It’s Valentine’s Day weekend: What should you and your partner watch? Maybe When Harry Met Sally or The Philadelphia Story or Palm Springs? It’s natural at moments like this to gravitate to movies where love conquers all because it reminds us what an amazing feeling it is to be with someone you adore. But sometimes, romance doesn’t work out — it’s painful and it’s hard, and it just drives you crazy and leaves you bitter and angry. Sometimes, you’re in one of those relationships where you don’t know if you’re more miserable being together or apart. When Harry Met Sally isn’t much help then.
That’s where this list comes in. I’ve compiled what I’m calling Bad Love movies because their focus is on couples in peril. Maybe they fight too much. Maybe they’re too immature. Maybe the people in the relationship can’t commit to one another. Or maybe one of them is completely toxic and the other person doesn’t realize it.
Whatever the reason, I find these movies fascinating for what they say about love. What do films featuring troubled couples have to teach us? Well, that people bring their flaws into a relationship — and that even all the love in the world sometimes isn’t enough to overcome those personal deficiencies. If you’re hoping a soulmate will cure you of your faults, these 10 movies have some bad news for you. But look on the bright side: No matter how bad your past relationships were, they probably weren’t as terrible as what happens in some of these films.
When Edward Albee’s blistering play premiered in the early 1960s, people were scandalized by the characters’ cruelty and bad language. “What people confuse as being obscenity or profanity in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nothing other than brutal honesty,” the writer later said. “And brutal honesty still shocks.” The play, adapted into an Oscar-winning film, remains ground zero for Bad Love fiction, depicting a merciless middle-aged couple, Martha and George (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), hell-bent on destroying each other over the course of an evening — roping in a younger, far-less-poisonous couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) to serve as witnesses and accessories.
Director Mike Nichols fought to keep Albee’s obscenity and profanity in the script, which was crucial in expressing the degree of Martha and George’s viciousness. Virginia Woolf may be an exaggerated examination of the pent-up hostilities that can eat away at love, but it remains such a scabrous, funny work that it articulates something true about the darkest thoughts you harbor about your significant other — and they toward you.
“The best way I can describe it is that when you’re in love, you completely lose your sense of humor.” That’s how writer-director-star Albert Brooks viewed Modern Romance, an anti-romantic comedy in which his character decides to call it quits with his long-term girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) because he’s not sure that they’re meant to be together.
The rest of the movie consists of him finding out how bad he is at navigating the dating world — especially because he spends most of the time pining for his ex, who he doesn’t want to find someone new. A portrait of chronic dissatisfaction — even when they get back together before the credits, there’s no guarantee of a happy ending — Modern Romance demonstrated that Brooks hadn’t lost his sense of humor one lick, presenting us with an egotist looking for true love who may not be deserving of love himself.
For decades, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman were the exception that proves the rule: a long-married Hollywood couple who actually seemed happy in their relationship. They’re separated now, although they’re still close, but in the late 1980s, DeVito explored the ugly side of marriage with this acidic adaptation of Warren Adler’s brutal novel, which follows Oliver and Barbara Rose (Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner), a well-off couple who go to war with one another when she decides she wants a divorce.
“I thought War of the Roses was just the greatest, darkest, sickest [story],” DeVito said in 2012. “They’re at each other’s throats.” Both a parable for 1980s greed and a really funny comedy about love gone bad, the movie pointedly illustrated how divorce is a battleground in which both parties want to defeat the other in order to prove they “won.” (It’s a lot easier than processing your fragile emotions.) In some Bad Love films, you find yourself picking a side, or feeling bad for both people. With The War of the Roses, you’re very happy to watch both of these wretched souls get what’s coming to them.
It’s impossible to separate Woody Allen’s bleak portrait of marriage with the real-life incidents surrounding its release: The filmmaker and his longtime partner Mia Farrow were splitting up, their break instigated by the actress discovering nude pictures of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in his home, which was her first indication that the two were dating.
“When I finished the script for Husbands and Wives it was strictly an act of imagination,” Allen later said. “I finished the script long before anything happened that you read in the newspapers. It had nothing to do with that.” Few who went to the film believed that, viewing this chronicle of two unhappy couples — one getting divorced (Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack) and one in trouble (Allen and Farrow) — as a candid emotional excavation of Allen’s own pessimism about marriage.
The accusations and scandals that followed have forced Allen’s fans to reconsider him and his work, but Husbands and Wives remains a scathing commentary on our need for love and our inability to not blow it. In Allen’s world, contentment breeds contempt as the characters keep chasing for some ephemeral happiness that they’ll never find. That he manages to wring any laughs from that premise is somewhat miraculous.
Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance introduced himself to the world with this brutally raw examination of a marriage falling apart, depicting the couple (Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams) in their miserable present while also flashing back to happier times when they were first falling in love. “I was just struck by the questions it posed: What happens to love? Why do these things fade? How can two people who have such deep affection for each other end up wanting to kill the other person?” Gosling said at the time. “I always viewed it as a murder mystery, in which you are essentially sifting through clues and retracing the steps to find who killed this relationship.”
Incredibly fair to both partners, Blue Valentine suggests that, sometimes, a loving couple simply can’t make things work — bad luck and circumstance conspire against them. You can’t blame either character for what goes wrong, but when Blue Valentine ends, you know it’s probably for the best that they go their separate ways.
