blue also breaks boundaries by depicting a female-female romance, a pairing not often shown in movies and especially movies of this stature—it won the Palme d’Or at 2013’s Cannes Festival.
The One I Love (2014)
The couple: Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss)
Why it stands out: First off, it’s weird. Really weird. Without spoiling the film’s big twist, Ethan and Sophie aren’t getting along because they don’t necessarily like who the other has become. And although it’s about a struggling marriage, The One I Love isn’t exactly depressing—if anything, you’ll finish the movie with your eyes widened in surprise and a smile on your face.
Love is Strange (2014)
The couple: Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina)
Why it stands out: Ben and George have been happily together for decades, but they’re forced to live apart once they legally marry thanks to money issues. Despite unpleasant circumstances the two encounter, they never run out of love for each other. Outside forces won’t let them physically be together, but this doesn’t tear them apart emotionally by any means—they rise above challenges and stay connected, proving that crushing circumstances don’t always have to crush a relationship.