As pop music tells us, breaking up is hard to do. But while music can capture the emotions of a shattered relationship, it rarely provides an instruction manual, either for instigating a breakup or getting over one. For that, we have to turn to cinema, which is often obsessed with the creation and dissolution of human connections. And what better time than Valentine’s Day to take a hard look at our relationships and decide whether they should be allowed to continue, or should be messily destroyed? For those who choose the latter path, The A.V. Club surveyed the field of movies featuring breakups and assembled some helpful tips suggested by the trials and torments of fictional characters.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Story: The eponymous Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) dumps her boyfriend (Jason Segel), who spends the rest of the film trying to get over her, and his various other issues.
Reason for breakup: As she puts it, they’ve grown apart, and they’re leading different lives. But also, she’s banging a world-famous rock star.
Practical, universal lessons gleaned: Make a clean break. Don’t be tempted to hop into bed with an ex later; it probably won’t go well, and if it doesn’t, it can be demoralizing and humiliating for you, though possibly self-affirming for your partner.
Narrow, film-specific lessons gleaned: Don’t “jokingly” publicly threaten to kill your partner. That never goes over well. And don’t break up when your partner is naked. It’s horrible for everyone. (Though if you politely suggest that he should put some pants on, and he responds with a snarky, self-pitying “Would you like to pick out the outfit that you break up with me in?”, go ahead and pick out something that will remind you why you’re breaking up.)
Story: As World War II rages across Europe, American expatriate Humphrey Bogart and other transients (and Nazis) hide out in his Café Américain in Morocco. When his former lover (Ingrid Bergman) walks in with her husband (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader, Bogart has to choose between love and a higher purpose.
Reason for breakup: The higher purpose. Bergman and her husband need letters of transit to travel across German-occupied Europe, and continue to fight against the Nazis. Bogart makes Bergman leave with her husband, suggesting that if she stays with Bogart, she’ll regret it: “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life.”
Practical, universal lessons: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Should you ever have the choice between pursuing your own romantic self-interest or doing your part to rescue the world from tyranny, choose the world. Even when people as beautiful as Bogart and Bergman are involved.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Choose the right setting for your breakup. Bogart could have cut Bergman loose near the dumpster behind Café Américain, but the foggy airport makes for a more indelible moment, no? It also helps to have Nazis in hot pursuit: Makes the breakup more urgent and dramatic, and ensures a cleaner break, too, without either partner hanging around awkwardly afterward.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Story: Jim Carrey discovers that his ex-girlfriend Kate Winslet had all her memories of him erased, so he does the same. But partway through the process, he realizes he’d rather cling to the memories of their relationship, good and bad, than release them all. After all this, they consider going through the relationship again.
Reason for breakup: They’re just too different: Carrey plays a timid, nice-guy passive-aggressive schlub, while Winslet’s character is a volatile, damaged, reckless free spirit. In a fight, she accuses him of being a drag, and he views her as a flake and possibly a slut.
Practical, universal lessons: As much as we might wish to erase painful memories of failed relationships, they’re an essential part of who we are, and living without them is sadder than not.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Manic pixie dream girls with potato-doll collections are usually bad news for anyone hoping for a stable, long-term relationship. If you’re going to start a relationship that you’ll later erase from your mind, it’s helpful if your partner periodically changes hair colors so you can keep a frame of reference for what happens when. If you ever have the urge to take the train to Montauk, take it if you want love, skip it if you want to avoid heartbreak.
Kill Bill (2003)
Story: Pregnant assassin The Bride (Uma Thurman) runs away from her boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine). He takes this badly, and tries to have her killed; she survives, and embarks on a mission of blood-spattered revenge.
Reason for breakup: After she realizes she’s pregnant, The Bride decides she wants to raise her daughter in a murder-free environment. Being around Bill isn’t conducive to a child not dying young.
