A Selective List of Unhappily Ever After Films

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In honor of Valentine’s Day, which you may or may not hate with the heat of a thousand suns (I, for one, am ambivalent), I offer up a list of my favorite historical costume films that enthusiastically wallow in the misery of tragic romance. Because happily is not always ever after.

 

Becoming Jane (2007)

I love this film so much, and I cry every time I watch it. Part of it’s appeal for me isn’t just that it’s a story about the life of a woman who dedicated her novels to perfect love because she was denied it herself (as a writer, I can so relate to that), but because this is also a good example of a woman who has tasted the bitterness of life, but moved the fuck on, becoming a badass in her own right. If Jane Austen’s life story isn’t one of empowerment, even within the restrictive culture she existed in, then I don’t know what is. She didn’t end up with the guy at the end of the day, but she also didn’t lay down and waste away. Anne Hathaway stars as Jane and My Boyfriend James McAvoy plays Tom Lefoy, the alleged inspiration for Mr. Darcy.

 

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Yes, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Will (Joseph Fiennes) are destined not to be together (for starters, he’s already married and she’s engaged to a rich guy, and neither are in the same social class during a period when that mattered a lot). But, the film ends with a distinct note of optimism after the lovers are forced apart, by society and then an entire ocean. Viola becomes the inspiration and namesake for Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroine in Twelfth Night, immortalizing her forever. Of course, this film is heavily fictionalized, but the story is classic tragic romance — painful and yet, optimistic.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

 

Titanic (1997)

I actually really don’t care for this film, despite the amazing costumes (and to be frank, the costumes ARE amazing). I think it’s way too long, and the dialogue between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is so basic, a twelve-year-old could have written a better love story. That said, it still punches all the emotional buttons, almost to the point where I hate watching it because it does this so well. The boat sinks, Jack dies, Rose’s heart will go on … And there’s the upbeat ending that shows that Rose was able to reinvent herself after it was all said and done, and go on to live a long and rewarding life, presumably on her own terms. Something, something, girl power.

 

The Heiress (1949)

Those of you who have seen this film are probably wondering why I think this goes in the romance category. Well, because, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) realizes that the man she’s in love with, who has spent YEARS dangling the promise of his love over her and then yanking it away, is a cad of the worst order and only after her money. In the end, she manages to turn the tables and spurn him, after all the years of him toying with her emotions. Does it make her as bad as him in the end? Maybe. But there is something intensely satisfying about watching her stand up for herself once Morris realizes that he actually does love her. Fuck Morris.

 

The Age of Innocence (1993)

This classic, gorgeously costumed film has two layers: First, the love affair between the Scandalous WomanTM Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Handsome Eligible BachelorTM Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is engaged to the very young, Very RespectableTM May Welland (Winona Ryder). The story focuses much of its energy on Ellen and Newland as they struggle to keep their feelings in check, but throughout the film runs a subtle arc about May, who at first is made out to be a naive pushover, but by the end of the film is revealed to have been the strongest of all of them for dealing with her husband’s bullshit with grace and not buckling under pressure. I guess that’s the mark of a strong woman… How much bullshit is she willing to endure from her emotionally stunted husband? Newland, of course, only figures this out after May dies. His son talks him into going to Paris to see if Ellen is still around, and he arrives outside her house, then decides against going in. Sometimes it’s better to let the past be in the past, after all.

 

Chéri (2009)

I kind of feel like this is the story that might have happened after Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Age of Innocence settled France. In this film, Pfeiffer plays the forty-mumble-year old retired courtesan, Léa, who embarks on a decade-long love affair with, Fred/Chéri (Rupert Friend), a the spoiled son of a fellow retired courtesan who is twenty years her junior. It is beautifully filmed and gorgeously costumed, and achingly bittersweet, even if Chéri is completely unworthy of Léa. But hey, who hasn’t fallen for someone who isn’t worthy?

