Breakups in film have always been portrayed as a painful and dramatic experience: the heated exchanges between couples, the tearful parting, and a resolution where they either reconcile or find someone new. Turning to film and seeing these did not provide a lot of comfort and hope when I had to deal with my own breakup. Instead, I felt stuck in an ending that was filled with uncertainty; one where I had no other resolutions aside from getting back together with them or finding someone new.
This led to my personal search of romance films focused on the aftermath of breakups, narratives on looking further within the self. Instead of framing it solely as a negative event, these films present breakups not as purely diminishing, but as something that offers an opening towards a better experience.
Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012) was constantly recommended to me by peers when my relationship of four years ended. My friends told me I would find it relatable and helpful since the plot centers on two best friends (portrayed by Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones) who enter a romantic relationship. They eventually get married but undergo a divorce a couple years later. Despite the separation, they are shown to still be emotionally close to each other; even living under the same roof. Things change when Jesse decides to become a father for another woman’s child, leading Celeste to face the reality of their breakup: that their lives are no longer shared despite their history and bond as best friends. This is often seen as a tragedy, to have people we once knew so well become detached from our lives and engage in similar experiences and aspirations we once had with someone else.
When I first watched this film, a particular scene stuck with me: Jesse tells Celeste that he can’t believe he’s going to have a child with someone that’s not her. This made me realize that breakups don’t just result in a termination of romantic interactions with the person, but to your shared routines and dreams. Similar to Jesse, I was in disbelief when my shared plans with my former girlfriend and best friend were now gone, and I can no longer relish in them. Both of us were going to have these things again but with another person.
However, the film doesn’t merely focus on the painful aspects of their separation. It centered mainly on Celeste and how she unpacks the aftermath on her own. She copes with it not in the typical soul-searching narrative filled with travelling, food trips, and meeting the man of her dreams. Instead, we saw her go through not-so-glamorous ordinary activities of maintaining her job, attempting to do physical activities such as yoga, and even dating other men to gain back a sense of her own self that was no longer tied to Jesse. This kind of angle establishes the aftermath of breakups not just as demise, but a non-linear process of moving towards growth.
Seeing Someone Great (2019) on Netflix got me excited for seeing this kind of narrative on breakups explored in the fun-filled format of romantic comedies. The film follows Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) and her best friends as they embark on a series of getaways to celebrate her acquiring her dream job in another city, but also to help her cope with the end of her long-term relationship. Compared to Celeste and Jesse Forever’s melodramatic take on breakups, the film was made more for a mainstream audience. It features an all-star cast, popular music (including a sudden placement of Lorde’s “Supercut”), and a more lighthearted tone. This take on breakups as something comedic is nothing new. A film that comes to mind is Camp Sawi (2016), where a group of women all come to one island resort and engage in comedic antics in an attempt to move on from their heartaches.
Someone Great, similar to Celeste and Jesse Forever, focuses on its main lead. We get a peek at Jenny’s inner thoughts through a series of flashbacks whenever she recalls a moment with her ex. We see her come to terms with both the highs and lows of their relationship; she gets into vices and distractions, but she ultimately accepts their conclusion after a process filled with emotion and introspection.
The scene where the film really shines is when Jenny writes a parting letter to her ex on a train ride home. Here, she exhausts in a heartfelt piece a mix of letting go and holding on to the possibility of a reunion. It expresses the pain of breaking up with someone you still love, showcasing that those two things—loving and not loving—are not distinct territories. Especially when the separation is recent, we get stuck between wanting to move on with our lives and trying to figure out ways to make it work again. Considering that we’ve shared so much with them, perhaps one more shared meal can lead to a series of more shared experiences. But, as Jenny continues her letter, she knows that this possibility is merely a figment of her imagination and that time has made things different for them; and that growing up likely results in growing apart. She ends the letter on a positive note, saying that she’ll fondly remember her memories with him.
Once a relationship ends, no matter how fondly we remember it to be, its ending can lead us to find someone great, and often it is someone we can find within ourselves.
Seeking a fresh start after a breakup is something we are all encouraged to seek. This often involves the act of erasing from our lives our partners and our past attachments to them as a means of resolution. The film Happy Old Year (2019) challenges this notion by using the popular principle by Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s “Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” This concept of decluttering inspires Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) to get rid of all her stuff in aspiration of the minimalist aesthetic she encountered during her time in Sweden. However, this leads her to face some difficult parts of her past as she encounters objects belonging to her ex-boyfriend Aim (Sunny Suwanmethanont).
Jean arranges a meetup with Aim to return his belongings. The two seemed alright initially, catching up and reminiscing on some of their memories together. The film then reveals that they ended on a bad note, with Jean abruptly ignoring Aim once she moved to Sweden, leaving him with no proper goodbyes. The film mainly portrays Jean in a bad light; it appears most of the things she does are towards serving her own self and not in consideration of others. When she tries to apologize to Aim for her mistakes during their time together, he confronts her, saying that she was mainly doing this for her own closure. He tells her to live with the guilt for the harm she caused him in the past.
Closure is often considered necessary in ending a relationship as it mitigates the ache that comes with it. In reality, the pain can’t be prevented. The ending of a relationship can’t always be perfectly resolved. It bears a lot of emotional weight that adds up from all the shared time and investment, and that load can’t simply be lightened over a simple exchange of words.
Happy Old Year’s take on the aftermath of breakups as an act of erasure isn’t novel. A similar film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), used memory removal as a means of moving on. However, as both films showcased, this kind of approach isn’t necessarily effective towards finding a resolution. Discarding our attachments from our failed relationships doesn’t automatically translate to completely discarding ourselves from them. More often than not, these attachments linger.
Many similar films could have been explored for this piece: as mentioned, Joel and Clementine’s story of memory erasure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Nicole and Charlie’s divorce drama in Marriage Story; or even Charlie Kaufman’s latest film I’m Thinking of Ending Things that centers on a couple on the verge of breaking up. But these films focus on the main couple unpacking the pain and sorrows that come with their separation, leaving little room for identity exploration and the individuality of parties involved.
The films mentioned, on the other hand, excel in portraying both the vulnerable experience of heartbreak and the possibility it presents of opening to new and better experiences. It no longer considers breakups as just an afterthought, but a valid narrative that deserves attention.