Practical, universal lessons: Closure is important. Abusive relationships leave long-lasting scars. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can stay with them.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: It doesn’t matter if you catch your ex by surprise. It doesn’t matter if you catch her with her guard down. It doesn’t matter if you bring your high-class, bad-ass, machine-gun-carrying murder squad with you to take care of the situation. It doesn’t matter if you literally shoot her in the head yourself. Always, always check for a pulse.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Story: A mentally unstable cabbie named Travis (Robert De Niro) falls for a beautiful election campaign staffer named Betsy (Cybil Shepherd); when their courtship abruptly ends, he decides to assassinate the presidential candidate for whom she’s working.
Reason for breakup: Travis takes Betsy to a screening of the 1969 Swedish “sex education film” Language Of Love, and she walks out because “she doesn’t like these movies.”
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t assume that your significant other shares your hobbies and interests. Be attentive to your partner’s needs, and they’re more likely to be open to any new experiences you want to share. But, generally, porno movies make for bad first dates. How about a nice romantic comedy instead?
Narrow, film-specific lessons: When planning a murderous rampage intended to win back the girl who broke your heart, it’s always better to target anonymous pimps and street toughs rather than a beloved public figure. On a lighter note, if a woman likens you to a character in a song, there’s a good chance she already owns the album the song comes from. Don’t give it to her as a gift. Instead, make her a mix-tape.
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Story: Family man Michael Douglas has an ill-advised fling with work associate Glenn Close while his wife and daughter are out of town. Then she becomes violently obsessed with him, and bent on securing his devotion—or at least his attention—by any means possible.
Reason for breakup: He thought it was just sex. She thought they made a deep and lasting connection. However, he doesn’t want a deep and lasting connection with a crazy, stalking, knife-wielding bunny-boiler.
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t cheat on your partner in the first place, and then it won’t be necessary to break up with your bit o’ strange on the side. But if you do have to break up, don’t repeatedly back down and sleep with the ex-to-be; mixed messages won’t make the separation easier. Also, people who say “I’d have more respect for you if you’d tell me to fuck off” almost certainly don’t actually mean it.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Listen carefully for possible ironic foreshadowing when your soon-to-be-ex talks. A line like “Bring the dog. I love animals. I’m a great cook!” might have an icky double meaning.
High Fidelity (2000)
Story: When record-store owner John Cusack is left by another girlfriend (while he’s listening to The 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” natch), he embarks on a journey through his romantic back catalogue to figure out where it all went wrong.
Reason for breakups: Most of Cusack’s “top-five most memorable breakups” became alienated by his obsessive quirks and moved on to other guys. No. 5, the freshly departed Iben Hjejle, was driven away by his lack of ambition and his aversion to marriage.
Practical, universal lessons: Reconnecting with old flames isn’t a terrible idea, so long as it’s a brief, one-time reconnection. A relationship between two people is more fulfilling than a relationship between a person and his possessions. Art-school graduates never stop being assholes—you’re better off without them.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: You can be in love with someone even if they like Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel. Bruce Springsteen is a great source of post-breakup advice. Heartbroken saps have a once-in-a-lifetime chance of inspiring sympathy in an ex by standing out in the rain. Compulsive list-making and pop-culture fixations start out cute, but curdle into unattractive habits. (But who wants to believe that?)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Story: Volatile Vietnam vet and league bowler John Goodman is still trying to endear himself to his ex-wife five years after their divorce. She’s long since moved on.
Reason for breakup: The film doesn’t say, but “irreconcilable differences” is a good guess. Pretty much everything in Goodman’s life is irreconcilable.
Practical, universal lessons: Your day-to-day routine is going to change when a long relationship ends. Let it happen. Living in the past can lead to pent-up rage in the present.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re responsible for the care and feeding of your ex-wife’s Pomeranian while she’s in Hawaii with her boyfriend, she might be using you. Also, Judaism is a noble tradition, but a failed relationship and an admiration for Sandy Koufax do not make a strong foundation for lasting faith.
Story: Two couples break up, switch partners, break up again, and go back to their original partners in a complicated web of deception, lust, and changing allegiances.
Reason for breakup: There are so many breakups in Closer that it’s impossible to sum up, but the best one amounts to a simple “I don’t love you anymore.”
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t cheat and deny it. Just make a clean break and walk away from further entanglements, in order to keep your dignity and self-respect intact. (By the way, being an incredibly hot woman will help with that.)
