The 50 Definitive Relationship Dramas: 30-21

screenshot from Love Story

screenshot from Lovers on the Bridge

30. The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)
Directed by: Leos Carax

A romance the way only Leos Caraz could do it. “The Lovers on the Bridge” is a love story between an alcoholic, drug-addicted street performer named Alex (Denis Lavant) and a vagrant painter named Michele (Juliette Binoche) who lives on the streets after a previous relationship ended. She now suffers from an unkown disease that is slowly making her blind. The two live on the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, closed for repairs for the duration of the film. As Michele loses more and more of her sight, she has to depend on Alex to get her through the days. After a treatment is discovered, Michele’s parents try to find her using posters on the street and radio announcements. Alex, realizing that her health would remover her dependence upon him, does everything in his power to keep Michele from knowing her family is looking for her. What results is a film that is altogether reckless and heartwarming, with sweeping romance that can be felt beyond the visuals. It’s still Carax’s most successful film, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. It manages to tell a very Paris-themed story without making it a love note to the city, as the love not it portrays is strictly between its two leads.

screenshot from The Squid and the Whale

29. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Another movie about divorce, “The Squid and the Whale” is a complex drama starring Jeff Daniels as Bernard and Laura Linney as Joan, the parents of two boys named Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kiline). Bernard was once a successful novelist, but has since slowed and focused more on teaching. When Joan begins to get acclaim for her own writing, it ramps up the tension between the two, resulting in the divorce and custody battles. Walt and Frank find themselves eventually taking sides with a parent, drifting more to Bernard’s side. Their relationships begin to splinter and the two begin to act out in various ways. For Walt, it’s wildly misrepresenting his achievements. For Frank, it’s drinking and masturbating at school. It isn’t until Walt begins to see a school psychologist that he begins to look at his parents objectively and mine his memory for any reason why he would favor his father, who was relatively absent when he was younger. Baumbach has a tendencies to infuse quirky comedy into his otherwise dramatic films and this one is probably the best of his filmography, as it doesn’t lean so heavily on the comedy side of the writing and takes a subtler approach to its characters and their flaws. Eisenberg was the breakout star of the film, but the honest portrayal of a marriage falling apart from the children’s perspective is done with more purpose, rather than the broad strokes that tend to be thrown at the kids who begin to pick sides.

screenshot from An Affair to Remember

28. An Affair to Remember (1957)
Directed by: Leo McCarey

An updated version of 1939’s “Love Affair,” “An Affair to Remember” was almost a shot-for-shot remake, substituting in Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr for Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. The film follows Nickie (Grant) and Terry (Kerr) as they meet on a cruise ship, he being a wealthy playboy, she be already attached to another. The two begin a friendship and eventually fall in love. When they depart the ship, they plan to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months, but only if they have both ended their relationships and begun their new careers. On that date, Nickie waits at the observation desk, unaware that Terry, in a rush to meet him, has been struck by a car and can no longer walk. From there, it’s a back and forth between Nickie’s misunderstanding of the situation and Terry’s fear about her condition. It’s a 1950’s romance, so it’s packed full of cheesiness and schmaltzy dialog (the closing lines alone are enough to make you gag). But underneath all that is a beautiful story of love conquering all and how chance encounters can change our fates. It was remade again in 1994 and serves as a pretty clear inspiration for “Sleepless in Seattle,” but unlike Nora Ephron’s 1993 film, this one dissects an existing relationship, rather than creating one for the closing moments.

