The 50 Definitive Relationship Dramas: 20-11

screenshot from Bonnie and Clyde

screenshot from Chloe in the Afternoon

20. Love/Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)
Directed by: Éric Rohmer

Originally titled “Love in the Afternoon,” but released in North America as “Chloe in the Afternoon,” this Rohmer film is a tale of possible infidelity, seen through the eyes of a conflicted man. Frédéric (Bernard Verley) is a successful young lawyer who is happily married to a teacher named Hélène (Françoise Verley), who is pregnant with their second child. While Frédéric is in a considerably good place in his life, he still struggles with the loss of excitement he had before he married, when he could sleep with whomever he chose. It wasn’t so much the sex that thrilled him, but the chase itself. Still, he feels that these thoughts and fantasies, paired with his refusal to act upon them, only proves that he is completely dedicated and in love with his own wife. That is, until he meets Chloé (Zouzou), a friend of a past girlfriend, who is trying to get some independence in her life by looking for jobs, though Frédéric believes she is only trying to take advantage of him. The two begin spending time together and Frédéric now finds himself torn between his wife – a woman he loves deeply – and Chloé – a woman he can’t help but feel mysteriously drawn to. It’s an honest portrayal of a conflicted man. Will he or won’t he? Most often, adulterers in films are given at least what they feel is justification for straying. Not Frédéric, who is an excellent example of a human protagonist who is behaving like all men. Doesn’t make him a bad person. Makes him normal. Chris Rock’s 2007 film “I Think I Love My Wife” is an English language remake, but it could never approach the brilliance and multi-layered life of the first.

screenshot from Lost in Translation

19. Lost in Translation (2003)
Directed by: Sofia Coppola

I’m not convinced this film was ever meant to be about a romantic relationship, but it certainly dissects the many layers of the importance a friendship has in the lives of anyone, especially in a place that feels or truly is foreign. “Lost in Translation” served a few roles: it announced the adult arrival of Scarlett Johansson, demonstrated that Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter had her own singular voice, and showed a new side to Bill Murray, who proved he could be so much more than a broad comic actor. Lost in Translation follows a aging movie star named Bob Harris (Murray) as he travels to Tokyo to film an ad for a Japanese whiskey, for which he will receive two million dollars. There, he meets Charlotte (Johansson), the young wife of a photographer who seems unhappy about her lot in life, worried her husband cares more about the models he photographs than her. Bob and Charlotte strike up an unusual friendship, both exploring the differences between American and Japanese culture, finding companionship somewhere in lives that feel empty and lonely. Murray was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, mining the depths of his character in a way rarely seen from him before. His work alongside Johansson set a standard for how onscreen platonic relationships should be portrayed, despite the fleeting inference that it could be more. Somehow that possibility, while unlikely, never seems as far fetched as other movies with protagonists so different in age. But Coppola’s film isn’t necessarily about a romance; it’s about how the possibility of romance can cloud minds just as easily as the romance itself.

screenshot from The Notebook

18. The Notebook (2004)
Directed by: Nick Cassavetes

I feel like a good chunk of readers were only going through this article to see where this film was ranked. Based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, “The Notebook” launched its stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams into the stratosphere (and into their own short-lived relationship). The movie starts with an elderly couple in a nursing home, as a man named Duke (James Garner) is reading a story to a fellow patient (Gena Rowlands) who is suffering from dementia. Most of the film takes place in the world of this story, where a boy named Noah (Gosling) has a summer love affair with local rich girl Allie (McAdams), only to have her family push them apart as Allie’s mother Ann (Joan Allen) refers to Noah as “trash.” Noah enlists and eventually returns to Charleston and begins to restore a house he had planned to buy with Allie when they were together, convinced that its completion would bring her back to him, despite her being promised to a local lawyer named Lon (James Marsden). Kisses in the rain ensue. Secrets are shared. Revelations are had. Love happens. “The Notebook” is a level of melodramatic romance storytelling that no film in the last 15 years has been able to match. It relies on plenty of cliches and gave birth to the Nicholas Sparks obsession, each movie adaptation of his work getting worse and worse. But somehow, this one hovers just above the drop-off. I’d expect nothing less from the son of John Cassavetes (then again, he did direct “The Other Woman”).

