It's almost Valentine's Day and everyone's in the mood for love. The way I look at it, though, is that for as long as writers have written about love, they’ve also written about the dissolution and often tragic end of love. Audiences love the notion of a love so strong, it’s just doomed to end badly. Heck, Leonardo DiCaprio has seemingly made a career out of this brand of cinematic love (Titanic, The Great Gatsby, Romeo + Juliet, Revolutionary Road). While there are tons of classic love stories doomed to end badly (Casablanca being the most notable & perhaps my personal favorite), today I’m looking at some more recent examples (within the last 20 years) of couples that made us believe in the power of love again, only to crush our spirits in the end.
Caution, spoilers ahead…
5. Celine & Jesse, The Before Trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013, dir. Richard Linklater)
Long before people were singing the praises of Richard Linklater’s forward thinking character study Boyhood, Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke created perhaps the definitive chronicle of a doomed relationship. When we first meet Jesse and Celine in 1995’s Before Sunrise, they’re in the throes of a flirty relationship that’s suffused with a palpable sense of hormonal lust. Nine years later, they delivered the more mature and stately Before Sunset, which revealed that they hadn’t seen each other six months later as promised at the end of the first film. Life got in the way, and the feeling that these two characters are going to perpetually let life get in the way adds to the storm clouds on the horizon, but the film ends much more optimistically. Had you asked me back in 2004, I might not have said that these two were doomed, despite their obvious incompatibilities. It would be another nine years before they would officially confirm that Celine & Jesse are indeed doomed, whether they stay together at the end of Before Midnight or not, there’s always going to be an impending air of failure hanging over their relationship.
4. Theodore & Samantha, Her (2013, dir. Spike Jonze)
The most unconventional couple on this list is probably the most unconventional romance in modern cinema. Spike Jonze’s Her is a masterpiece of how human connections break down as a result of technology proposed to bring us together. Newly single Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t ready to move on to another relationship, but he gets more than he bargained for thanks to his new operating system, Samantha, wonderfully voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Thanks to advanced technology designed to cater especially to his every need, Theodore gets in Samantha the understanding and connected partner his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) could never be for him. The heartbreak comes when the audience comes to the realization that this relationship just isn’t meant to last, but we weep with joy because we know that Theodore has learned how to open himself up and fall in love again, something we never thought possible when we first met him. While their relationship is doomed almost from minute one, Jonze was smart to let us get caught up in the excitement of their relationship. It’s what makes revisiting the film such a joy, despite the heartbreak we know is sure to follow.
3. Ennis & Jack, Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee)
One of the more controversial films of the last ten years, Brokeback Mountain was a heartbreaking story about falling in love and then being forced to bury those feelings in order to survive. Ennis (Heath Ledger) & Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) spend a summer in their early 20s herding cattle on the side of the titular mountain, and discover a love they never knew they were capable of. Though both would go on to “normal” relationships with women (Michelle Williams & Anne Hathaway respectively), they would reunite annually to resume their doomed love affair. On their last week together, Ennis pushes Jack away, saying that they can never be together, and that proves true as soon after that, Jack is murdered. The film ends with Ennis still carrying the torch for his one true love, and Heath Ledger’s scene at Jack’s home where he finds the shirt Jack was wearing when they first met is one of the purest and most heart-wrenching depictions of love lost ever put on film.
2. Dean & Cindy, Blue Valentine (2010, dir. Derek Cianfrance)
One of the most innovative things about director Derek Cianfrance’s film Blue Valentine is that it simultaneously shows us Dean (Baby Goose) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) falling in and out of love. The film is an interwoven tapestry of scenes from the beginning and end of their relationship, and it makes their hopeless love affair all the more tragic. Climaxing in a scene that intercuts their marriage with their final fight before they break-up for good, the film is brutally honest about love in an achingly real way. It brilliantly builds your love for these characters just in time for you to realize that there’s no way they’re ever going to work things out, and that’s part of the film’s genius. It’s designed specifically to break your heart.
1. Joel & Clementine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, dir. Michel Gondry)
It’s virtually impossible for me to be objective about a film whose main female character inspired my oldest daughter's name, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my favorite love story ever put on film. Joel (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine (Kate Winslet) on a trip to Montauk, NY one Valentine’s Day. After a brief, pre-titles courtship, we’re re-introduced to Joel, about to go through a procedure to have Clementine erased from his memory. The sheer brilliance of the film is that they work in reverse chronological order, so we see the bad stuff about their relationship first, but when it gets to the good stuff, Joel suddenly decides he no longer wants his memories of her erased and attempts to hide her in memories in which she doesn’t belong. Watching these two characters attempt to cling to the idealized versions of one another is a thing of true beauty, and though the film ends on a somewhat optimistic note, we know that they’re ultimately doomed to repeat the same mistakes since they took pains to erase any potential lessons learned. It’s disheartening, pessimistic, and yet somehow beautiful and hopeful all at the same time. Even if they are condemned to repeat their relationship over and over again until the end of their lives, in the end, they’ll still be able to love one another all over again, which is a true testament to the power of love.