6 Cynical Movies About Romance

Blue Valentine1 6 Cynical Movies About Romance

Valentine’s Day brings with it a typical trotting out of those same romantic movies that many people love, which all adhere to a formula so specific that it was employed recently in a film simply called Valentine’s Day. While there are plenty of films that treat romance with some skill and grace, the majority of them stick to the rule of poorly portrayed women, impossibly charming men, and serendipitous circumstances that often feel false even to the biggest romance enthusiasts. And that’s all fine enough. Studios get paid and can stay afloat by knocking down some easy targets, those of us made vulnerable by the sentimentality of the season.

There are other movies that don’t come out around Valentine’s Day but maybe they should. I guess their biggest problem is that they’re usually good enough to be released in the summer or else late in the year during awards season. It’s possible they’re not actually good I guess, and just appeal to the pessimistic impulse in all of us. The way to test this would be to release them around Valentine’s and see how they play. I’m talking about the really cynical movies, the ones that instead of showing how fun and playful and cutesy romance can be, points to the fact that romance is illusory, like all things is impermanent and has an ending point, which is usually messy and/or devastating.

It’s almost a yin and yang relationship—the joy of romance can’t exist without the sorrow of loss, and so maybe these types of pessimistic movies are necessary to make us truly appreciate the optimistic ones. Louis CK has a bit about how every relationship ultimately is depressing: best case scenario is that you spend your lives together, and then they die, leaving you alone. The best we have to hope for is losing our best friend. What a prospect! Here are 6 movies to provide a cynical balance to the happy romance movies celebrated in this lovely Valentine’s season.

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1) Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz2 6 Cynical Movies About Romance

I’ve probably said this too many times, but Sarah Polley is one of the great underappreciated directors making movies today. Perhaps it’s my Canadian bias, but I find her handling of love stories to be of a very unique style, capturing both aspects of the excitement of new feelings and the heartbreak of the inevitable end of all relationships. She seems convinced—and if you see Stories We Tell, her documentary from this past year, maybe it’s clear why she thinks this way—that all romantic relationships are essentially sad, that despite how it appears at the outset, all romance is actually tragedy. This is kind of the idea of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s an idea that movies don’t express very often, and maybe they’re not particularly well suited to.

Take This Waltz is just a marvellous little film about the way relationships can and often do end: unceremoniously, untidily, unfortunately, unavoidably. Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen are pretty fantastic in their portrayal of a romance that is over for one of them before the other even realizes it. Williams especially does some incredible work as Margot, who seems far younger than Williams usually plays, or perhaps is only meant to seem naive. Her disillusionment with the fresh faced suitor she picks up with is the kicker here, revealing the certain level dissatisfaction that accompanies every relationship. It’s a romance that ends in the tragedy of finding out your perceived “special connection” is just like anything else.

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2) 500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer 6 Cynical Movies About Romance

This may seem like an unusual choice to list among cynical romance movies. It tends to be listed among the most romantic movies of the past few years. And this is appropriate, but maybe not in the way most people seem to think. For those of us who think romance is heavily steeped in BS (not always in a bad way), 500 Days of Summer is so, so brilliant for its ability to expose the amount of delusion that goes along with romantic interest in another person. It’s done with more subtlety than people realize or give it credit here, though. The clearest moment is the famous split-screen scene depicting “Expectations” and “Reality,” and how little they aligned for the Joseph Gordon-Levitt character.

It’s from there that we begin to realize the highly subjective perspective we’ve been watching from is Tom’s (if the dance number didn’t give it away), and the big reveal that’s done almost indistinguishably at the end is that he has basically sugar-coated their entire relationship, seen it through the prism of his own rose-colored viewpoint and at the movie’s end we see those glasses come off.

Summer was always sort of cold and indifferent towards him. The romance was never what he thought it was. And so while we’ve witnessed so many sweet little moments between the two of them, it’s unclear how many of them actually happened, or were as sweet as Tom thought. The lesson that romance is largely delusional is pretty cynical, but at least when Tom meets Autumn the movie ends on a slightly hopeful note. Or maybe it’s that he’s still hopelessly deluded.

