Hollywood movies

A film fan’s thoughts on doomed romances onscreen, from ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Call Me By Your Name’

Dana Villano

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A film fan’s thoughts on doomed romances onscreen, from ‘Past Lives’ to ‘Call Me By Your Name’
‘La La Land,’ ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ ‘Past Lives’ – let’s turn to the movies to tell us what to do when it’s really just not meant to be

If you’re one of the many who had their hearts shattered by Celine Song’s brilliant Past Lives, then you probably understand better than most the appeal of watching heartbreak portrayed on the big screen. In as much as films are able to encapsulate the beauty of falling in love, more and more than ever, we’re also getting equally raw and honest depictions of love tried for that still falls short. 

For all of the emotional masochism these movies subject us to, why exactly do we still love the “doomed romance” film and TV show, and what are some of the lessons they can teach us about our own heartaches? 

A love meant to last

What’s particularly interesting about these pieces of media is that they never shy away from fully fleshing out our central couple, both when they’re together and apart. In fact, sometimes they can even devote the entire duration of the film (or multiple seasons, for TV shows) to fully painting a picture of the story of our central couple. 

Often using seasonal imagery to portray the passage of time – think La La Land’s or 500 Days of Summer’s transition through the seasons all the way from spring to winter – these pieces of media are dedicated to playing out all of our couple’s ups and downs in real time and taking us along for the ride. In the TV series Starstruck (2021) by Kiwi comedian Rose Matafeo, three long seasons are spent just setting the stage for Jessie, an everyday woman living in London, and Tom, an international movie superstar, to meet and fall in love. 

It’s through this that we as the viewers come to really root for these characters; because we’re so invested, that’s what makes their onscreen relationship – and its eventual demise – so deeply personal to us. After all, it’s probably safe to assume that very few of our real-life relationships have ever worked out the way they do in the movies. (What do you mean you’ve never been chased by the love of your life through an airport?)

Cinematic romances can often be distilled into a highlights reel – meet-cute, honeymoon phase, third-act breakup, and resolution where they get back together, share a sweet kiss, and all is right again with the world.

But relationships out in the real world take time. People often devote years of their lives to be with someone. So it’s those high stakes that are precisely what makes relationships – and yes, even their ending – so difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn one’s eyes away from onscreen.

The beginning of the end

No matter how their love story starts, though, at some point in the film, the audience (along with the characters) will inevitably start seeing the chinks in their relationship’s armor. All the little signs that this movie may not perhaps end as we expect it to, after all, start to add up until they become too big to ignore. 

Sometimes the audience is let in on the secret as early as the first sentence (“This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story,” goes the opening line in 500 Days of Summer). The signs of the disintegration of a cinematic relationship are always there if you really look for them – perhaps it’s the fact that they talk over one another all the time, or that one’s family doesn’t approve of the other, or simply that one is deathly allergic to the other’s beloved Persian cat. 

In any case, it’s never a surprise that the very things that drew these people to one another to begin with become their own undoing in the end. 

In the 2018 remake A Star is Born starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, Cooper’s Jack Maine’s fierce struggles with alcohol and drugs is strongly alluded to as early as the first act of the film. Even as Jack and Ally (Gaga)’s relationship progresses over the course of two hours, it’s Jack’s struggle with sobriety that makes the heartwrenching way the film ends, although perhaps not surprising, a fatal blow to the heart. 

Other times, however, we’re kept in suspense, with the fate of the relationship carried on the shoulders of our protagonist until the very final act. The 1953 classic Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn is possibly one of the best examples of the subverted rom-com ending. Here, we get a full two-minute sequence of Joe (played by Peck) lingering where Princess Ann (Hepburn) has departed, as all of his other fellow journalists make their way outside.

For a long time, he just stares at the door from which Princess Ann has made her exit. Finally, slowly, he turns around, walking step by step, further and further away, hands in his pockets all the while. The final shot lingers on Peck,  staying on his face – surely, we think, he will stop walking and turn around, or Princess Ann will come back out and call out to him, saying “Wait, come back!” But that moment never comes. 

It’s the resoluteness with which the end is executed that arguably makes the movie impactful, shaking us out of our rom-com-fueled reverie and bringing us back down to earth. 

After the fairytale

Once the dust has settled and we’re left to deal with the aftermath, it’s movies and TV shows like these that give us a chance to lick our wounds in the privacy of our own homes – and in doing so, perhaps even reassure us of all the reasons why a relationship might have needed to end, after all. 

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) does a wonderful job of portraying how a couple who cared deeply for one another could still end up separated. Ryan Gosling as Sebastian and Emma Stone as Mia play out an entire alternate ending, both of them fantasizing about what their life could have been if only they had stayed together. In the end, there is really no satisfactory explanation as to why their relationship was the price they had to pay to achieve success – it just is. 

In the emotional conclusion to Starstruck, Jessie and Tom finally get the chance to see one another again after they’ve broken up but still remain entangled with one another, all while they have their respective new lovers. The two find themselves in a small chapel together and sit there imagining what their wedding would have looked like.

They reenact every detail, with Jessie going down the aisle in a light jog since she didn’t want to walk down the aisle, and Vin Diesel as the wedding celebrant asking Tom if he took Jessie to be his lawfully wedded wife. And as they sit together in front of the altar, looking at each other with love in their eyes, in a soft voice, Jessie goes on to say: “And I’d say…I think you’re doing this with the wrong person…. And that we’ve always wanted different things, and it’s not going to change. And even though we loved each other so much, I think we’re pretty stupid to think it can’t happen with someone else. Because it has, hasn’t it?”

There’s no riding off into the sunset for these characters, but maybe, these movies tell us that’s still okay.

Why we still love the ‘doomed romance’

While “doomed romance” media may seem like the equivalent of willingly subjecting one’s self to emotional damage, watching movies like these on the big screen can bring catharsis to its viewers, especially given how often real-life relationships end in circumstances that may not always be the easiest to understand or accept. 

Watching the final scene of Call Me by Your Name and seeing Timothée Chalamet stare into the fireplace as he quietly contemplates his lost love with tears in his eyes for five full minutes may be as close as some of us get to ever acknowledging our own long-lost loves in our lives. Watching Hae Sung and Nora Moon in Past Lives say goodbye to one another with wordless stares and meaningful glances for what we know for certain will be the last time may be the only way we, too, can ever hope to say the same to our own past loves. 

Heartbreak movies and shows like these are sometimes the only things that give us the closure we so desperately need. They allow us to vicariously reach back in time to see in the characters reflected on our screens the people who at one point in our lives meant the world to us, and maybe for the first time ever, tell them goodbye. – Rappler.com

Dana Villano is a Rappler intern.

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