Romance can be great. Romance can be messy. Romance can be surprising. Romance can be stressful. Romance can turn your life upside down, for better or worse. The same can happen with romance movies. Sometimes they follow formulas that have been working for decades with a happy ending (that we all knew we’d get since the first frame of the film), and sometimes they have shocking endings that we would’ve never thought of at the start.
Since the beginning of cinema, there have been romance movies, and they have evolved with the medium. Like in many other classical genres in the last 20 years, there’s been continued changes in the structure of these films. Not everything is black and white, love or hate. Now there are a lot more grays, making romance films feel more realistic. Some of them share new traits, including creating a shocking ending as a way to surprise audiences and show them a new kind of romance film.
Let’s feel the romance in the air, get ready for some spoilers, and rank the most shocking endings of romance movies ever:
7 The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
The adaptation of James Waller’s book finds Francesca (Meryl Streep), a married woman with kids, and Robert (Clint Eastwood), a National Geographic photographer, having a four-day torrid affair as they fall in love. Will they run away together? Will the husband find out? What about the kids?
All those questions get answered in the shocking ending. She decides to stay in her husband’s car and not go with Robert. Never has not opening a car door shown so much meaning, love, and regret. The Bridges of Madison Countyis one of the best non-western Clint Eastwood movies, where he shows vulnerability under that tough-guy facade. His chemistry with Streep is undeniable, and the movie is all the better for it.
6 Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Two cowboys, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger), fall in love in the 1960s. As that was not accepted back then, they kept living separate lives and only reunited once or twice a year. When Ennis discovers that Jack has passed away, it’s horrible. For him and us. Ledger shows us all the love, regret, and despair he feels (without using words) as he will never see the love of his life again.
Brokeback Mountain is Ang Lee’s best movie, with incredible work by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in a film that shows love through glances, half-words, and silences that say a lot. All these years later, we still can’t understand how it lost to Crash for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
5 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Joel (Jim Carrey) decides to undergo a procedure to erase his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his mind. During the process, we see their relationship unfold, and Joel understands those good and bad moments are both equally important parts of loving someone, as he falls for her again.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the ending is not only shocking, but especially bittersweet as we discover this isn’t the first time they’ve gone through this procedure, and their reconciliation will probably fail again, and they’ll likely keep trying. The movie was the best use of Michel Gondry’s eccentric filmmaking with a script by the always great Charlie Kauffman. Science-fiction has never mixed better with romance to explain a failed relationship that once burned bright.
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4 Titanic (1997)
Titanic is the story of one of the greatest tragedies ever, and also the movie about the famous ship and its sinking. Rose and Jack (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the roles that made them stars) are from different social classes, but they fall for each other hard. Then, an iceberg challenges their lives forever.
After all the fighting for survival, it’s still tragic when Jack dies in the freezing waters. Maybe he could’ve survived, maybe not, but we all left the cinema shocked about his death in this amazing James Cameron movie, which won 11 Academy Awards.
3 The Notebook (2004)
Allie (Rachel McAdams) and Noah (Ryan Gosling) fall in love one summer. They’re separated by war and Allie’s disapproving parents, as her daughter is from a higher social class. Years later, they found each other again and fought for their relationship through thick and thin, creating a love story for the ages.
We find them again when they’re older, and discover that she has Alzheimer’s. Noah has been telling her their love story. They die together, in each other’s arms, when she remembers their love. It’s sad. It’s beautiful. It’s shocking. It’s love. The ending makes The Notebook one of the saddest romantic movies ever.
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2 Amour (2012)
Amour is a story about love in old age, but it’s also much more. We feel the love that Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) have for each other, and when she has a stroke, it’s put to a big test. We follow them through the next few months together, as she keeps getting worse and caring for her gets more difficult. She doesn’t want to be hospitalized or sent to a home, so they stay together through the whole deal.
“Till death do us part” is almost literal here, as we see Georges make the ultimate sacrifice for their love, euthanizing her wife. In a way, that kind of kills him, too. Amour is one of the most heartbreaking movies ever, as you see the whole process of her deterioration, and empathize with one of the worst decisions one would ever have to make.
1 Atonement (2007)
This adaptation of Ian McEwan’s book is a love story between Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), who are separated when Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan, in one of her first roles) falsely accuses Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit. The lovers keep meeting through the years, and even though their timing never works, they still love each other and have a kind of happy ending.
One of the best period-romance movies ever, Atonement has the most shocking ending in a romance movie, as we discover that the lover’s relationship through the years has been part of the imagination of the younger sister, now a writer. Briony has given them the happy ending they never had in real life, as they both died during World War II. That discovery on this Joe Wright masterpiece still haunts us, as it changes everything we’ve seen in the film up to that point.