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t have sex with your ex-to-be just to get him to stop whining and sign the divorce papers. Don’t go back to the person who unceremoniously dumped you for another woman, and don’t sleep with the ex-husband of the woman your lover dumped you for. Basically, don’t do anything that necessitates a chart to keep track of who’s with who at any given moment.
Blue Valentine (2010)
Story: Cindy (Michelle Williams) finally leaves her husband (Ryan Gosling), who clings desperately to her despite the relationship quite clearly isn’t any good for either of them, or their daughter (Faith Wladyka).
Reason for breakup: He’s still functionally a child, while she’s grown up and moved on.
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t dump someone who has a short temper and confrontational manner by leaving them a note and then going to work. (Especially if you’re at a hotel an hour away from home and you’ve left them without a ride back.) If you have a long-ago ex-boyfriend your current husband hates, don’t mention running into him at the grocery store. And don’t punch out your soon-to-be-ex-wife’s boss after confronting her at her place of business.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re trying to put the spark back in your relationship, don’t go to a themed hotel, and especially don’t get the “space-age” suite. Don’t marry a woman you barely know just because she’s pregnant.
The Break-Up (2006)
Story: Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn meet at a Cubs game, fall in love, buy a condo together, and—no surprise—break up two years later. The rest of the film is fraught with the tragicomedy of cohabitating with an ex, and the possibilities of reconciliation.
Reason for breakup: She’s slightly uptight, while he’s a thoughtless slob who doesn’t compromise. The audience is only slightly keyed into the good times of the relationship, primarily via a photo montage that focuses on Chicago sporting events.
Practical, universal lessons: If your relationship is worth saving and you argue, don’t be too proud to apologize. It’s possible to break up with someone, move on, and eventually be on good terms. And maybe you shouldn’t buy a house with someone unless you’re married.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Guys don’t care about centerpieces, or want to help with the dishes. Cubs fans are jerks. If possible, always keep a stable of model-hot, uninhibited female friends on hand so you can call them over for a game of strip poker if you need to make your ex jealous.
The War Of The Roses (1989)
Story: Oliver and Barbara fall in love and get married. Oliver and Barbara fall out of love, and do horrible, horrible things to each other.
Reason for breakup: She gets tired of living at home and resents his controlling, arrogant ways. He doesn’t like how she’s raised their kids. Mostly, it’s just a relationship that starts rotting, and doesn’t stop.
Practical, universal lessons: When a couple breaks up, compromise is necessary on both sides. No matter how amicable the split, nobody gets everything they want; it’s important to accept a certain amount of monetary and emotional loss and move on.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Pets can become inadvertent hostages to fortune in marital disputes—best to ship them off to the neighbors as soon as possible. Don’t think you can make things better by powering through and holding your ground. Urination isn’t appropriate in the kitchen. When engaging in a life-or-death property struggle with your ex-lover, avoid chandeliers.
500 Days Of Summer (2009)
Story: Uber-romantic Joseph Gordon-Levitt believes he’s found “the one” in the precocious, Smiths-loving Zooey Deschanel.
Reason for breakup: Deschanel tells Gordon-Levitt she doesn’t really believe in relationships, and he spends the whole movie pressuring her and trying to change her mind. His obsession with having her ultimately sours the whole deal.
Practical, universal lessons: You can’t force something to work if it just isn’t meant to. Even cute people have problems.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t despair if the love of your life breaks up with you. Someone equally adorable—and with a similarly seasonal name—is just around the corner.
Gone With The Wind (1939)
Story: Southern aristocrat pursues hot-blooded Southern belle who loves someone else. He finally gets her, but ultimately realizes he doesn’t want her anymore.
Reason for breakup: A child’s death is a difficult thing for any couple to endure. It’s also a bit of an issue when half of a couple is only in it for self-serving reasons.
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t marry someone whom you already know has a history of marrying people solely to make a crush object jealous. Also, when you walk out for good, make sure you have a killer exit line.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: For that matter, don’t marry someone who said she wasn’t interested in you and never would be, but starts chasing you when she needs money. Your primary goal of having a mutually loving, supportive relationship isn’t necessarily compatible with her primary goal of never being hungry again.