Marriage, in all its states, is such a universal topic that it's been portrayed in countless films. But troubled marriages can provide showy performances and moments of uncomfortable truth. Here are five great examples:
--"Scenes From a Marriage" (1973): One of Ingmar Bergman's very best, this intimate and piercing drama follows a seemingly happy, upper-middle class Swedish couple over the years as their marriage falls apart. Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) destroy each other, drift apart and eventually wind up with other people, but still find themselves intrinsically tied to each other. Working with his longtime collaborator, the great cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, Bergman is unflinching and uncompromising in his examination of this flawed and all-too human love affair, and Ullmann and Josephson are pitch-perfect. Originally presented as a six-part TV miniseries, it was edited down to a feature film of nearly three hours. Not a moment of emotion has been lost.
-- "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966): I reference this movie a lot, I realize, but this week's list would seem empty without it. It's the ultimate train wreck: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton booze it up and berate each other in front a poor, unsuspecting young couple who had the misfortune of saying "yes" to their invitation to come over one night. Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's play, his assured directing debut, would have had a relentless sense of claustrophobia anyway. But the fact that Burton and Taylor had such a notoriously tumultuous off-screen relationship (they were married to each other in real life -- for the first time) made their on-screen barbs seem that much more severe. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, it won five, including best actress for Taylor's scathing performance.
-- "Blue Valentine" (2010): A heartbreaking drama about the disintegration of a marriage depicted in such raw, unadorned and sometimes uncomfortably close fashion, it makes you feel as if you're watching a documentary about a real-life couple. Michelle Williams earned the second of her three Oscar nominations here, although co-star Ryan Gosling deserved one just as much; each needs the other for their dynamic to work, and both deliver performances of convincing power. Director Derek Cianfrance skips back and forth in time between the idyllic days of their youthful courtship and the distance that divides them years later as working-class parents, once they've realized how different their goals are. Their overnight hotel getaway, a last gasp at salvaging their marriage, is both hopeful and heartbreaking.
-- "The War of the Roses" (1989): Because we had to have a comedy in here somewhere -- even the blackest of black comedies -- to keep ourselves from getting too terribly depressed. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner reteam with their "Romancing the Stone" co-star Danny DeVito, who also directs, for a film that couldn't be more different (and more bereft of romance). As Oliver and Barbara Rose, Douglas and Turner tear each other and everything around them apart. Calling this a messy divorce would be an understatement; what happens to the couple's opulent mansion more closely resembles a war zone. As much an indictment of the conspicuous consumption of the era as it is a cynical depiction of modern love.
-- "I Am Love" (2010): A vibrantly gorgeous film about a marriage slowly, quietly dying. The versatile and chameleon-like Tilda Swinton shows yet another side to her staggering talent here, speaking fluent Italian (and even a little Russian) as the gracious and impeccably dressed wife of a Milanese industrialist. She would seem to have it all with her husband and three children in their palatial home -- until she realizes she's not happy. A young chef catches her eye and helps her rediscover the woman she used to be, inspiring a climactic departure of operatic proportions. Italian director Luca Guadagnino's retro-styled melodrama recalls Visconti and Sirk in its lush trappings, but Swinton's formidable presence at the center always keeps things grounded and real.