The 50 Definitive Relationship Dramas: 10-1

screenshot from Letter from an Unknown Woman

10. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Directed by: Max Ophuls

To be honest, the relationship at the center of “Letter from an Unknown Woman” barely even exists. It’s more of a longing from one side than the other. But the ways Ophuls structures the film qualifies it for this list. For the run of the story, we hear a voiceover, explaining the moments in these two characters’ lives. Lisa (Joan Fontaine) is a teenager who becomes obsessed with a pianist who lives in her building named Stefan (Louis Jordan). She only meets him once, but maintains her love for him. After her mother announces they will be moving, Lisa runs away, but sees Stefan with another woman. Lisa becomes a respectable woman and is proposed to by a young, family-focused military officer, whom she turns down, still in love with Stefan, a man she has barely met. Years later, she finally spends an evening with Stefan, though he does not recognize her as the teenager who once lived in his building. Eventually, we see that the voiceover is a note that Lisa has written to Stefan, explaining her feelings, her life, and how his simple existence has been the driving force behind her decisions, even after she has married another man. Ophuls films is heartbreaking and, by my estimation, his best offering. In the moments Stefan encounters Lisa, he is inexplicably drawn to her, as she had hoped. If anything, it tries to prove that even the relationships that never materialize can be more important than those that do.

screenshot from Brokeback Mountain

9. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Directed by: Ang Lee

There had been plenty of movies made about homosexuality before, but most up to this point focused on the eventual pairing of the main couple. In Ang Lee’s critical darling “Brokeback Mountain,” the relationship starts abruptly, allowing the rest of the film to be a slow burn of conflicting emotion and passion, Ennis and Jack (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) herd sheep in the Wyoming mountains one summer. After an evening of drinking, Jack makes a pass at Ennis, who initially rejects his advances, but eventually gives in. Ennis insists it is a one-time thing, but after they leave the mountains and both get married, it’s clear that their feelings remain. Jack searches out Ennis, and the two begin taking fishing trips together. Their marriages crumble – Jack understands much more clearly who he is; Ennis struggles mightily with his sexuality, but is also a loyal man who refuses to move away from his children, even after his divorce is finalized. 1960’s Wyoming isn’t exactly the normal place for a drama on homosexuality, which is what makes it so effective. Lee’s camera captures the sweeping environment, but remains incredibly sentimental and character-focused. Ennis and Jack must deal with their feelings, societal norms, an pe the fear of violence and prejudice in a way not often seen. Homosexuality in movies has been more straightforward and more pointed, but this was one of the first wide release films to truly depict an honest struggle with sexuality in a way that didn’t feel the least bit generic or stereotypical.

screenshot from Brief Encounter

8. Brief Encounter (1945)
Directed by: David Lean

Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is a middle-class woman in a happy, but boring marriage. “Brief Encounter” is delivered as a story she is telling in voiceover and flashback, imagining she is confessing to her husband the affair the film details. One day on a train, she is helped by another passenger named Alec (Trevor Howard). Both are married and have children. While they have repeated meetings, they find their attraction is much deeper than friendship. Unfortunately, their future is almost impossible to create, as they would need to continuously lie and compound that lie. When a friend allows them to use his flat, but turns a judgmental eye toward them, Laura finds herself shaken, running from the flat and being stopped by police. This leads to their eventual agreement that they must say goodbye – Alec has accepted a position in South Africa. Adapted from a Noel Coward play, the film’s passionate love is seen alongside a desperate need for companionship. Are Laura and Alec bad people for wanting happiness they don’t have? Are they being selfish? The film never answers that question, though there is never a moment in the film where the audience can honestly claim they aren’t rooting for these two. I would never condone an affair of any kind, but if the affair is depicted in any way similar to “Brief Encounter,” it may give me reason to pause for a moment or two.

screenshot from Before Sunrise

7. Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight (1995)
Directed by: Richard Linklater

