The 50 Definitive Relationship Dramas: 40-31

screenshot from Don't Look Now

40. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Directed by: Nicholas Roeg

A few films that could be defined as horror appear on this list, mostly because the best ones veer further into a psychological discussion on dealing with fear, death, and loss. Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, “Don’t Look Now” is a landmark of British-Italian cinema, thanks to its wonderfully developed characters and realistic depiction of grief. John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) travel to Venice, still reeling after the accidental drowning of their daughter Christine. While there, Laura meets a psychic who claims that Christine is still trying to contact them, which she shares with John, who is skeptical. Slowly, John begins to experience supernatural moments and mysterious sightings, some of which appear to be a young girl in a red coat, similar to the one Christine was wearing when she died. While the major focus of the story is on John’s obsession with this figure and his mental deterioration (despite his concern for Laura’s mental state), John and Laura’s indisputably honest relationship and the way they deal with their loss is a wonderful dissection of the psychological science of grief, providing an interesting take on the stages of grief from both protagonists’ points of view. Without the Gothic ghost story elements, “Don’t Look Now” still remains a brutally honest look at a broken relationship where both parties are trying to put the pieces back together in very different ways.

screenshot from Titanic

39. Titanic (1997)
Directed by: James Cameron

The movie that launched a thousand ships that hit a thousand icebergs, James Cameron’s behemoth Best Picture winner was a giant love letter to the romantic dramas of yesteryear, jacked up with an effects-laden final act that blew previous blockbusters out of the water (pun intended). Taking place on the famed 1912 ship, “Titanic” focused on poor artist named Jack (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his whirlwind romance with upper class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a woman engaged to be married, but unhappy with her privileged life. It’s the love story that dominated the box office and made the world fall in love with Dicaprio, and despite it becoming the butt of some jokes in retrospect, it really sells the overdramatic romance pretty successfully. It’s told entirely in flashback by an elderly Rose, but the lasting image will always be Winslet and Dicaprio on the bough of that ship. Kings of the world indeed.

screenshot from The Fly

38. The Fly (1986)
Directed by: David Cronenberg

From an overblown epic that shoves love down your throat to a modern horror masterpiece that says more about dedication and love than most romance films. David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” is a remake of sorts of the 1958 horror classic, but is a ton more graphic and way less funny. The memorable images from Cronenberg’s film are the body horror elements when Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) begins his transformation, but central to the film’s heart is his relationship with journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), who he promises exclusive story rights to as long as she keeps his experiment secret. They meet in a professional sense, but slowly begin a courtship, all while Seth continues his experiments. His major breakthroughs are shared and somewhat triggered by his relationship with Veronica; the beginning of his transformation is actually begun by a poor decision made when his jealousy hits a high point, causing him to misuse his creation. We join Veronica as she watches the man she loves disappear in front of her, piece by piece. It’s disgusting, stomach-turning, and stunning, but it’s also incredibly heartbreaking.

screenshot from Tokyo Story

37. Tokyo Story (1953)
Directed by: Yosujiro Ozu

Love is all well and good at the beginning, but eventually that marriage get decades old. And the children from that marriage get older and have their own lives. “Tokyo Story” centers on a retired couple named Skukichi and Tomi (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama). They have five children, all grown, one of which lives with them. The film follows them as they visit their children. Their eldest son is married with two children, but pays little attention to them. Their eldest daughter is also married and also has little time for them. The two children pay for their parents to stay in a spa, but they leave early thanks to the volume of the nightlife. The only person who seems to care is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their deceased second son, who takes them on a sightseeing tour of Tokyo. While the main focus of Tokyo Story is the sadness that comes with the seeming rejection some children show their parents as they get older, at the heart of that pain is an elderly couple who have worked hard to stay together for so long and raise what they thought we good children. It’s often listed alongside some of the greatest films of all time, thanks to Ozu’s eye and the brilliant performances from the leads. Sometimes death isn’t the worst thing about getting older; sometimes it’s rejection by those who are supposed to love you and take care of you.

screenshot from Eyes Wide Shut

36. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

The final Kubrick fill took the bigger Hollywood power couple and put them against a backdrop filled with insecurity, distrust, and orgies. Lots of orgies. Tom Cruise stars as Dr. Bill Harford, half of a young couple from New York that also includes his actual wife at the time, Nicole Kidman. After a marital dispute with Alice (Kidman), Bill goes out into the city, eventually ending up at a country mansion in a costume and mask, where a strange sexual ritual is taking place. After being forced out, he becomes obsessed with the party, trying to return multiple times, learning that his infiltration has caused problems for connections he has within the society. For the first time, we see Cruise as a flawed human, rather than a traditional masculine hero. Here, he has difficulty with jealousy, believes his wife will stray, and feels inadequate next to other more adventurous men. While not many marriages have problems materialized in the form of an secret masked orgy party (I would guess only about 15%), Kubrick’s cold, disconnected style de-sexualizes the nudity, creating an erotic sterility that, in Bill’s eyes, is less exciting than it is shameful. Sex is supposed to be an expression of love and desire; but what happens when you don’t feel loved or desired?