screenshot from Days of Heaven

27. Days of Heaven (1978)
Directed by: Terrence Malick

Malick’s second film after “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven” takes the sweeping cinematography of his debut and softens it, showing the Midwestern wasteland that looked so dirty in Badlands and making it almost majestic, among glorious fields of corn. After Bill (Richard Gere) mistakenly kills his boss at a Chicago steel mill, he and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and sister Linda (Linda Manz) run to the Texas panhandle; Linda narrates the story. Bill and Abby pretend to be siblings as the three are hired at a farm for seasonal work by a shy, but extremely wealthy nameless farmer (Sam Shepard). They learn he is dying and hatch a plan to have Abby marry the farmer, only to inherit his wealth after his death. After the ceremony, Bill stays on as an employee. The farmer’s health remains stable, leading to Abby’s feelings to unexpectedly grow for him, obviously causing conflict with Bill. Malick’s camera – as always – tells a pristine story, but what really drives the plot is Linda’s narration, delivered in a jittery, half-knowing way. She gives insight, but she is never really a dependable narrator. And, in such a warped triangle, maybe that’s for the best. Malick has since honed his approach, for better or worse. Many maintain his first two films are still his best.

screenshot from Love Story

26. Love Story (1970)
Directed by: Arthur Hiller

From the art house standard of relationships to the cheese-soaked love and death story of the 1970’s, “Love Story” will forever be defined by its incredibly stupid tagline (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.) and its earworm of a piano theme. Starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw as Oliver and Jenny, a pair of college students who meet at the Radcliffe library – Oliver a Harvard student, Jenny a Radcliffe student. The two quickly fall in love and move in together. Eventually, they want to start a family, but can’t, due to an unknown illness Jenny has, which appears to be leukemia. Oliver doesn’t tell her what is wrong for a brief period of time, but she eventually finds out and enters costly cancer treatments that Oliver cannot afford. You see where this goes. However bad the movie is; however overdramatic and ridiculous the story and acting are, “Love Story” created an oft-duplicated template for future romance films (and possibly every Nicholas Sparks book). As Roger Ebert put it, Jenny’s disease has one symptom: “…the patient grows more beautiful until finally dying.”

screenshot from A Separation

25. A Separation (2011)
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi

A rare foreign Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay (as well as winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Asghar Farhadi takes the commonly used “breakdown of a marriage” storyline and adds multiple layers to it, making for one of the richest depictions of marriage in years. “A Separation” is set in Tehran and introduces us to Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a couple married for 14 years who share an 11 year old daughter named Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wishes to leave the country with her family, as she wants to provide a better life for Termeh. Nader refuses, concerned about his dying father. As a result, Simin files for divorce. The court denies the appeal, but Simin and Termeh move in with Simin’s parents. From there, the drama becomes more complicated, as Iranian tradition and religion are brought into the picture, with Nader hiring a housekeeper named Razieh to care for his father. Eventually, conflict arises between Razieh, her husband, and Nader, who finds his father tied to the bed and pushes Razieh in anger, causing her to fall down a stairwell. In the end, while the drama doesn’t all center around Simin and Nader’s relationship, it all eventually filters down to how Termeh views her parents, if she thinks her father is guilty of his accusations, and who she prefers to live with after the divorce. The acting is phenomenal, the writing is superb, and the development of all the major players make “A Separation” not just one of the best foreign films of the last ten years, but one of the best film, regardless of language.

screenshot from Contempt

24. Contempt (1963)
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

A Godard film starring Fritz Lang? Sign me up. “Contempt” stars Jack Palance as a film producer who hires Lang (playing himself) to adapt The Odyssey into a film. It turns into an art film, which Prokosch (Palance) hates. Instead, he hires writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), whose wife (Brigitte Bardot) suddenly leaves him, after being left alone with Prokosch. The plot of “The Odyssey” lines up with the story of estrangement, while also aligning pretty closely with Godard’s own life. Overall, it’s a pretty simple story about betrayal. But man is it cold. Godard wanted his wife Anna Karina to play the lead, but was pushed by the studio to cast Bardot and take advantage of her look. So, Godard pretty much takes advantage of that, exploiting those curves as every turn. But, at the heart of this somewhat mild French new Wave film is a pretty honest look at what happens when alienation takes the place of dedication and devotion. Piccoli’s performance turns his abandonment into a hero’s voyage, facing off in battles both personally and professionally. One could argue the whole thing is just Godard thanking Fritz Lang for setting a standard, as Javal is trying so hard to maintain artistic integrity, while also gaining financially. In the end, he looks toward Lang as the example, paralleling his love life with that of a filmmaker.