screenshot from Bonnie and Clyde

17. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Directed by: Arthur Penn

The movie that ushered in a new era of filmmaking, Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” changed the game with its graphic depiction of violence, but also due to its honest portrayal of sexuality. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) start small, pulling minor heists. Eventually, with the help of Clyde’s brother (Gene Hackman) and despite his brother’s wife (Estelle Parsons), they begin to think bigger, pulling bank heists and becoming more violent. But embedded within this real crime drama is an exploration of the relationship at its core. Clyde is a criminal, but only on a smaller scale. It isn’t until he tries to steal Bonnie’s mother’s car that he meets his match in Bonnie, a young woman bored with her life and thrilled but the possibility of Clyde’s dangerous course. Her influence pushes him higher, but also exposes a possible insecurity in Clyde even he may not have known existed. Insinuations of impotence aside, Clyde becomes Bonnie’s sidekick more than vice versa, as she becomes the logical part of the duo. “Bonnie and Clyde” is recognized as a turning point in cinematic history; part of that is due to the conflict that exists within the historical couple’s romantic partnership.

screenshot from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

16. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

A deliberately frustrating film to follow, thanks to the protagonist’s broken English (and equally confusing subtitles), “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is probably Fassbinder’s most respected masterpieces, a West German story of love, class, and race. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a Moroccon laborer and meets Emmi (Brigitte Mira) in a bar when he is dared by a friend to ask her to dance. Not only is Emmi white, but she is a sixty-year-old, widowed maid, at least 20 years Ali’s senior. The two form a surprising friendship, only to move swiftly to serious romance, seeing Ali move in with Emmi. Even more surprising, at the first sign of negativity toward their relationship, they marry, only to see their happiness met with universal disdain. Every person from Emmi’s life seems to look down upon her now, partly due to their bigotry toward foreign workers. Eventually, we see Emmi begin to crumble under the pressures, adopting some of the controlling nature of her fellow Germans. Borrowing themes from the Douglas Sirk romances of the 1950s, “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is a brilliant discussion of racism and romance in an environment not often seen. Fassbinder’s semi re-telling of #34 on this list is one of the most complete films on the list, an incredible story of two different types of oppression framed in a world not typically seen in today’s culture.

screenshot from Gone with the Wind

15. Gone with the Wind (1939)
Directed by: Victor Fleming

It’s big, it’s epic, and it lays on the unreal love story pretty thick. Victor Fleming and screewriter Sidney Howard’s adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s beloved novel needs little introduction. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives on the plantation Tara in Georgia on the eve of the American Civil War. She loves Ashley, who is set to marry her cousin. She is pursued by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a man her family has a bit of a problem with, partly because he feels the South will get manhandled by the North in the coming battle. So, Scarlett marries someone else, he dies; she is constantly searched out by Rhett, whom she strings along, using her unearned privilege to manipulate everything and everyone around her. In “Gone with the Wind,” we see a universally loved character who actually serves as more of an antihero than anything. At the beginning, Scarlett is not likable. She doesn’t get much better by the end, but she becomes a little more self-dependent. So, when she gets the rejection at the end, at least we think she might land on her feet.

screenshot from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

14. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Directed by: Richard Brooks

Based on Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play, Richard Brooks’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” focused on a Southern family (as did most Williams plays), led by Brick (Paul Newman) and Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), a married couple struggle with multiple hardships. Brick is dependent on a crutch, having injured himself while drunk. Maggie and Brick are mostly dependent on Brick’s family wealth, coming from his father Big Daddy (Burl Ives). The two have no children; Brick’s brother has a fleet full of them, though they seem relatively unsupervised. The film takes place at Big Daddy’s plantation, where Brick and his brother are informed that Big Daddy will be dead within the year, though he has not been told. From there, we see Big Daddy’s frustration with his son’s laziness and alcoholism, Maggie’s ongoing attempts to get Brick more involved in his father’s life, mostly because she wants to get her hands on the money. The dynamic between Brick and Maggie is the heart of the film, with Maggie’s aggressive influence and manipulative decision-making serving as a major catalyst to much of the film’s conflict. But, when all is said and done, it may be Brick’s inaction that is the cause of the entire family’s dysfunction. Newman and Taylor play exceptionally off of one another, as expected. Much like Williams’ other plays and their film adaptations, the end is never wrapped up in a bow. But, at the very least, the cards have finally been put on the table.

