Of course, during the festive period, we are constantly being told that it is the time to be closest to ‘the ones you love’ and all that nonsense. This is of course referring partly to family, which is on the whole fair enough (but a separate issue), but also that supposed special someone in our lives. The subtext of this disgustingly saccharine marketing (they are usually trying to sell something don’t forget) is that, basically, anyone who is single is a massive loser. Or, maybe it is the other way around, as these ten films will certainly make clear.
Everyone likes to depict love as a positive thing, but many of us know that falling in love with the wrong person can bring misery not only on our own lives, but also on those close to us. Love can ultimately be the most repressive and destructive force that can eventually bring complete and utter misery. Well, as much as the cynical, money-grabbing producers of films want all films to have happy endings (no matter how unrealistic or contrived they may be), there are still films out there that are not afraid to show the more negative aspects of relationships.
Now, I am not referring to silly, mainstream, trashy nonsense like Fatal Attraction, Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. These films may have their merits, but were highly forgettable due to a genuine lack of substance. This is a list of films that are not afraid to ask the nastier and darker questions, and examine the equally nasty and dark side of the human psyche. The conclusion being that humans (no matter what their gender or sexual persuasion) are nasty, selfish and manipulative creatures that only use others to get what they want and are incapable of feelings of genuine love or selflessness.
The common theme of these films is that we should all therefore avoid getting too close to, or (God forbid) fall in love with, another human being. (Spoiler Alert) The theme of all of these films is not only the nastier characteristics of human nature, but also that we are all just better off avoiding the heartbreak and misery that relationships have to offer, and are all just better off on our own.
After watching these ten films, even the most hopeless romantic will want to shut themselves away from the world and think twice (and then some) before ever wanting to get emotionally or romantically involved with another human being, as doing such a naive thing can only bring extreme misery. So, maybe spending Christmas alone may not be such a bad thing!
Caveat alert; I am of course writing from the point of view of these films, and am not just saying that there is no such thing as a happy relationship. There are also spoilers mentioned.
Denmark certainly tends to produce some particularly miserable (but also very, very good) films, and Per Fly’s Inheritance is no exception. This engaging and often heart-breaking drama is about how we sometimes simply cannot avoid inheriting misery from our family and this prevents us from ever being able to have happy relationships with others, despite what wealth or material possessions we may own. This story of the steady collapse of a bourgeois couple’s marriage does however bear familiarity to those of any socio-economic background. The film is at its most heart-breaking at its end; after not seeing each other for two years, By sheer chance, Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) bumps into Maria (Lisa Werlinder). The undeniable love is still very much there between them, but after arranging to meet, Christoffer realises that he is doomed to the same miserable fate as his father, and so is forced to once again break Maria’s heart and stand her up. He watches Anna from afar as she leaves where they were supposed to meet, but he knows that he is best off alone for the rest of his life as it would just involve dragging people down with him.
Steve McQueen’s stunning drama is a very sobering and unflinching film that is not afraid to confront us with some home truths about our human needs and desires, and how these can often contradict one another, leading to us all often feeling deep loneliness and an inability to connect or be intimate with others. The story focusses on Michael Fassbender’s Brandon, a handsome, charming and very successful New-Yorker who has both an insatiable desire to be constantly sexually intimate with others, but at the same time a total inability to find any emotional or romantic connection with anyone. He is addicted to sex, but sees it as mechanical act and purely a need, and so when he gets very close to a co-worker and the two do inevitably get intimate, Brandon is unable to go through with something he is addicted to, as this time it would involve being more than just sex. Brandon’s relationship with his wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) also emphasises this, and she too struggles to connect with others, just for different reasons. Shame is not only a compelling drama, but one that shows us that there are many of us that are simply better off alone, and are far worse creatures than we appear initially to be on the surface.
8. We Don’t Live Here Anymore
As an actual overall story, John Curran’s film certainly may not be anything new; it is a drama that focusses on two married couples, Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) who are both deeply unhappy in their respective marriages and so inevitably Jack has an affair with Edith, while Hank (who frequently cheats on Edith) sleeps with Terry (albeit just the once) after the two of them learn about Jack and Edith’s affair. Though this may seem like a soap-operaesque plot, thanks to Curran’s direction and the tight, at times suffocating, camera work, the taught, observational script, and the excellent performances, this is a film that offers far more than that. We Don’t Live Here Anymore provides a brutally honest observation into how so many marriages are filled with deep unhappiness, as people often marry or stay together for the wrong reasons, and that marriage can sometimes feel like an inescapable death sentence for one, or indeed both parties involved.