I’m cheating, but don’t kid yourself – this is really just one long movie broken into three parts (and maybe more). “Before Sunrise” introduces us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American writer/traveler, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student returning to Paris. The two spend a day in Vienna together on a whim, developing a deep connection. We revisit the two nine years later in “Before Sunset” – Jesse has written a beloved book and is on a tour in Paris to promote it. Celine finds him and the two discuss their lives since that night and begin to rekindle some of that flame. We rejoin them nine years later for “Before Midnight,” now a married couple spending a Greek vacation together with their children. They use the time to reminisce of their relationship, their ups and downs, and where they could be if that fateful night never occurred. A few things are clear as we move through the films: Hawke and Delpy get better and better with their chemistry, Linklater’s direction gets more and more clear-minded, and the trio has together created one of the clearest and most honest portrayals of a modern romance ever put on screen. There are plenty of films that came before that touched on the same themes, but this trio of films puts all the pieces together. After Before Midnight, we feel like we know this couple as well as we know our neighbors (even more so) and we understand where each is coming from. All the movies on this list hinge on a relationship or two. Linklater’s films are the relationship.

screenshot from Scenes from a Marriage

6. Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

Originally an acclaimed television miniseries in Sweden, “Scenes from a Marriage” ran for six episodes. The theatrical cut is 167 minutes long, down from 281 minutes on television. That in mind, the film is relatively episodic, following Marianne and Johan (Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson) as their ten year marriage deteriorates, thanks to his infidelity and her disillusionment with their relationship and their relationship with their children. As Bergman is the director, it is incredibly scant on surrealism and incredibly detailed and harsh. There is no attempt to infer anything from anything – it’s a pretty straight-up story about a troubled relationship. Close-ups are used regularly to drive home the pain and anguish the two go through. Ullman’s performance is the stand out as a woman who cannot understand why her husband would just simply walk away from something they both built together. It’s surprisingly feminist, showing her growing independence as the two don’t necessarily fall out of love, but transform into a very different relationship, based on much more than just young love. It’s uncompromising and detailed – there are no windows shaded or door closed to this couple.

screenshot from L'Atalante

5. L’Atalante (1934)

Directed by: Jean Vigo

Marriage is tough. Especially when you’re aboard a boat that you can’t really leave. Jean (Jean Daste) is the captain of the titular barge, joined on the boat by his new wife Juliette (Dita Parlo), a crew member named Pere Jules (Michel Simon), and a cabin boy. They head to Paris to deliver some cargo. Jules isn’t quite sure how to handle having a woman on board, but eventually takes Juliette int his quarters, causing Jean to fly into a rage. They arrive in Paris, with Jean promising to take Juliette out, only to see Jules and the cabin boy leave the boat first. Jean cannot abandon the boat. Eventually, they do go out, but Jean’s jealousy causes him to drag Juliette back to the barge. She sneaks back off the boat; Jean decides to leave her in Paris. Clearly, not his best decision, as he slips into a depression and begins to perform poorly at his job, yearning to return to find her. The French New Wave movement of the 1960’s found a great influence in Vigo’s work here, as his poetry of motion and the way it enlivens a story that really just takes place on a cargo barge. While the synopsis sounds like a two-sided drama, it really focuses more on Juliette, who grows tired of waiting and wondering on a boat, hence her “relationship” with Jules and her need to get out and explore Paris. But what “L’Atalante” does is set a gold standard. Films have tried to approach the technical and emotional prowess of Vigo’s master work, but it has yet to be equaled. It’s beautiful, it’s honest, and it’s more gorgeous than most romances you’ll see on screen otherwise.

screenshot from In the Mood for Love

4. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Directed by: Kar Wai Wong

You could argue that this film is actually about two people falling in love (which I tried to avoid), but it’s too good not to include. “In the Mood for Love” takes place in Hong Kong and centers on a journalist named Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and a secretary named Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who both begin renting from the same apartment building on the same day. They becomes neighbors, both with spouses who are never around, always traveling for work or with overtime shifts. Chow and Su both secretly believe their respective partners are having affairs and share a common bond, becoming friends. Chow invites Su to help him write a story – people begin to talk. They remain platonic, but both know that feelings are brewing beneath the surface. The relationship (or lack thereof) is one of the more heartfelt and difficult ones to watch as connections are missed and opportunities pass by. According to Time Out New York, it’s the “consummate unconsummated love story of the millennium.” It’s a perfect summation of the film, which turns entirely on the relationship Chow and Su should share, but never do. Plenty of films of this list have themes about possible love never being fulfilled. “In the Mood for Love” may be the best one – a deeply felt, beautiful story of love that never came to fruition.

