Film Let's begin. Watching The Broken Circle Breakdown the other night, I noticed fairly quickly that its editing structure mirrored 500 Days of Summer, another film about sour relationships and I also realised that over the past few years I've watched plenty of films about relationship that end badly and in thinking about writing about genre, I wondered if it was possible to group these films together. As with all of these genre games, the extent to which there’s such a thing as a “romantic tragedy” is up in the air but I’m going to attempt some definitions and hope your reaction won't be "Yes, and?"
It’s certainly not used as a marketing tool in the same way as “romantic comedy” and on the Wikipedia page for romance films, the kinds of work which I’m about to discuss are separated between “romantic drama” or “chick flick” neither of which really captures what they’re about. Though I’m sticking with “romantic tragedy” as a description as the antonym for “romantic comedy” and tradition, other descriptions might be “the weepy” or “heartbreak films” (as per this Time Out list) but again both of those are too loose and suggest too much when really the content is quite specific.
WARNING: In writing about the "romantic tragedy" it became fairly apparent pretty quickly that by definition it's a bit of a SPOILER. Romantic comedy has a built in expectation which the audience is entirely "in" on. With "romantic tragedies" the outcome isn't always set and although I'm going to go against the film studies grain and talk about film in very general terms as much as possible, there may be the odd thing which, even by labelling it a "romantic tragedy" could be a SPOILER. It's also true that even those films with advertising which suggests that it's going to be a bit grim, the outcome still isn't as obvious as in a romantic comedy so certain things could also be inferred. In other words, BEWARE and BE CAREFUL when reading the following. The problem with reading film criticism if you're a film fan (as though anyone else would read this stuff) is that in order to successfully analyse a film you have analyse the ending.
Arguably, this is where the “romantic tragedy” is at its most obvious. In a romantic comedy a boy meets girl and after a series of obstacles, jobs, class, finance, rival suitors or their own personality differences, the screwball elements, they fall madly passionately in love and the film tends to end in a kissing scene. A “romantic tragedy” features many similar elements but those obstacles usually become utterly life changing and insurmountable across the course of the film, with even sudden deaths at the ends of these films sign posted and foreshadowed throughout.
Note that “romantic tragedies” don’t always end in death. If there are sub-genres its between the ways in which the central relationship ends negatively, between death, divorce or simple break-up. The key element is that that the film ends with the two protagonists not together, that there is no final run to an airport or apartment or New Year’s Eve ball, no grand gesture featuring dancing and singing or simply turning up. Most of the time, one or other of the people in the relationship will simply disappear from the story and the audience is purposefully left without the joy of the reunion.
But I have noticed that it's rare for a "romantic tragedy" to begin in the style of a straight out romantic comedy, at least not one that I've seen, there are always discordant notes, and its these notes which create the variance with the other genre because the filmmakers, from the writer to the director to the studio usually want to signpost to the audience the kind of film they're watching from the off. Unless its some kind indie experiment, they're very careful to make sure that while we're watching Friends With Benefits, Justin Timberlake isn't going to accidentally fall of his building or contract rabies.
It's the methodology of how the filmmakers paint up this sign post which is ultimately, I think, what brings all of these films together in the genre and how it would be possible, like other genre films, to know what kind of film we're watching early. Which makes me wonder if, even if they don't use the label "romantic tragedy" and audiences don't necessarily call them that or could directly describe as they could with a romantic comedy, they find themselves subliminally following its tropes so that in a circular logic the audience understands what kind of film they're watching. Welcome to genre theory.
Here's what I think sets a "romantic tragedy" apart from a straight romantic or relationship drama. I think that it's because the filmmakers tell their story in a non-linear or flashback way which bounces around the happy and sad moments of the relationship. That methodology is one of distraction or rather of to some extent giving the audience many of the elements of a romantic comedy whilst simultaneous removing its satisfactions and the way this is achieved is strongly connected to how the film is edited.
Off the top of my head, The Notebook, Blue Valentine, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Iris, 500 Days of Summer, The Vow, The English Patient, arguably Forrest Gump, possibly Titanic all have a love story with romantic comedy elements which are told in a non-linear fashion, albeit sometimes with one character who's effectively already had the unhappy ending reflecting back on the golden years. Sometimes the films foreground this structure in story terms, notably The Time Traveller’s Wife, Looper and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
On the surface, this resorting to messing about with the temporal order would seem to be for the purposes of creating some kind of levity, of including some trailer friendly moments of romance. But within the body of the film, the effect is to put the knife in as we enjoy the elements of a romantic comedy, the meet-cute, the screwball, knowing full well that it’s all going to end badly. That’s why The Notebook is such a killer surely to make grown men weep. Which isn’t to say they don’t seek to surprise and add an extra level of tragedy, the “life sucks and just when you think it can’t suck any more, it does" element.
