That’s it. That’s all we need to figure out the rest of “Titanic”’s story. Rose and Jack meet on the ship. Her family disapproves because he’s poor, but nonetheless he pursues her. Cue the small talk and the grand romantic gestures before finally, devastatingly, he succumbs to his fate alongside many other passengers on the Titanic. I was moved more by the band playing while the ship sank than by Rose and Jack clinging to each other in the freezing water.
Call me heartless, but it was hard to get attached to the characters when I already knew the ending. The entire plot revolves around Rose and Jack’s relationship, and especially given the historical context, viewers are aware from the start that a major conflict in the movie is whether the main characters survive the sinking of the Titanic. As a result, even though I figured I should watch “Titanic” at least once for the experience, the film ultimately resonated very little with me aside from the soundtrack.
My reaction to “Titanic” speaks to a greater issue with romance movies. As a whole, they face the problem of having a predictable formula. Writers of popular romance movies such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “The Notebook” choose to focus on the initial will-they-won’t-they forming of the relationship between the main characters, leaving only two possible endings: The protagonists end up together, or they break up. The viewer spends the movie on the edge of their seat, waiting for the two leads to finally kiss and get married and end up together forever — and then they do. Or maybe they don’t, and I want back the two hours of my life I spent watching, only to get my heart broken. Because the outcome of the relationship is the ending of the movie, there’s nothing more to ponder. The ending feels absolute, seeing as there’s no more time left to have the characters get back together or break up again if the movie ends there. There aren’t any loose ends to tie up, and therefore, as viewers, we aren’t challenged to question the events that transpired between the characters, nor do we have strong opinions aside from what we think about the relationship outcome.
It feels lazy on the part of the screenwriters to create a film with a strictly happy or sad resolution. While it’s nice to know what to expect when I want something simple to watch, the rigid structure of most romance movies lacks nuance, and it gets old. Sometimes, it feels like screenwriters in this genre are high school students copying each other’s homework, changing plot points here and there in hopes that the audience won’t notice.
Knowing the formulaic nature of romance movies, when I do watch one, I tend to prefer a happy ending. The character development feels wasted if the leads end up separating in the end. Because of the main couple’s separation, I didn’t expect to like “Marriage Story” when I watched it a few years ago.
Unexpectedly, I absolutely loved it. And beyond that, it subverted my expectations of what a movie that talks about a romantic relationship should do.
Eight minutes in, the film reveals that the main characters, husband Charlie (Adam Driver, “The Last Duel”) and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, “Black Widow”), are in the process of separating in preparation for an eventual divorce. During this transitional period, the audience becomes convinced that the couple should not be together; easily-resolvable conflicts give way to important arguments representing key tensions present throughout their time together. By the end of the film, it’s not clear who’s more to blame for the collapse of their marriage.
“Us and Them,” a 2018 Chinese film, attempts to apply the same concept to a greater span of time, as the film takes place over approximately five years. After a single scene documenting how leads Jianqing (Jing Boran, “Psychologist”) and Xiaoxiao (Zhou Dongyu, “The Year of the Everlasting Storm”) initially began their relationship, “Us and Them” cuts back to the present day, where Jianqing and Xiaoxiao bump into each other after several years of separation. The film then takes viewers on a journey from the beginning of their relationship to the end, where the leads finally get closure on their past relationship and go their separate ways.
Both of these films give the viewer more to ponder than whether or not the characters will get together. Through the push-and-pull dynamic of Charlie and Nicole, viewers may feel tempted to justify why one person is right and the other is wrong. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Meyerowitz Stories”) presents the strengths and weaknesses of both Charlie and Nicole — Charlie is charismatic but focused on himself, while Nicole is determined but stubborn — but does so in a way that offers viewers a dilemma of who to empathize with. We are set up to think that we have to choose one side or the other, by nature of divorce and of the film’s structure, rather than passively agreeing that this couple should end up together as we might with a typical romance movie.
The relationship of Jianqing and Xiaoxiao is shorter-term and simpler, seeing as they never got married or had kids like Charlie and Nicole did. In “Us and Them,” director Rene Liu (debut) more definitively draws the conclusion that both Jianqing and Xiaoxiao are to blame. Despite knowing that the leads split, with every exchange between Jianqing and Xiaoxiao, we are forced to ponder whether the good really could have outweighed the bad. We ponder whether more patience from both sides could have prevented the argument that led them to cease communication and whether their relationship was something potentially salvageable, now that they have been brought together again.
Both “Marriage Story” and “Us and Them” take a holistic, mature view of what their characters’ relationships used to be while explaining why those relationships can’t exist anymore. This blends two elements of romance often favored by viewers — a look at the events that transpire during the relationship and the dramatic irony stemming from knowing the outcome of the relationship.
Even though viewers know the outcome, the films themselves feels less formulaic than other romance movies. It’s not clear from the beginning what the characters will have to say about their former relationship, nor what drove them apart. This gives filmmakers more of an opportunity to explore the lens they want to use to describe the relationship, diversifying the ways they can tell their story.
Alas, the title “Marriage Story” seems to indicate the key message behind the movie. Baumbach didn’t make a film about the divorce itself; he merely sees the divorce as the tail end of the marriage. Charlie and Nicole aren’t trying to demonize each other; they are trying to reconcile the emotions that led them to love each other in the first place and their subsequent actions that drove them apart. The focus is not solely on hatred or love, and no single narrative ties the film together. We know the two leads get divorced, but the process of getting divorced is not defined by a single tone.
We don’t need a definitive yes-or-no ending, nor does a film need to hint at hope in order to effectively depict a relationship. We need more movies that aren’t afraid to step out of the usual rules of romances and portray different ideas. If filmmakers start with what viewers might typically consider the end of the film, then the rest of the film represents a new beginning — not only for the characters, but also for the screenwriters, as they’re able to explore relationships from a nontraditional perspective.
Daily Arts Contributor Kristen Su can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.