screenshot from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Directed by: Mike Nichols

You could argue that Mike Nichols adaptation of Edward Albee’s play is a jet black comedy, but not nearly enough to exclude it from this list. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” takes place over one day. It begins on Sunday morning at the home of George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). George is a professor; Martha is the president’s daughter. She has invited a young couple over for the evening – Nick (George Segal), a newly hired instructor, and Honey (Sandy Dennis), his quiet wife. And this sets everything off. George is all too familiar with Martha’s heavy drinking and it begins as an argument long before their guests even arrive. Nick and Honey quickly realize that they are being pulled into marital strife they have no place being involved in, but George convinces them to stay. And so the dance continues – arguments abound, criticisms are thrown about aimlessly, and Goerge and Martha trade barb after barb while Nick and Honey watch and slowly gets sucked in. The film takes turns that are unexpected and sharp, with Taylor and Burton giving behemoth performances. I won’t spoil where exactly the film goes and ends, but, suffice it to say, it’s a bombastic trip the entire way through. George and Martha may very well be the most dysfunctional couple on this list, but dammit – they may be the most entertaining and interesting, too.

screenshot from Sunrise

2. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Directed by: F.W. Murnau

The earliest film on the list and the only silent one, F.W. Murnau’s brilliant story of near betrayal won the Unique and Artistic Production Oscar at the very first Academy Award ceremony (basically, the artistic Best Picture). “Sunrise” introduces us to a Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), who has been spending time at a little lakeside town. She spends time outside a farmhouse, trying to lure the owner out. The Man (George O’Brien) lives there with his Wife (Janet Gaynor) and their daughter. His farm has been struggling lately – the Woman wants him to sell it and move to the city with her. He finds himself tempted; the Woman’s solution is that he take his Wife onto the lake and drown her. He almost goes through with it, but realizes that he cannot when she pleads for her life. Upon their return to shore, she flees from him and jumps on a trolley into town. He chases her and begs her to take him back. From there, they appear to be reunited, but tragedy causes the Man to once again search for his love and fend of temptation from the Woman. It’s a story that has been copied time and time again, but Murnau’s beautifully shot, wonderfully moving original romantic drama was the first measuring stick – a dramatic look at the pain of infidelity, the strain of temptation, and the difficulties of rural life in a world that has begun to see industrial boom. Films began to view relationships in much more complicated light, but sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good old-fashioned happy story; even when it takes dark turns.

screenshot from Casablanca

1. Casablanca (1942)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz

It’s the film that every man should return to once in a while. Love isn’t always about passion. It’s not always about showering her with gifts. Sometimes it’s just about sacrificing your own happiness. Michael Curtiz’s Best Picture winner boasts one of the greatest screens plays of all time, led by one of the greatest movie stars to have ever worked. “Casablanca” stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, a U.S. expatriate running a nightclub in the title city. Rick comes into possession of some letters that will allow a Czech Resistance leader named Victor to escape to America, planning to bring his wife, Rick’s former lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). From there, the film takes time to discuss the larger stakes of the ongoing war and the danger the characters at this little nightclub face, but the relationship between Rick and Ilsa is what drives the entire film. He finds himself struggling between his bitterness of the dissolution of their past love and his desire to ensure she stays safe. He knows she won’t be happy or easy to protect in Casablanca, but he knows he won’t be happy to let her go again. So, what’s a man to do? Not many films feature such a strong, yet conflicted male lead performance that, despite making the right decisions and being a good person, still doesn’t get the girl in the end. And, occasionally, that’s what audiences need to see. A good relationship isn’t necessarily one that lasts forever. Sometimes, deciding to end a relationship is more important than doing whatever it takes to keep it going.

–Joshua Gaul

Part 1 Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 

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