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3) Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine 6 Cynical Movies About Romance

So this is one of the most devastatingly sad movies I’ve ever seen. It’s not to be watched if you’re looking for something light, to harbor good feelings. It’s downright depressing. But that’s just because it’s more brutally honest than most films allow themselves to be when it comes to romance, and the fallout that so commonly occurs but is seldom represented this candidly on screen.

It’s a tough bit of cinema to capture in words, but there’s something about the way this movie represents just the progression of the dynamics of a relationship that seems to capture so much truth to it. Michelle Williams, yeah her again, is incredible. Her character is sort of an emotional wreck, and doesn’t exactly get a lot of support from her partner played by Ryan Gosling. They’re doomed from the beginning, drawn to one another for mysterious reasons but incapable of communicating with each other in a meaningful way, leading to inevitable tensions and distance and sadness. They speak different love languages, it would seem. Gary Chapman would recognize this from the start. The other tragedy of stories like these is that long after the romance is gone, the relationship is drawn out longer and longer, stretch so far that it has to reach a breaking point. God, this is some bleak stuff. But devastatingly true.

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4) Closer

Closer 6 Cynical Movies About Romance

2004 was a formative year for me as a movie fan, and much of this was due to the movie Closer. This is a sharp, smooth, sleek sort of film that features four fairly awful people falling in and out of love with one another. The dialogue is shocking at times and has a flow that feels like it comes from a theater play, which it does. It’s incredibly smart, and smartly made, each scene building in intensity carried by the stellar cast.

Ultimately it seems to be about the lies we tell ourselves and one another in matters of romance. There are three characters that seem to operate exclusively in lies, only using truth when it is most hurtful to their partner. Then there’s one character that is honest, but really only honest about how much she lies. It’s fascinating, brutal, and hugely pessimistic about the way relationships are conducted by most people who seem to have everything put together.

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5) Away From Her

Away From Her 6 Cynical Movies About Romance

So you know how The Notebook has this following that hails it as the greatest movie of all time? Yeah, I don’t really care much for it. That may come as a shock. However, what I did find incredibly compelling about it was the story featuring the elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer’s which served as the premise for the romance story between the Gosling/McAdams characters. I thought that if the whole movie had been about those two adorable old folks that I would have really enjoyed it, or found it tragically interesting. Then I saw Away From Her and had these wishes granted.

It’s the debut from director Sarah Polley, who, if you haven’t heard of her before, is pretty awesome at making movies. If we accept her premise that all romance is actually tragedy, then this is one of those cases, described by Louis CK, wherein we have a best case romantic scenario. Two people were able to find each other and come together in love and marriage, live many happy years together, and then what do they gain from all this good fortune? Heartbreak. Gordon Pinsent has to deal with the loss of his partner played by Julie Christie, not in death at this point but in a tragic disease that has robbed her of the person she once was, and the life they once had together. Makes you think maybe there really is no such thing as happily ever after.

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6) Annie Hall

Annie Hall1 6 Cynical Movies About Romance

Woody Allen’s first major success as a director is centered upon one fundamental question: if romance and relationships are so awful, why do we continue to enter into them? The very premise of this is cynical, but that should be no surprise coming from Allen, someone fairly obsessed with death and sadness, although somehow he managers to mine pretty amazing and hilarious comedy out of this cynicism. He answers this big life question in the way he seems to like to handle most of these types of issues, with a joke. The punchline, “Because we need the eggs,” is as close to the sad truth as we’re able to get, perhaps, because it’s a non-answer. If all relationships are doomed, all romance is based on falseness and delusion, and the best case scenario is tragedy, why bother with love at all? Annie Hall responds to this with: because we can’t help ourselves.

Allen’s an existentialist, and for many of us that’s the most appropriate response to romance. We know it’s stupid, but it’s also terrific. It’s great to enter into romantic relationships so long as we know they’re ultimately meaningless and will end in sadness in one way or another. This is a cynical take on love but there’s a certain amount of truth to it that’s undeniable. We can despair over the impermanence of romance or we can revel in it, but denying it is pure folly. Knowing the meaningless of our existence is the only way to give it meaning.

Happy Valentine’s Day folks!

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  • Randal Thomas Richardson

    Another great addition to the list would be Nicolas Roegs Bad Timing. Now that’s a bleak romance story that has to deal with distrust, obsession, and voyeourisim. Also, Ingmar Bergman’s A passion