Disney films and romantic comedies can take you to “happily ever after,” but they rarely ever show you what comes next. The twenty films listed here represent intriguing, provocative, and sometimes problematic views on marriage, from the bitterness of George and Martha in Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to the sci-fi births of David Cronenberg’s The Brood and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession.
Each filmmaker crafts a unique perspective of dissolution, capturing (and sometimes heightening) the emotions that are involved in marital ruptures.
20. The Way We Were (Dir. Sydney Pollack, 1973)
During WWII, Katie (Barbra Streisand) is a political activist who falls deeply in love with the good-looking Hubbell (Robert Redford). The two marry, but differences of opinions, lucrative careers, and acts of infidelity take a toll on their union. After years of marriage, Katie and Hubbell decide to part, realizing that their love was based on idealization rather than reality.
The Way We Were, although clunky and filled with plot holes, delivers exactly what it advertises. It is a sappy melodrama marked by Barbra Streisand’s terrific performance and an intoxicating theme song. It is a film about two people fantasizing their relationship as a unbreakable bond, only to have this fantasy shattered by they reality of their stubbornness and uncompromising perspectives.
19. Take This Waltz (Dir. Sarah Polley, 2011)
While on a business trip, a freelance writer named Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby). The two have an instant connection and soon discover that they are neighbors.
Unfortunately for Margot, who is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), Daniel’s constant presence disturbs her marriage and forces her to choose between her sexual impulses and her fidelity to her husband. Polley’s filmography deals with the bleaker side of matrimony by examining the ways in which diseases, fidelity, and secrets take eat away at a relationship.
Take This Waltz concerns itself primarily with Margot’s internal struggle to find happiness, even at the cost of alienating those that she loves. The film features a fantastic scene in which older women and younger women shower at a recreational center while discussing long-term relationships (one older woman quips that new things eventually get old). Margot’s ultimate decision may not cater to everyone’s tastes, but it is brutally honest about the benefits and consequences of desire.
18. Giulietta degli spiriti (Dir. Federico Fellini, 1965)
Giulietta (Giulietta Masina) lives an extravagant lifestyle with eclectic friends and neighbors. As her marriage slowly crumbles, she finds solace in exploring the sexual life of Suzy (Sandra Milo). Giulietta’s own past haunts her (marked by hallucinatory sequences and sexual images), and she must grapple with whether or not her marriage can be saved.
Though the film wasn’t as well received as Fellini’s other masterpieces, Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) is still a great film in its own right. It is Giulietta Masina who provides the power of the film, creating a woman who unknowingly buys into a delusion of happiness. She is forced to grapple with her repressed sexuality, leading to a bittersweet climax of dissolution and independence. This is one of Masina’s finest performances.
17. The Squid and the Whale (Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2005)
After years of marriage, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Joan (Laura Linney) agree to a separation. Their kids, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), try to cope with their parents’ impending divorce as best they can (Walt enters into a talent contest where he claims to have written a Pink Floyd song, while Frank frequently masturbates in the school library).
Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical screenplay presents an intriguing perspective of divorce by looking at its effects on the children. Each child has a parent that he clings to, and each child manifests his own defense mechanism in order to cope with the dissolution of the familial unit. It is an honest portrayal of divorce, one that never holds back on showing real emotions and real neuroses that affect children of divorce.
16. Husbands and Wives (Dir. Woody Allen, 1992)
Two couples – Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), and Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) – endure relationship highs and lows. Jack and Sally agree to a separation and begin dating other people, while Gabe and Judy deal with their own marriage, which (although it initially presents a counterpoint to Jack and Sally’s marriage) soon begins to crumble.
Allen’s Husbands and Wives is a brutally honest portrait of marriages/relationships that are running out of steam. The film reveals the lasting effects of dissolution, showing how even though couples may break up, they are still connected in many ways. The emotional weight of the film was exacerbated when Allen’s own relationship to Farrow ended as a result of his indiscretions with Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
15. An Unmarried Woman (Dir. Paul Mazursky, 1978)
Erica (Jill Clayburgh) strongly believes that her marriage is perfect, in spite of a few sexual droughts. When her husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), admits to falling in love with another woman, Erica’s world is shattered and she tries her best to salvage some semblance of happiness.
Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman is a charming vehicle for Jill Clayburgh, who shines as Erica. She seeks any way to fill the void that her marriage left, and tries desperately to understand what led to this separation.
Through her group of friends, her daughter, and her sexual encounters, Erica soon begins to understand that her comfort in the routine of marriage kept her from enjoying life. In spite of Martin wanting to return, and Erica’s boyfriend, Saul (Alan Bates), asking her to move in, Erica decides to pursue her newfound independence.