It’s not hard to think of movies that hang their hat on the the idea that there is a couple that is wrong for each other, and that the story intends to split them apart. The least interesting version of this involves a couple that is so clearly wrong for each other, that from their first scene together the audience is questioning why the two even got together in the first place.
There’s the challenge: Convey that there was something there at one time, but it’s fading or gone. And, perhaps, that they haven’t realized it.
For examples, I’d like to look at two relationships from films by the same writer. Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters has a relationship between Lee and Frederick that finds a balance, whereas the relationship between Gil and Inez in Midnight in Paris creates a much stronger sense that not only is this couple wrong for one another, but that we should feel that one of these people is particularly unlikeable.
Lee and Frederick are introduced to us in a brief, but sweet scene where Lee shows concern for him. She asks if he’s hungry, or wants anything to drink, and she’s concerned about the way he’s isolating himself from the world. His response is to say, “Lee, you are the only person I can be with.” Lee later says to him “You’re such an enigma. So sweet with me and so contemptuous with everyone else.”
Their dialogue does double duty in that it shows us that they do care for one another, but that there is an underlying problem with their relationship. Frederick dislikes most people, and this seems to include people Lee is fond of, including her family. Despite how much they claim to care about each other, that is a difference that will generate a rift. The later scene where Dusty, the rock star looking to purchase art, shows up, furthers this difference. Lee is trying to encourage Frederick to make a sale, and is friendly to Dusty despite his strange requests and clear lack of appreciation for art as anything other than as something used to avoid having bare walls. Frederick makes sarcastic jabs at Dusty (“I don’t sell my work by the yard.”), and drives him away.
Dusty is an external target to showcase the rift between Lee and Frederick. They’re not fighting with each other directly, but in the differing ways they treat Dusty, he adds a layer of distance to the conflict in their relationship. That distance lets us still believe that there are reasons these two are together, but to also see that there is a real contrast between them.
Looking at Gil and Inez, we have bickering. Arguing about what chair to buy. Where they should live. What they should do with their evening. It’s direct, and the differences between them are more clearly drawn than what may have brought them together beyond physical attraction. This isn’t helped by the fact that the audience is clearly meant to ally themselves with Gil’s perspective, and Inez is drawn in such a way as to push our sympathy away from her.
Inez is surrounded by people she sides with other than Gil. Paul, the pontificating man that Gil dislikes and Inez has an affair with. Her parents, who amplify Inez’s negative qualities (See the line: “You always take the side of the help. That’s why Daddy says you’re a communist.”) and make Gil appear put upon and vulnerable. We sympathize and fear that if he goes through with marrying Inez, his whole life will be dominated by this trio of like-minded personalities that are his polar opposite.
And then comes the element of the fantastic: Gil slips back in time to Paris in the 20s and we come along. Inez is left behind, and this furthers the gulf between them and our understanding of what keeps this relationship together. The things Gil loves about Paris; the things that make his view of the world different than Inez’s all come to life for us. We’ve taken a side in this battle the way we were directed to by the narrative.
And that, in the end, may be one of the things to consider when showing a relationship that needs to fall apart in the story. If we’re too clearly directed to take sides early on, we’ll be seeing more of the faults in the relationship than its positive qualities. Without that balance, there’s less to play with. Fewer complications. A story that feels over before it starts.
If we can’t believe why this relationship started in the first place, it will have less impact upon us when it ends.