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Credit: A24 Films

Embracing your break-up through genre

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Feb 19, 2020

Broken hearts have inspired countless songs, movies, and poems. Art offers comfort in times of emotional strife, providing an outlet or a sanctuary for pain. Personal preference and taste dictate what any one person will turn to when a relationship comes to an end, which can depend on an endless list of variables. One person's ideal heartbreak manual will make someone else's pain that much more pronounced.

Rom-coms and romantic dramas have long been the prescribed go-to viewing option for this particular life event, however, there are plenty of genre movies ready to stake their claim on your breakup blues. You don’t need to wallow in The Break-UpHow To Be Single, or The Notebook to deal with updating your status on social media, not when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is going through the same thing in Birds of Prey and Midsommar’s Dani (Florence Pugh) is exiting a toxic relationship. 

Spoilers ahead for Birds of Prey and Midsommar.

Credit: Warner Bros

The Joker-free outing sees Harley moving on with her life rather than repeating an old pattern. She doesn't need a guy to feel fulfilled. Freeing herself of the malignant presence is worth it, even if he did offer protection from the many Gotham City residents who want to cause her harm. Harley goes through a series of traditional responses to this big break-up, including those around her reacting with skepticism about whether it will stick. We’ve all been there, listening to a friend whose significant other you can’t stand — they break up, you tell your friend how much you disliked their boy/girlfriend, tell them why they are better off, and then they get back together. Harley is desperate to prove it will last, which is why she blows up the building where it all began. This is an extreme, dangerous, and highly illegal method of announcing her uncoupling. For an alternative cleanse, perhaps try clicking single on social media, unfollowing/blocking your ex, and maybe deleting any painful reminders from your page.   

Harley’s self-discovery journey is a little bit Eat, Pray, Love but with breakfast sandwiches, wearing every sequin possible, and joining a roller derby team, all excellent methods of leaning into a new identity and post-relationship liberation. What could be better than embracing solitude than with a silver fringe jacket and new friends? Sure, she drinks too much and causes a scene, but this is all part of the blowing-off steam process. A new pet helps, but it is only when Harley becomes acquainted with Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) that she finally finds her people and purpose.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Making new friends isn’t always easy but it helps to have a shared goal, such as avoiding the wrath of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). A group activity can cement a bond, which is what happens during the Birds of Prey arcade fight sequence. There is nothing quite like a distraction with pals to make you forget a terrible ex. By emphasizing the importance of non-romantic relationships, Harley's adventure becomes an exhilarating viewing experience as she sheds the baggage of her former life.

Horror is full of terrible boyfriends, whether they up being the killer (looking at you, Billy Loomis) or not. Last year's Midsommar added a new name to this list, depicting a relationship that was being held together by hope and cowardice. In the opening scene, Dani and Christian (Jack Reynor) are shown to be a bad fit when he can barely muster the energy to respond to her very real concerns about her sister's mental health. His friends give him grief for answering the phone and "putting up" with her.

Before the worst-case scenario unfolds, Christian's aloof behavior suggests a break-up is on the cards, but then he gets the call. A guttural barely human cry of anguish fills the empty void that was between them as we learn that Dani's sister killed herself as well as their parents. Not only does Christian not break up with her, but he invites her on his big Swedish vacation. It is easy to empathize with his inability to end things under the circumstances, but to needlessly string her along is cruel and weak. When Reynor spoke to SYFY WIRE last year, he explained there is nuance to this character: "He's doing what widely we would accept as the right thing by staying with her in this moment, but he's just not the right person to do the right thing."

Credit: A24

Director Ari Aster has referred to this as his personal breakup movie, saying, "It felt as big, consuming, and cataclysmic as breakups tend to feel." While the overall commune and ritualistic element isn't something that will be familiar to a large swathe of the audience, the relationship at the heart of Midsommar is highly relatable. Dani spends the majority of the movie fighting for significance while her boyfriend of more than four years can't even remember how long they have been together or when her birthday is. With every waking moment, he drifts further away from her. She struggles to maintain a sense of self, but any semblance of confidence is evaporating — that is, until she becomes the May Queen and her value is elevated. She is no longer a burden or interloper among her boyfriend and his friends, but a woman with a crown. 

Her cathartic cries at the start of the film are revisited after she sees Christian taking part in a very intimate ritualistic act, but instead of being lightly comforted her screams are matched and reciprocated. Nothing says ex-boyfriend more than being sewn into a bear carcass and set on fire, which is Christian's fate after Dani chooses him to be part of the burning ritual. Talk about finality. Some people destroy photos and love letters. This is a bit more of an extreme version. Midsommar is a cautionary tale as to why you should not go on vacation with a significant other if you are on the verge of breaking up.

Midsommar and Birds of Prey are not the only recent movies placing a fractured relationship at its heart. For a cult-like situation examining the ashes of a relationship, The Invitation doubles down on why it might not be a good idea to accept a dinner party offer from an ex. Meanwhile, Cabin in the Woods begins with a conversation about getting over an illicit affair with a professor via a weekend away with friends and a hot new guy as a means of distraction. Unfortunately, it ends in a bloodbath and, you know, the end of the world. For a more cerebral breakup movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is there for anyone contemplating what could possibly go wrong by returning to an ex. Even though Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) know it will likely end in tears, doomed to repeat the same relationship-ending antics, they can't deny the magnetic pull. This is less breakup and more let's get (back) together. 

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Horror has always been a good outlet for dealing with heartbreak because unlike most genres, it will get your heart pumping, distract through terror, and deliver a cathartic release of adrenaline. Classic scary movies also explore toxic relationships that are made worse by isolation. In The Shining, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) was already an abuser and the hotel simply magnified his inner demons. Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is not at fault for staying; rather, this movie underscores the complexity of this kind of relationship. And in The Exorcist, divorce still haunts every corner of the Washington D.C. home, staining Chris MacNeil's (Ellen Burstyn) every effort to protect her daughter when there is no fraternal figure present. It takes two actual Fathers to save the day — including the original Hot Priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller). 

The dissolution of a romance can resemble a nightmare come to life, which is why genre is particularly equipped with portraying the emotional fragility of this experience. By all appearances (or lack thereof), the forthcoming Invisible Man is a likely contender as the latest movie in this breakup bill. The terrifying trailer reveals a man who will go to disturbing lengths to gaslight his ex. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn's emancipation is cathartic fun, reveling in the freedom of losing the dead weight of a past relationship. And in Midsommar, Dani's actions ensure her four-year relationship is over; they are never, ever getting back together. 

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