7. The Shape of Things
Many years before Paul Rudd became the hilarious and engaging shrinking hero that is Ant-Man, he fell in love with Rachel Weiz and this love allowed her to manipulate him into becoming a completely different person (both physically and mentally) to suit her needs, for him to then discover that he was simply the unsuspecting subject of her University art project. Neil LaBute made many films that focussed on the battle of the sexes (let’s just all forget about The Wicker Man and the bees!), and The Shape of Things has a particularly cynical ideology when it comes to the flaws of both genders. Though Paul Rudd’s character is certainly not wrong when he describes Rachel Weiz’s character as a “heartless c**t”, her ‘project’ does allow the narrative to demonstrate these words could be applied to many people of both genders, and the film exposes the shallowness of human nature and how so many of us simply cannot be trusted, and have the potential to change only for the worst.
6. Blue Valentine
Derek Cianfrance’s drama about the breakdown of a marriage is heart-breaking and quite devastating viewing at times, and it is intentionally so and all the better for it. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams deliver exceptional performances as the couple whose marriage feels doomed to failure from the very start. However, despite the potential for melodrama, Cianfrance and his cast skilfully avoid this by having a script filled with lines of brutal and unflinching honesty, and also (and perhaps more crucially) many moments that are relatable and familiar to us all. Of course, like a vast majority of marriages, this one does not have a happy ending.
Yet another brutally honest dissection of how farcical and genuinely unpleasant relationships can be in the modern world. The particularly cynical and often quite nasty script from Patrick Marber (based on his own play), tells the story of the sexual merry-go-round of 4 characters living in 21st century London. Despite being a play, Mike Nichols’ visual eye and the great cast make sure that Closer does feel genuinely cinematic. Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen all excel in their relative roles as they lie, cheat on and use one another for their own sexual and emotional benefits, and all along the question is raised of what the hell is love or happiness, and do any of us know what it truly is and do we even want to experience these things. Based on the experiences of these four characters with the narrative; the answer would be a resounding no, thank you!
4. Your Friends & Neighbours
Neil LaBute again, and though the overall story of Your Friends & Neighbours sounds familiar on the surface, thanks to LaBute’s uncanny ability to truly go beneath the surface, it confronts us with just how nasty, conniving, self-centred and untrustworthy human beings really can be. Amy Brenneman, Aaron Eckhart, Catherine Keener, Natassja Kinski, Jason Patrick and Ben Stiller play the three couples/ friends who lie and cheat on one another, and it is their narcissistic nastiness and selfishness that often drives their actions. They of course only find themselves getting increasingly unhappy with both themselves and their respective other halves. As the story goes on, all characters at times intentionally go out of their way to humiliate the others and make sure that they drag everyone else down to be just as miserable with life as they are, and that is what can often happen when you become emotionally and romantically involved with another person.
Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a master of making films that examine the human condition and the great unhappiness, isolation and loneliness this can cause on both the individual and those in their lives. The main focus of Climates is the breakdown of a marriage, and pertinently it stars Ceylan and his wife Ebru Ceylan. Ceylan’s trademark style of long takes and static shots perfectly suits the tone of the film, as it impeccably captures all those long, uncomfortable and deeply awkward silences that so many couples experience as they both realise that they have very little in common and their relationship is doomed. The stunning visuals of the beautiful Turkish landscape throughout the seasons of the year only enhances the feelings of isolation and loneliness being in an unhappy relationship can bring.
2. Scenes from A Marriage
One director who was not afraid to bring us brutally and unashamedly honest stories about the deep flaws of the human condition was the legendary Ingmar Bergmann; Whether watched as the six-episode TV series or the 169-minute film, Scenes from a Marriage is undoubtedly a gripping and engaging drama, but also emotionally exhausting and at times uncomfortable viewing. This is a film that is not afraid to confront the audience with some brutally honest observations and questions about human nature and how this can lead to relationships that bring nothing other than utter misery. Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson are exceptional as Marianne and Johan, the couple whose marriage breaks down, while Bergman used his own personal experiences as the basis of the film. Even at the film’s end, twenty years after they divorced and are now remarried to other people, Marianne and Johan meet up for an affair and admit to one another that they will never be happy whether they together or apart, proving that unhappy relationships can prevent someone being happy long after that actual relationship in question has finished.
1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
38 years before he directed the screen adaptation of Closer, Mike Nichols directed this screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play; a brutal and at times darkly comic story of a middle-aged bourgeois married couple, George and Martha, whose seeming sole purpose in life is to destroy and humiliate each other. Pertinently, playing the couple were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whose marriage in real life was of course also famously turbulent, and this undoubtedly gives the venomous dialogue even more sting. This film is surely the ultimate advert for staying single as the lengths these two go to in their attempts to mentally destroy the other are so extreme. It is of course exaggerated for the sake of drama, but yet there is still very much an element of relatable, and very depressing, familiarity to what they say and do. It is often the case that couples like this try to drag other couples into their vile games, and George and Martha also do this to an idealistic and naive young couple called Nick and Honey. They are a couple that seemingly cannot separate and are almost addicted to one another, but like most addictions, it is only bad for both their physical and mental health, and most certainly a perfect advert for staying single.