Closer analysis would reveal how the transitions between the stories are achieved, but from memory there always seems to be a scene where the couple is shown in a position of total bliss which is then replaced with, sometimes in the same locale, a moment when everything's gone to shit. That's certainly true of The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Vow and 500 Days of Summer, the male protagonist looking on towards what they've lost. We'll talk about the gender politics later, but the other element drawn from most romantic comedies is the favouring of the male protagonist.
Employing a flashback structure necessarily creates tension for the viewer because most often they're not made aware of how the relationship ended from the off, the filmmakers withhold expositional information, the hierarchy of knowledge in a "romantic tragedy" is mixed and fluctuating with the audience in a objective position relentlessly attempting to piece together the details of the relationship. Our thought processes in this kind of "romantic tragedy" are forever on alert which unlike a romantic comedy can have a distancing effect.
The withholding of narrative information is an important part of romances in general, but in romantic comedies, especially high concept ones, it tends to be subjective, as one half of a relationship discovers the other half is potentially unobtainable somehow and that can also be a feature here and a source of tragedy. But in these kinds of films, because of the flashback element, the audience is in an objective decision and their thought processes are probably more akin to someone watching detective fiction, piecing together the available evidence, reacting in-kind when information is revealed to them.
Of course the problem is that not all films about romances with unhappy or melancholy endings utilise a non-linear or flashback structure especially not the antecedents which we'll talk about below, with Love Story as the prime example. This is true. But in genre theory, it's not unknown for there to be exceptions either because the filmmaker is attempting to subvert genre rules on purpose or because as would be the case here, the genre rules haven't been set down by anyone yet. Plus it's also possible that I'm simply wrong about this cycle or there's some deeper rule set which would only become obvious through closer analysis.
But what's notable is that most of the examples I can think of still use a methodology of distraction in various ways. Melinda and Melinda and Sliding Doors compare and contrast the comic and tragic, cutting between the two just like the above examples but in a linear fashion, before ultimately deciding if one genre or the other is best. One Day and Brokeback Mountain utilises a year step structure which allows it to withhold narrative information (though it's true that much of time it's in a subjective way) (there's also probably some analysis which could be done on how their approach differs to When Harry Met Sally).
Plus we might ask if its possible for a film to be a "romantic tragedy" if the couple still stay together at the end. Emma Thompson's story in Love Actually (grr), Take This Waltz and Revolutionary Road are examples of this as are many Douglas Sirk films. My attitude is that they're probably not, that they should quite happily remain amongst the "women's films" suggested by Molly Haskell with some further consideration about whether in all of this I'm simply noticing a sub-genre of the "melodrama" and gathering together films which just happen to have a similar narrative structure.
Plus there are awkward films like The Vow in which, again spoiler warning, they have many of the elements of a "romantic tragedy" in terms of structure but the characters get back together at the end. But one of the points that film makes (over and over and over again) is that Rachel McAdams's character's amnesia leads her to become a different person so that the person Channing Tatum falls for is gone. There's an argument to be made, perhaps, that the first half follows the rules of the "romantic tragedy", the second half the "romantic comedy" in the way it deals with genre ala From Dusk Till Dawn, but let's not get too sucked into this. Ahem.
Obviously all of this is suspect anyway because I'm approach it with just a few films. If I was writing this as a dissertation I'd have to watch a whole lot more of them, looking for commonalities, doing much more to disprove the theory, especially when considering films in other genres like Ghost, Edward Scissorhands, The Fly, Bonnie and Clyde, Iris, Bright Star and Last Year at Marienbad. I’m aware too that my world cinema choices have been thin but that’s because this is a genre which has an anti-matter element and it’s rare for international romantic comedies not to have some negative motif anyway.
Like romantic comedies which is also essentially structural genre it isn’t always obvious simply by looking at one of these films that the content will be tragic. I've seen whodunnits which beginning looking like one of these films before someone dies early and the detective protagonist wanders in. The best evidence you might gather is in locales. Modern romantic tragedies often feature at least one scene set in a hospital or doctor’s office because one of the characters is suffering from a life threatening illness or sudden accident though that tends only to be in the sub-genres that end in death and indeed there are romantic comedies which also have hospitals because one of the characters is in the medical profession or there’s some kind of comedy injury. If there’s some divorce element there might be a lawyers office.
