While a happy ending is often seen as a pre-requisite for a love story, that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Tragedy is a strong spice and one that works well in many cinematic love potions. A touch of bitterness, misery, or bad luck is sometimes all it takes to turn even the most hardened cynics into hopeless romantics.
That touch of bad luck may be as simple as meeting the right person at the wrong time, as it is in Carol. Or, it may be as impactful and life-altering as losing everything, as it is in Atonement. No matter how large or small the scope of the tragedy, there is no denying that some of cinema’s best romances end in tears.
The following article contains spoilers for the films discussed.
1 ‘Atonement’ (2007)
When 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) falsely accuses her sister’s lover of a crime (James McAvoy), he is imprisoned and later forced to fight in WWII. A romance, a misunderstanding, and a lie: Atonement’s recipe for tragedy is simple yet poignant and devastating. Joe Wright’s film perfectly captures the atmosphere of its source material, the Ian McEwan novel of the same name.
A large amount of time passes between the beginning and end of Atonement, and viewers experience an onslaught of apprehensive joy and emotional ruin as they are led through this tragic love story by Briony herself, the story’s antagonist and unreliable narrator.
2 ‘Moonlight’ (2016)
Moonlight follows Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, Alex Hibbert, and Ashton Sanders) across three defining periods of his life as he struggles with a community impacted by drugs and his identity as a Black gay man. Moonlight is about the way love and sexuality intersect with and struggle against race, culture, and identity.
The Oscar-winning film delicately explores how masculinity, when entangled in race and socioeconomic factors, can shape someone so strongly they would rather live a lie than go against the status quo. Moonlight is sweet and earnest in its romance but ultimately tragic in its depiction of a life half-lived and the reality of love left unexplored.
3 ‘The Graduate’ (1967)
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is fresh out of college and comes face-to-face with the inertia and ennui of adult life when his recent graduation leaves him with nothing to look forward to and no idea what he wants to do. After being seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older family friend, Benjamin falls for her daughter and decides that a relationship with her is what he’s meant to pursue.
On its face, The Graduatehas a happy ending typical of many of the saccharine romantic comedies seen today. The sadness of the film comes from Benjamin’s realization that life is often mundane. Once he gets the girl and rides off into the sunset, the ennui sets in again. Much like he did when he graduated from college, Benjamin finds himself again asking, “what now?”
4 ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000)
When two neighbors find out their spouses are involved in an affair with each other, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) begin a friendship and try desperately to deny the feelings they are beginning to develop for each other, lest they become as treacherous as their own spouses.
Set in the stifling and crowded Hong Kong of the 1960s, In the Mood for Love is a film about denying what is real to uphold what is proper. In a bustling city where young professionals are forced to rent single rooms within the homes of their landlords, privacy is in short supply, and judging eyes are everywhere. Wong Kar-wai’s film is a bold and evocative mood piece that manages to be endlessly intimate and romantic, despite its characters trying to do just the opposite.
5 ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)
In the early ’60s, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet while herding sheep in Wyoming. The pair begin a relationship that they carry out in secret for years, hiding who they are from their wives and their community.
Brokeback Mountain explores the duality humans are forced to inhabit when they cannot live as they truly are. For Ennis and Jack, the pressures bearing down upon them are two-fold; not only do they live in an unaccepting time and place, but they are also part of a hyper-masculine community. As Wyoming cowboys, they are expected to be stoic, strong, and straight above all else.
6 ‘A Royal Affair’ (2012)
In 18th century Denmark, Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is unhappily married to the eccentric and mentally ill King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). When the Queen begins an affair with the King’s physician (Mads Mikkelsen), the pair begin to influence the King and ultimately push through a variety of liberal political reforms, essentially becoming the de facto rulers of Denmark. However, their romance and their covert political influence come at a great cost.
The tragedy of A Royal Affair as a film is compounded by the fact that the story is entirely true. While the end to the story isn’t a happy one, the notion that a scandalous affair among the royal ranks led to positive and measurable change for 18th century Denmark is what makes this film and the true story it’s based on so romantic.
7 ‘Blue Valentine’ (2010)
The beginning and end of a couple’s relationship are explored side-by-side in Derek Cianfrance‘s breakout film, Blue Valentine. Uninterested in theatrics, melodrama, and high-tragedy, Blue Valentine chooses to instead explore the mundane, everyday tragedies of love and life. The film is better and more devastating as a result.
There’s no life and death, no saboteurs, no third-act twists. There is just a couple whose love for one another has faded and whose energy to rekindle that love has run out. Featuring bitterly real performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine is not a romance for the faint of heart.
8 ‘Carol’ (2015)
A chance meeting at a New York department store in the 1950s brings together Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), who begin a secret relationship that changes each of them forever.
Todd Haynes‘ Carol is a delicate and slow film that mimics its characters’ apprehensive yearning with its deliberate pace and dreamy visuals. Set during the snowy Christmas season, Carol delivers an intoxicating feeling of promise and possibility. But this feeling is a double-edged sword. After all, the promise and possibility of love and acceptance can easily result in heartbreak.
9 ‘Happy Together’ (1997)
Wong Kar-wai’s Palm d’Or winning film Happy Together follows Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Fiu-fai (Tony Leung) as they navigate a turbulent and intense relationship. Set mostly in Buenos Aires, the film was subject to censorship in Hong Kong when it was released due to its portrayal of a same-sex relationship.
Considered an essential piece of LGBTQ+ cinema, Happy Together walked so that films like Brokeback Mountain could run. Despite being a risk at the time, the risk paid off, and as a result, Happy Together is mandatory viewing for any lover of nuanced and heartbreaking romance.
10 ‘The Age of Innocence’ (1993)
In 1870s New York, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a desirable match who is engaged to the beautiful May Welland (Winona Ryder). While Newland has love and adoration for May, these feelings can’t compare to those he develops for May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has returned to the city as an outsider after a divorce. Ellen and Newland strike up a secret romance, which both know can never last.
Martin Scorsese‘s The Age of Innocenceis a gripping and beautiful story of a man torn between his feelings and his duty. While he ultimately leads a fulfilling life, choosing to do right by his fiancée, he lives with a lingering desire to know what his life could have been had he followed his heart and had he been free of the constraints that bound him during the time he lived.
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