screenshot from A Woman Under the Influence

13. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Directed by: John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands longed to be in a film that focused on the hardships of the contemporary women of the 1970s. As a result, Cassevetes wrote “A Woman Under the Influence” and gave the starring role to Rowlands, opposite Peter Falk, who invested his own money in the project, he loved it so much. Rowlands plays Mabel, a stay-at-home mom who is incredibly dedicated to her husband Nick (Falk), a construction worker who slowly begins to worry about her. She begins to act strangely around him and other, confusing him and giving him worry that she may be dangerous to herself and others. So, he puts her in a hospital for treatment for six months, staying home with his kids for that entire time, only to prove he has no idea what he’s doing. Upon her return home, Mabel suffers another psychological breakdown, eventually cutting herself during a brief episode. Without a doubt, this is Gena Rowlands’ best performance, a furiously desperate characterization of a woman not too different than many other mothers and wives, but with an edge that is just dark to cause serious worry. But, how far gone is she really? Is this really so far past what a woman stuck inside a house day in and day out with only her children to talk to? And how does a husband recognize the different between normal exhaustion and psychotic break? Rowlands grabbed an Oscar nomination, as did Cassavetes for Best Director. Rowlands won the Golden Globe for her work in what may be Cassavetes best and most layered offering.

screenshot from Jules and Jim

12. Jules and Jim (1962)
Directed by: Francois Truffaut

Set during During World War I, “Jules and Jim” takes place in France, Austria, and Germany. The titular characters are played by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, respectively, who share a strong friendship, thanks to a shared interest in art and the Bohemian lifestyle. They meet several women; one day Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) crosses their paths, a woman who looks strikingly like a statue the two men loved while traveling through the Adriatic Sea. Catherine begins a relationship with Jules, though Jim is equally taken with her perspective on life. Just before the war begins, Jules and Catherine get married, followed by both Jules and Jim enlisting, but fighting for opposite sides. Time and the war passes, and Jim stays with Jules and Catherine, who now have a daughter. Jules confesses that Catherine has been sleeping around. She even begins to seduce Jim, at which point Jules, who is afraid of never seeing her again, gives his blessing for them to marry, just so he can still see her on occasion. Back and forth, Catherine navigates between the two friends, using their relationship has a game of ping-pong, where neither man is ever the end game. Truffaut’s film has influenced plenty of work since, being one the most successful examples of the French New Wave. Love triangles don’t get much more complex than this; equally frustrating and enchanting.

screenshot from Breathless

11. Breathless (1960)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Similar to Bonnie and Clyde, “Breathless” is a film about a relationship shrouded in a crime drama, this time set in France, Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film. It stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel, a young criminal who tries to evoke the movie persona of Humphrey Bogart the best he can. After stealing a car and shooting a policeman, Michel finds himself on the run without any money, turning to his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to help. Patricia (Seberg) is a journalism student, selling the New York Herald Tribune in Paris; she agrees to hide him. However, she doesn’t know Michel is on the run. The tension between the two hinges mostly on Patricia, who must choose whether or not to keep Michel as a secret, or to turn him in. He doesn’t make it any easier, trying to seduce her, while simultaneously trying to call in a loan from her family so they can run away together. I won’t spoil it, but the title doesn’t refer to a feeling when falling in love, if you catch my drift. Godard’s trailblazing entry that kickstarted the French new Wave may not stand as his greatest achievement, but it certainly was a great starting point. The film was remade in 1983 with Richard Gere, having nowhere near the effect.

–Joshua Gaul


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