The feeling after a breakup is awful; it can seem like the end of the world. It is a universal feeling, one that almost everyone has experienced at one time or another. Nothing seems to help, just time.
And during this time of pain, we go out of our way to punish ourselves: We don’t listen to happy, joyful music; we seek out the most depressing Morrissey tune possible and torture ourselves all night. It is the same with film. In times of emotional unrest, we watch films about breakups, rejection and self-torment.
We are drawn to them like moths to a burning candle. This sorry state of affairs probably stems from a need to relate. Family and friends don’t help, but a film that tears at the scabs that are just starting to form seems to do the trick.
Films, especially for film geeks, can influence our perception of the world. While we know the film is not reality, it is, in some ways, a direct representation of reality; directly influenced by raw human emotion. And when a film fan can relate to the feelings a character is experiencing on screen, it can become the Gospel truth. This can lead to relations with a built-in self destruct function.
In almost all films about love and relationships that we turn to in times of emotional unrest, the cycle is the same. The film starts with a broken man, someone who’s been hurt, and someone who the viewer can relate to. He suffers, and tries to forget his lost love. He punishes himself just as we are doing, then meets the girl of his dreams. After a long struggle, the film usually ends in a romantic embrace between our hero and his new love.
This is the reality that film has sold us for the last 50 to 60 years, and there is a problem with it. It is an overly simple representation of relations between men and women. It suggests us there are only two phases to a relationship. The first phase comes immediately after the failed relationship: you’re sad and tormenting yourself. The second phase is when you find your new love. Even if the girl doesn’t return the interest right away, that is all the better as the struggle, and journey to this new found love creates the tension needed to keep the viewers’ interest.
Countless films show us characters that fall in love for the sake of it: 500 Days of Summer, The Graduate, Elizabethtown, Science of Sleep and Garden State to name a few. However, it is extremely rare for a film to show the aftermath of love at first sight. Do the relationships last? Do these characters get hurt? Do they get married? We don’t know, as these films always end as the star-struck lovers embrace.
What this is teaching us, the film fans, is that the two needed experiences in a relationship is the falling in love and the eventual dumping. The dumping is key as it lets the film fan experience what his favourite characters experience, pain instead of just some guilt from dumping the girl.
The best example of a character who falls in love too easily is also one of the earliest, and that is Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical series of films based around Antoine Doinel. The first film in the series, The 400 Blows, is about childhood and does not involve love. Throughout the series, Doinel’s main conquest is Christine Darbon, who after great lengths finally returns his love.
Yet we see that even though his life is going just as planned, he falls in love with another woman, and that is because after struggling so long, for Doinel, the rejection, the torment became the enjoyable aspect.
Doinel was never looking for someone to be with for the rest of his life, in fact, none of the characters shown in most of the relationship films we watch are. They are looking for someone who they can struggle to get, fall madly in love with and then get dumped.
Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” to describe the girls we see in these films. They are bubbly, cute, strange, and love life; unlike the brooding, depressed male protagonists. They are girls who are easy to fall in love with, but are obviously not going to want a relationship. In fact, in most films they straight up tell the male lead, that they are not looking for one.
Relationship films are made by people who love the medium, learned their life lessons from it and therefore are destined to repeat the cycle. These films are made by people who have had similar experiences, who have been dumped, then fall in love again. These directors create female characters that represent the women they would fall in love with.
Film fans should beware that while in some ways archetypal, these are not real women, these are dream girls; fleeting representations of hopes too often dashed.