Robyn Kilroy explores the dark underbelly of romantic films that forsake the happy ending.
Love hurts, that’s no secret. Within most lifetimes people encounter heartbreak from the breakdown of a romantic relationship, whether they saw it coming or were completely caught off guard. It sucks, but in my opinion, its seems basically unavoidable, a symptom of our species being social creatures. It’s a universal experience, which is why I think it works well in romantic (or anti-romantic) films.
There are countless doomed romances in cinema, probably more than there are uplifting, ride-off-into-the-sunset flicks. There seems to be more of a tendency in modern romantic films for relationships to go sideways, perhaps coinciding with modern culture when it comes to love. Whether we like it or not we can’t help but identify with certain aspects of heartbreak in films, whether it’s the characters involved or the circumstance they’re in. I can’t speak for everyone here (heartbreak is a personal experience as well as a universal one), but I believe that there are certain characters and themes in moments of doomed romance in films that the heartbroken soul can relate to, therefore making them accessible to everyone.
A film that I believe perfectly encapsulates heartbreak in the context of a modern relationship is Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer, a film that the narrator reveals to us at the start that this is a story where two people meet, but is “not a love story”. While both characters to some extent feel heartbreak in this film, the main one is Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His character is the perfect example of a person who falls for the idea of falling in love rather than falling in love with someone. It’s clear from the start that Summer (Zooey Deschanel) isn’t looking for a serious relationship and has a completely different view of love than Tom, yet he chooses to ignore these warning signs and embarks on the destructive path of a relationship. This is perfectly conveyed in the “expectation versus reality” scene where, from using a split screen, we see that Tom’s expectations do not meet up with the reality of attending a party at Summer post-breakup. Instead of ending up back with Summer, he learns of her engagement to another man, and thus heartbreak ensues.
In many ways Tom’s infatuation with love is a homage to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, which is referenced more than once in the film. Like Tom, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) incessantly pines after a relationship with clear faults, this time the daughter of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older married woman and a friend of the family. Despite the judgements of both families (and the jealousy of Mrs. Robinson) Benjamin fails to give up and (spoiler) runs off with Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) while she is in the middle of her wedding. The final scene of the film says it all; at the back of the bus, both running away from the wedding and their disapproving families, their smiles turn to a look of realisation of what they’ve just done, and what’s ahead of them. Caught up in the moment of romance and thrill, they failed to realise that they’ve committed themselves to each other and there’s no going back. The film leaves their relationship open-ended, and it seems hard to see their relationship not ending sourly. In my opinion, both Tom and Benjamin are very real characters. If you’re someone who at one point in your life became infatuated with the idea of love without realising the repercussions or the faults of it, then you’re bound to know someone who has.
While there are films that deal with the breakdown of a relationship, others go for the after effects of the doomed relationship. There are many films that deal with the post break-up blues but the one for me that perfectly conveys it is Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which happens to be my favourite film). In the world of this film it is possible to go through a procedure that removes certain memories, including memories of certain people, allowing you to forget you knew them at all. This is what Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) does after a her and Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) painfully breakup. Distraught, Joel goes through the same procedure. This “deleting” of memories to me seems kind of on par with deleting pictures of you and your girlfriend off your phone, or even burning your boyfriend’s jumper in the hopes of forgetting them (I don’t recommend the second example). While this may seem like a good way to cleanse yourself of the pain these memories hold, more often than not we end up regretting it. We see this when halfway through Joel’s procedure he realises that he wants to hang onto the memories of the girl he once loved ( even still loves). You can’t help but feel his pain as he clings onto the happy memories of Clementine, attempting to hide her away in other memories to keep her safe. In my opinion, there’s an important message one can take from this film in regard to dealing with heartbreak. Sometimes it’s necessary to hold onto the memories of a past relationship, even if a lot of these memories are painful to remember. Despite the pain of a breakup, it’s important to recognise what went wrong so that you can grow and learn as person.
There are countless examples I could’ve talked about while exploring this darker, less hopeful side of romantic films. While the characters and themes that these films present may not apply to everyone’s experiences of their own doomed romances, I see them as painfully realistic views on the modern conception of a doomed romance and indeed how to handle it. So whether you’re feeling heartbroken or just cynical about love, sit down with a bowl of ice-cream and enjoy.