Like romantic comedies, there aren’t many hard and fast rules on the kinds of characters which appear in these films, though there is an component of the upwardly mobile independently wealthy, of taking romantic comedy characters and destroying their lives. What is noticeable is how often, just like romantic comedies, the male protagonist has the most narrative agency, with the female character only really existing or indeed dying to show the effect it has on them, with the girlfriend or wife the most likely to drop from the narrative and it's about how the male character copes with moving on.
Romeo and Juliet, obviously, though notice just how linear Shakespeare’s play is in comparison to filmic examples but also note how tonally when the play has been adapted into film, there tends to be a sense of needing to foreground the ending, even though the play itself, for all the exposition in the opening chorus, only really changes its tone from comedy when Romeo kills Tybalt. Before that the rivalry between the family is comic and light-hearted and there’s a sense that the story could go either way. Anthony and Cleopatra perhaps too though like Amour, it’s about the tragic end of the relationship rather than the start and so isn’t quite fit the “romantic tragedy” model which covers everything from the meeting onwards.
Generally in film studies when defining a genre it’s customary to look for earlier films which seem like but don’t quite fit what’s under discussion. The Great Train Robbery looks like a western, for example. With the “romantic tragedy” we’re in the realm of Brief Encounter, An Affair To Remember, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Love Story and City Lights and it’s interesting to note how “linear” those films are too in general though Brief Encounter has the clearest influence on the list above in terms of developing towards a somewhat flashback structure. But we’re (or rather I'm) stuck with the inherent problem of trying to define a genre based on too small numbers of examples. See above. When I originally began writing I tried to work in Love Story too by suggesting it was simply a different type of "romantic tragedy" which was linear but simply cut out all the jokes. Shrugs. Moves on.
Interestingly, like westerns, these films do attract certain actors. Rachel McAdams in particular has cornered the market between The Notebook, The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Vow, which almost make up a kind of thematic trilogy of sorts. Ryan Gosling too, with The Notebook defining things and Blue Valentine, and you could make a weirdish argument for including Lars and the Real Girl. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Williams, Ann Hathaway and the Gyllenhaals are all proponents. But it’s also true they’ve made just as many romantic comedies but they’re rarely open for award nominations whereas these films, because they’re dramas, are more likely to attract such nominations perhaps because they’re considered to be more profound in some way though there are anomalies.
The key thing with "romantic tragedy" posters is that they often feature an embrace or more importantly, with few exceptions, the characters aren't looking at us. The Notebook, Blue Valentine, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Iris, 500 Days of Summer, The Vow or The English Patient. Unlike some (disaster films which tend to have lots of star faces and source of the disaster emblazoned on them) you couldn't define a genre this way, but it's a decent marker. In contrast, notice how romantic comedy posters are all about looking us in the eye, teasing us into the cinema often against a white background, tragedies preferring real landscapes. Which puts us right back into the area of the former's tendency for objective storytelling and the latter's subjectivity.
Pianos are the order of the day or percussive instruments. Often strings, lots of strings. Sometimes a voice over, especially if there’s some kind of high concept element. The structure always tends to be same with roughly the first minute dedicated to the meet cute, with actual first meeting in the opening moments and the second minute suggesting to the viewer that the course of true love isn’t going to run smooth which oddly flattens out the narrative of the films, which do have a flashback element.
As a side note, this approach seems to be the exact opposite of trailers for romantic comedies, where the down note comes up front, usually some kind of relationship inadequacy and the meet cute and comic elements appear later on, the Sleepless in Seattle model, though of course that’s an imperfect case because the meet cute between the actors, Joe Versus The Volcano accepted, structurally doesn’t happen until You’ve Got Mail and the trailer for that compensates. Thinking on, Joe Vs The Volcano looks like a cross genre experiment within all of this.
The exceptions to this rule tend to be the high concept pieces where an explanation for what the audience might expect is for-grounded, in Sliding Doors, in The Time Traveler Wife, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or in the rare instances where the narrative is solidly linear for various reasons like Love and Other Drugs, Remember Me or Nicholas Sparks adaptations and the meet cute often doesn’t appear into some time later into the piece, though its worth noting how often the male protagonist is still in charge of the story in these things.
Again, there are exceptions. Blue Valentine's trailer's very sweet and the only indications you might infer about something being up are Michelle Williams's tears and the all too tight cuddling throughout.
I think it does, I think there is a “romantic tragedy” genre with its own rules and commonalities. Like I said at the beginning, I don’t think it’s ever going to be used as a selling tool, the word “tragedy” has too many other connotations outside of film having become the more emotive, human terms often substituted for disaster in news headlines, but in terms of the classical model and on the technical level of offering an opposite of romantic comedy it certainly works.