screenshot from Journey to Italy

23. Journey to Italy (1954)
Directed by: Roberto Rossellini

Partly based on the Colette novel Duo, “Journey to Italy” is an Italian film starring George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman as an English couple in a seemingly happy marriage traveling to, well, Italy. There, they go to a large piece of property in Naples they have decided to sell. Alex (Sanders) is the businessman of the marriage, a somewhat off-putting man who leans a little to much on first reactions and sarcasm. Meanwhile, Katherine (Bergman) is the sensitive one, using the trip to rekindle memories of an old friend of hers who has since died. The two begin to show major cracks in their armor, as jealousy and multiple misunderstandings between the two start tearing apart their marriage. This reaches a head when the two actually decide it would be best for them to divorce. But, in a surprise turn of events, they seem to reconcile when they take part in a religious ceremony they come across in Naples. It feels rushed, yes. But the way Rossellini manages to get the audience invested in this marriage so quickly, only to see it fall apart and get put back together, is an act of true filmmaking prowess. Bergman and Sanders give solid performances as the couple; who could fall out of love in Italy?

screenshot from Amour

22. Amour (2012)
Directed by: Michael Haneke

Re-reading the synopsis of this film is heartbreaking in and of itself. Watching it is tenfold. Directed by Michael Haneke, “Amour” tells the story of an elderly couple living in Paris. The film begins with Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) found on the bed, deceased and covered in flowers. The film flashes to months earlier, when Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne, both retired piano teachers, are watching a concert for a former pupil of Anne’s. The next morning, Anne suffers a stroke and needs surgery, which goes wrong, leaving her partially paralyzed. Georges becomes her caretaker, promising never to return her to the hospital or nursing home. One day, Anne lets Georges know that she would rather not go on living. After a meeting with the aforementioned pupil, Georges is hopeful that she has turned a corner, only to see her have a second stroke, this time leaving her incapable of speech and rational thought. Their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) wants her put in a nursing home, but George refuses to break his promise. The closing of the film is another level of painful to sit through, solely because Haneke and his actors have created a story so touching and believable that it feels like you are watching your own grandparents or parents. While Haneke’s typical approach is cold and could be seen as unfeeling, in this slowly paced story, it feels necessary. This isn’t a film about the beauty of life or the magic of love. It’s a film about dedication, sacrifice, and understanding that marriage and love are more about doing what needs to be done for your spouse rather than other selfish pursuits.

screenshot from Possession

21. Possession (1981)
Directed by: Andrzej Zulawskiw

Another horror film, the French-German production “Possession” stars Sam Neill as a spy named Mark coming home after a long mission, only to learn that his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) wants to get divorced. Mark believes there may be another suitor; she insists that’s not true. He hands over the apartment and their son as part of the settlement, but becomes obsessed with her, finding their son alone in the apartment while she is out. When Mark receives a phone call from Anna’s new lover, he searches him out, discovering Anna strangely and hysterically (though she was prone to that). Mark hires a private investigator to track Anna, who finds her living in a terrible apartment with an amorphous creature with which she apparently is having a relationship. Zulawskiw wrote the screenplay to the film in the middle of a tumultuous divorce, informing the dark, mysterious nature of psychology behind the actions of both Mark and Anna in the film. The first half of the film is an incredibly detailed, unflappable portrait of a marriage falling apart before the second half shifts into horror territory. The leads stand out, especially Adjani, who plays dual roles, thanks to the supernatural themes and twisty storytelling. It doesn’t quite reach the horror-relationship drama mined by the Polanski’s of the world, but it certainly runs well with the hysteria.

–Joshua Gaul

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

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