“I really wanted to make a film that felt intimate to the point that it’s so intimate, it doesn’t belong to the audience,” director and co-writer Drake Doremus explained about his approach to his prize-winning Sundance drama. “I wanted them to feel uncomfortable about what they’re watching.” Like Crazy chronicles the whirlwind love affair between an American, Jacob (Anton Yelchin), and a Brit, Anna (Felicity Jones), who’s attending school in L.A. They’re nuts about one another, but once she has to go back home because her student visa lapsed, it puts strain on their tempestuous relationship.
Inspired by a long-distance romance Doremus went through, this improvisational film does an excellent job of depicting the kind of couple that’s so impetuous and crazy in love that you’re waiting for them to implode at any moment. This was early in both Yelchin and Jones’ career, and their fresh-faced openness is perfect for characters drunk on love but lacking in maturity to know how to navigate the challenges physical distance will create. (Yelchin’s tragic death in 2016 only adds to the film’s poignancy.) Half the time, Jacob and Anna aren’t sure if they want to kill each other or rip each other’s clothes off. If you haven’t been in their position in your life, consider yourself lucky.
As this list demonstrates, because Hollywood has long focused on heterosexual relationships, Bad Love movies tend to be of the boy/girl variety. But Ira Sachs’ semi-autobiographical study is a notable exception, charting the ups and downs of a love affair between a drug-addicted, closeted lawyer (Zachary Booth) and an insecure filmmaker (Thure Lindhardt).
Keep the Lights On doesn’t simply look at the challenges of commitment but also addresses HIV, the fear of coming out and chemical dependency — issues that are rarely addressed in romantic dramas. Sachs’ films (Married Life, Love Is Strange) often deal with relationships, but this one is especially pointed and resonant. Just ask the people who have seen it.
“After a screening, if we speak for more than 10 minutes, [the audience] usually starts telling me about their relationships and their marriages and divorces and their hook-ups and their questions about monogamy or their drug use,” Sachs said when Keep the Lights On was released. “People reveal themselves in the wake of seeing this film. That’s because they connect to it.”
David Fincher’s adaptation of the hit Gilian Flynn novel is a twisty thriller that, at its heart, is about the fact that nobody really knows anybody — including the person you’re married to. “There’s an incredibly narcissistic function of ‘I feel I deserve this kind of person at my side and as long as you’re willing to do the work to appear like that, yeah, let’s do it,’” Fincher said at the time about Gone Girl. “And five years down the line it’s like, ‘Why are we so resentful of each other just ‘cause we can’t keep it up?’”
Indeed, the film is all about the falseness of appearances: Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) seem to have the perfect life, but once she goes missing, the investigation reveals just how rotten to the core their marriage really was. Shifting perspectives as well as sympathies, Gone Girl is a whodunit that’s less interested in what happened to Amy as it is in what happened to Nick and Amy, meticulously detailing how storybook romances go sour. Next time you envy that “amazing” couple in your life, remember: There’s a lot of darkness going on behind those pretty smiles.
Passengers could have been an incisive look at domineering men who try to control the object of their affection. Set in the future on a spaceship heading to a distant planet, the movie stars Chris Pratt as Jim, an engineer who’s been accidentally awoken decades before any of the hibernating passengers were supposed to be. Coping with the extreme isolation, he falls in love with Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer whose video profile suggests that she’s a warm, wonderful person. And so Jim does the unthinkable, reviving her and then lying that it was some sort of mechanical error, hoping that he can eventually get her to feel for him the way he feels for her. But rather than being a dark portrait of a master manipulator, Passengers loses its nerve, essentially having Jim ultimately prove himself to be a worthy mate for this poor woman who’s been sentenced to a lifetime with a selfish clod.
Lawrence later owned up to the fact that the film didn’t work. “I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t spot it,” she said soon after Passengers’ release. “I thought the script was beautiful — it was this tainted, complicated love story. It definitely wasn’t a failure. I’m not embarrassed by it by any means. There was just stuff that I wished I’d looked into deeper before jumping on.” By accident, she helped create a unique Bad Love film, one that shies away from the complexities of the better movie it could have been.
As everyone who’s seen this Oscar-winner has noted, Divorce Story would have been a more fitting title, since it follows Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they go through the process of finalizing their marriage — with the sticking point being the custody of the son they both love.
Although not strictly autobiographical, Marriage Story was personal for writer-director Noah Baumbach, who years earlier had depicted the end of a marriage from a teenager’s perspective in The Squid and the Whale. “Because I’ve gone through a divorce and also been through it as a child, there are things from my experience that of course I could draw from,” Baumbach said in 2019. “But it also gave me a real opportunity to talk to friends of mine. I mean, so many people have gone through this experience, and it’s not spoken about a lot.”
The mixture of anger and love coursing through the film — sometimes in the same scene — speaks honestly to the difficult experience of cutting ties with someone. Neither Charlie nor Nicole is a bad person — they’ve just grown apart — and Marriage Story grieves for their marriage but understands why it has to end. The film serves as a warning for all of us: Even if you’re happy in your relationship now, you never know what’s coming. Happy Valentine’s Day!