screenshot from An Unmarried Woman

35. An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Directed by: Paul Mazursky

An almost comedy that kicks off with a relationship ending, “An Unmarried Woman” stars Jill Clayburgh (Oscar nominated) as Erica, the wife of a New York stockbroker (Michael Murphy) who immediately finds herself back on the market after he leaves her for a younger woman. From there, it’s a woman’s journey through life singularly. Erica life has basically fallen apart and now she has to define herself as a person rather than the spouse of another person. The film moves through sexual liberation themes and the importance of being happy with oneself first, with the help of close friends and family. Sure, in the end she finds love again, but Mazursky’s film isn’t about the need to find another. Of all the films on this list, “An Unmarried Woman” may be the only one where, for most of the film, there is no solid relationship. But, Erica’s journey says more about how relationships can function as a reflection of happiness in the face of pain or as an unwanted anchor on the ocean of life, whether the captain of the boat knows it or not. Sometimes the best way to understand a relationship is to be forced out of one unwillingly.

screenshot from All That Heaven Allows

34. All that Heaven Allows (1955)
Directed by: Douglas Sirk

A 1950’s class romance, “All that Heaven Allows” stars Jane Wyman as a wealthy widow named Cary, who doesn’t do much but hang out with friends, fend off suitors, and talk to her college-aged children. When she comes across her gardener, a young man named Ron (Rock Hudson), she finds herself infatuated with him and his simplistic lifestyle. he is respectful, kind, and has no need for the materialistic lifestyle she lives. She finds herself drawn to this way of living, and accepts his eventual proposal. But what begins as love slowly becomes abandonment, as Cary bends under the pressure of her friends and children, who react strongly to her breaking of class rules and this unacceptable marriage to a much younger, much poorer man. She breaks off the engagement, though she is clearly lonelier now that they are apart. The children plan to move out and, because they feel bad for ruining her life, buy her a TV. Because that’s how you fix things. It’s a glossy, overstated romance that hits all the stereotypical notes, but it still stands above most of the other melodramas of the time, thanks mostly to the involvement of director Douglas Sirk. Among Sirk’s 1950’s romances, “All that Heaven Allows” hit the right notes with Hudson and Wyman, making for a well-received feature film.

screenshot from Days of Wine and Roses

33. Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Directed by: Blake Edwards

The budding love of a PR guy and a secretary that hinges on social drinking. Is there any better kind? “Days of Wine and Roses” stars Jack Lemmon as Joe Clay. He meets Kirsten (Lee Remick), a secretary, who is at first hesitant, then jumps right in. They get married and have a daughter, eventually drinking themselves into demotion and near death. After a revelation, Joe decides that he and Kirsten need to get sober. Works for a while, but only briefly. Eventually, it’s clear that Joe and Kirsten’s relationship is what is driving their lack of sobriety, finding solace in the other as they indulge together. It’s clear that, while Joe may have begun the cycle by introducing Kirsten to drinking, she has since gone to a darker place, unable to admit she is an alcoholic and unable to accept that their lives are better apart. “Days of Wine and Roses” is essentially a long commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous, but Remick and Lemmon play so well off of each other and develop a convincing camaraderie that it makes it all the more heartbreaking when Joe recognizes the toxicity of their marriage. But, while Joe and Kirsten’s relationship is the central one, the real relationship is between the two protagonists and, well, booze.

screenshot from Chungking Express

32. Chungking Express (1994)
Directed by: Kar Wai Wong

Two romances that have no connection other than they involve police officers, “Chungking Express'” first story is about He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a cop also known as Cop 223. He was dumped by his girlfriend on April 1 and has decided to wait until May 1 (his birthday) before truly moving on. At that point, he will known whether they will be reunited or they will never be again. The night of May 1, he meets a woman in a wig (Brigitte Lin) at a bar, who comes back to his place, only to fall asleep. The next morning she leaves; he goes to the store, where he meets the new cashier, Faye (Faye Wong). Story 2 then begins, when Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) meets the same Faye. He is also dealing with a breakup; she begins to fall for him. His ex-girlfriend leaves a letter for him at the snack bar, which everyone assumes is a breakup note. In the envelope is a set of keys to Cop 663’s apartment, which Faye steals and uses to get into his home and “redecorate.” The two eventually schedule time together, but just before their first date, Faye leaves to travel the world as a flight attendant (his ex-girlfriend’s job). He searches her out, but the film is deliberately left open-ended. The style is the real star of the film, as Wong follows an example set by the French New Wave by jettisoning story and structure for a looser interpretation of life and these relationships at their core. Does anything really every go anywhere? That’s not really the point. The point is the journey, however mundane.

screenshot from Blue Valentine

31. Blue Valentine (2010)
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

It’s either a wonderfully honest look at the beginning and slow death of a marriage or a terribly depressing chore with broken narrative. “Blue Valentine” stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy, a young couple who rush into marriage when they learn Cindy is pregnant (though it is most likely from her previous boyfriend). The beginning of their relationship is intercut with a weekend five years later, which exposes Dean’s drinking problem and the intense arguments they have, thanks also in part to Cindy’s job at a medical clinic. Cianfrance’s editing and story structure adds a contrast the film needs to paint a picture that says even the couples that seem happiest can deteriorate if other factors enter the picture and insecurities end up taking control. The lead performances are realistic enough, though the story becomes a chore as we suffer the valleys of this marriage far more than the peaks. But, clearly that was kind of the point.

–Joshua Gaul

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

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