14. Blonde Venus (Dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
Helen (Marlene Dietrich) is a former German showgirl who is married to an American chemist named Edward “Ned” Faraday (Herbert Marshall). When Ned is diagnosed with radiation poisoning, Helen decides to become a showgirl in order to raise money for Ned’s treatment. As Helen’s star rises, she soon abandons her ailing husband and pursues an affair with a rich playboy (Cary Grant).
Although Blonde Venus is notable for its infamous song number, many film theorists have used the film to explore patriarchal film grammar. This is one of the more misogynistic views of marriage, examining how one woman is persecuted for her infidelity and punished for her marital transgression with the confinement of domestic life. It’s a well-made film, in spite of its inherent misogyny.
13. Two for the Road (Dir. Stanley Donan, 1967)
Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and his wife, Joanna (Audrey Hepburn), are financially successful couple due to Mark’s career as an architect. As they journey to Saint Tropez in order to finish one of Mark’s projects, the husband and wife recall many moments in their relationship. They soon come to terms with the tumultuous state of their marriage.
Two for the Road views marriage through a disjointed narrative, creating a juxtaposition of heated arguments and tender moments (both past and present). Its unique editing style and clever screenplay create a portrait of rocky marriage that is defined by its highest highs and lowest lows. The marriage can also be summed up by the couples’ pet names of “Bitch” and “Bastard,” which reveal their tenderness through cruel jokes and biting humor.
12. Blue Valentine (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are an unhappy couple who stay together for their young daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). Their marriage wasn’t always this unhappy, and the film cuts between their disillusioned present and their cheerful past.
Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is a heavy pill to swallow. Its emotional punches are brutal, especially because of the juxtaposition between their blissful courtship (shot in 16mm) and their acrimonious married life (shot on digital). It may not provide the warmest image of married life, but it boasts some truly remarkable performances by Gosling and Williams.
11. Copie Conforme (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
A woman (Juliette Binoche), who is traveling in Tuscany, attends a talk given by a British writer named James Miller (William Shimell). The two meet and travel to the countryside where their relationship becomes ambiguous. They begin to speak as though they are married and have known each other for years, but it is never clear if their marriage is real or imagined.
Kiarostami’s remarkable film is anchored by the ambiguity of reality and fantasy (which is reflected in the characters’ discussion about artistic reproductions). Binoche is superb, creating an emotionally complex portrait of a woman who is alienated from her “husband.” Whether their marriage is real or not is a different question, but Binoche hits those emotional beats and truly captures a portrait of an unhappy wife who is confronting the source of her unhappiness.
10. Antichrist (Dir. Lars von Trier, 2009)
“He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) deal with the death of their young son by retreating to a cabin named Eden. “She” is hysterical over the loss, while “He” tries to psychoanalyze her emotions and help her overcome her grief. The couple’s demeanor soon changes, and their sexual escapades turn into violent games of torture.
Antichrist is a psychosexual mind game of misogyny, psychology, and metaphysics. It is a grotesque film that looks at the cultural hatred of women and the compartmentalization of women’s emotional states (at the hands of men). “She” buys into this myth of feminine evil (“She” is researching gynocide for her thesis) and attacks the two men in her life (it is suggested that “She” witnessed the death of her child while having sex with “He”).
Both violent and lyrical, von Trier defined a new phase in his career by looking at a marriage through an extreme perspective of hysteria and violence.
9. A Woman Under the Influence (Dir. John Cassavetes, 1974)
Nick (Peter Falk) and Mabel (Gena Rowlands, in her Oscar-nominated role) have a peculiar marriage. When Mabel throws a disastrous party for her children, Nick and his mother (Katherine Cassavetes) intervene and have Mabel institutionalized. Nick questions his motives when he sees what the treatments have done to Mabel.
Rowlands shines in her depiction of a woman who loves too much/loves in peculiar ways. Though he becomes violent with her, Nick seems to be the only one who truly understands Mabel. Yet the reality of their situation and the interference of other people chip away at their marriage, forcing Mabel to conform to a “normal” lifestyle or be sent back to an institution. The ending reveals Nick is comfortable with Mabel’s eccentric behavior, and he forces her to regress back to her old ways.
8. The Brood (Dir. David Cronenberg, 1979)
Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) and his wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) are in a heated custody battle after Frank discovers bruises on their daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds). It is soon revealed that Nola is a patient undergoing psychoplasmic therapy, an aggressive form of psychotherapy in which the patient manifests their emotional states as tumors and growths on his/her body. Nola’s growths develop into cat-like creatures that will kill anyone Nola hates, and Frank must stop Nola before the creatures attack Candice.
Cronenberg’s semi-autobiographical story is one of his more personal films. It transforms Cronenberg’s own marriage into a story rife with body horror and violence. The person caught in crossfire of these traumatic episodes is Candice, whose emotional scars develop into growths on her body.