The Rules for Relationshit Movies

By  · Published on March 26th, 2014

Music Box Films

Roger Michell’s Le Week-End is a far darker and less conventional film than its twee, Notting Hill name-dropping advertisements suggest. Its depiction of a bickering older couple stuck together on a perfunctory second honeymoon is hardly another indie grab for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel crowd to once again sightsee vicariously through British screen veterans. Rather, the couple’s failure to connect is presented as an existential crisis borne by their inability to overcome one another’s revisited insecurities and tics. Their disconnection is a reluctantly accepted marker of dwindling self worth in the face of a life run embarrassingly short of its rich potential.

Jim Broadbent’s Nick at one point dances alone to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” around the lavish Parisian suite he can’t afford, earbud cords bopping atop his undershirt while he sips on minibar whiskey. Abruptly, he stops. A former ’60s radical, Nick has seen his dreams of revolution give way to practical compromise (including, apparently, marriage itself), professional disappointment, and aging out of hipness, until the very sounds of social change fit neatly into a library of songs for a portable Apple product. Le Week-End never fully paints a scope of the couple’s past, but instead lets their history emerge as infectious burdens upon the present.

A glut of other indies have similarly tackled the topic of longterm relationship difficulties, offering depictions of complex couplehoods that serve as a corrective Hollywood’s convention of seeing marriage as love’s definitive triumph over conflict. While many of these “relationshit movies,” like Le Week End, provide enlightening alternatives to Hollywood romance, their repeated exceptions to rom-com formulas have inadvertently created a recycled formula of their own.

Relationshit movies, with their skepticism of happy or conclusive finales, are films typically made outside of Hollywood that examine the dynamics of relationship difficulties and dissolutions. They don’t always end with the couple breaking up, but they do avoid any investments in a love happy ever after. Instead, relationshit movies aspire to examine the difficult work of sustaining a long-term commitment, often giving microscopic attention to the ways that a couple miscommunicates. Such films can range from heart-wrenching drama (Blue Valentine) to hipster serio-comedy (Save the Date). They almost always portray white, monogamous, heterosexual couples, and frequently (but not always) depict their central characters enduring their trials of couplehood over a short time period in a picaresque location, be a trendy urban homestead or a luxurious vacation spot.

The poster figure for the indie relationshit movie is undoubtedly Julie Delpy, whose directorial output includes two madcap fish-out-of-water comedies that see a couple’s unfolding over extended weekend vacations: 2 Days in Paris and its sequel, 2 Days in New York. That these films are connected not by a revisited couple, but by the return of Delpy’s character Marion, illustrates a central principle of the relationshit formula: a decisively unromantic approach to romantic coupling.

In the first film, Marion travels with her boyfriend Jack (Adam Goldberg) to her home city of Paris in an attempt to reconnect, but that plan unravels as Jack becomes increasingly flustered by the onslaught of past lovers (and stories, and sexual innuendos) that he encounters, resulting in the couple’s eventual – and seemingly inevitable – breakup (remember, this is a comedy). Five years and one sequel later, nary a mention of Jack is made in Delpy’s portrayal of Marion’s cohabitation with Mingus (a magnetically downplayed Chris Rock) while her family – now reduced to a cavalcade of ugly French stereotypes – invades Marion’s seemingly happy homestead, with a former lover inexplicably in tow, thus threatening yet another present-tense relationship.

Delpy’s 2 Days films, while exponentially less delicate, are passively entertaining romps that allow the undoubtedly talented Deply – an actress so often fetishized as a fantasy destination for any Ethan Hawke-emulating American twentysomething vacationer to Western Europe – to self-caricature her way through the ebbs and flows of troubled romance. These films also pointedly demonstrate the repeated tropes of the relationshit scenario: the unearthing of the past, the introduction of a supporting character from that past used as a figure of projected jealousy, and the film’s use of both of these circumstances in order to amp up conflict between the couple to a fever pitch.

It’s little wonder, then, that once Delpy returned to the immortal character Celine for a third time with last year’s Before Midnight, both she and the film imbued aspects of the relationshit drama potently present in the 2 Days films but heretofore absent in Richard Linklater’s Before series.

With Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, we saw the entirety of Celine and Jesse’s in-person interactions within their initial 9-year span. But the third film summarizes an entire history that we have to catch up on, one that finds Jesse and Celine now many years, two kids, and one divorce into a commitment. The first two films depict the types of connections and conversations that only seem to occur when at least one person involved in the interaction is away from home. Before Midnight, by contrast, stages one particularly tumultuous night of a trying but rewarding but really difficult but truly rich years-long correspondence.

Relieved from a ticking clock that suspends their ability to connect, Before Sunrise replaces general ruminations on life and love with the cold, discomfiting realities of less idealistic life circumstances and the reopening of wounds not yet healed. Before Midnight alienated some fans of the series by pouring a bucket of cold water on the real-time unfolding of romantic connection that occurred before. By doing so, the film arguably betrays its own conceit: rather than revisit a connection alongside a couple after nine years, the series’ audience instead now only sees a glimpse into a much larger life together. And as Le Week End shows, you don’t need to actually see a couple’s past in order to understand it. Through the unearthing of old demons, the couple makes the past – and all its distracting bogeymen and poignant tensions – present to the point of being a standalone film.

But don’t mistake Before Midnight’s change in tone and direction for cynicism. Rather than depict one incredible night or day in Jesse and Celine’s life, Before Midnight follows the relationshit trope of focusing on one day amongst years of days – this particular day might be a turning point or a fitting summation of a roller coaster of a relationship, but as a day together it is altogether ordinary. Just like the one before it.

And by depicting ordinary battles in place of extraordinary and inciting connections, relationshit films – for their potential cadre of clichés – refuse to posit coupling as an endpoint on the linear timeline of a Hollywood formula, and instead see couplehood as a cycle whose moving parts extend well beyond the limited scope of cinematic storytelling and whatever sunset we’re poised to walk toward.