Queen Margot (1994)

Hot sex, pretty dresses, loads of head necklaces, and a tragic love affair all rolled into one angst-filled film that’s loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name. Isabelle Adjani is the beautiful Marguerite Valois, who gets caught up in the web of evil that her mother, Catherine Medici, seems to endlessly be spinning. This, of course, leads her into the arms of the idealistic young Huguenot La Môle (Vincent Perez — whatever happened to him, anyway?), which of course means their love is doomed because Mommy Dearest is set on framing La Môle for murder, which leads to his execution. Margot rides off into the future with his head on her lap and I guess that’s that. But, hey, hot sex and pretty dresses, right?

Queen Margot (1994)

 

 

What romantic frock flicks will you be watching this Valentine’s Day?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

25 Responses

  1. In Opera Gown but on the Settee

    Watched Verdi’s opera Aida with a great Malbec!

    “Filmed at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Daniela Dessì, Elisabetta Fiorillo, Fabio Armiliato, Juan Pons and Roberto Scandiuzzi lead the cast in the renowned period production filmed in 2003 against the historic paper trompe-l’œil sets painted between 1936-45 by Josep Mestres Cabanes, the last representative of the old Catalan school of scenography”

    This film was eye candy extreme – from the gorgeous theater to the costumes and massive ornate set pieces.

    I turned to my guy & asked, “Why are the most beautiful productions the most tragic? It’s as if the entertainment industry always wants you to suffer somehow.”

    Reply
  2. Antonia

    So many could be added like Moulin Rouge and Atonement… Also have you seen The Lady of the Camellias (1981) with Isabelle Hupert? It’s awesome! I’m in a Moulin Rouge mood myself

    Reply
    • minette

      Oh, yeah! No Moulin Rouge?! I know it doesn’t have much of a historical flair, but still.

      Reply
  3. picasso Manu

    I don’t hate it with the hate of a thousand suns, but I’m pretty meh: Romance never interested me a lot (apart of a short period of time in my 20s, probably hormones). Give me a good murder any day! And concerning Vincent Perez, he’s still working. Shot something in 2017 with that wonderful human being, Roman Polanski. Blerg. Apart from that, he’s not in leading roles anymore, and that has been the case for awhile… Since they dared to do a remake of Fanfan la Tulipe with him as the lead when he was at the top. That was a bust, and then he seriously started to lose his hair, and the male leads/love interest roles went down the drain with them… And, well, he’s getting older now.

    Reply
      • Cécile

        Cyrano, an almost lifelong favorite book, reconciled me with Depardieu. (though I’ll never forgive the text changes by the place curse here scenarists)

        Reply
      • Kelly

        I honestly like Jose Ferrer better. The over-the-top scene chewing is appropriate for the character imo.

        But I love the Depardieu version too (and it had a much better Roxanne) and is more visually appealing.

        Reply
  4. thestoryenthusiast

    My unhappily ever after has always been Jo and Laurie from Little Women. I will never forgive Louisa May Alcott for separating them. And to add insult to injury Laurie marries Amy!

    Reply
  5. Emissary of Wind

    You can’t list frock flick romances that end badly without mentioning Gone With The Wind!

    Reply
  6. minette

    What about The Duchess? It is in fact one of the most expensive and popular “unhappily ever after” movies right after Titanic. Plus Dominic Cooper, who can make even late-18th century wig sexy. And those costumes are brilliant!

    Reply
  7. Janet

    Love your list 💘👌 No ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Romeo & Julie’s? I would also add ‘Tristan & Isolde’, ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Atonement’ and ‘Lost City’ to it….
    And would ‘Gone with the wind’ fit in this list?
    Because I love his; “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!!”

    Reply
  8. Jacqueline

    The story of Queen Margot burrying the head of her lover de la Môle appears already in the french novel “Le Rouge et le Noir” (published in 1830), where his female descendant Mathilde burries the head of her lover and is more happy with this romantic gesture than she would have been with him alive. I don’t know if you have read that, but there is a nice movie version with an amazingly handsome actor ;)

    Reply
  9. Kaity

    Copacabana TV movie. Not sure if considered a costume flick but it’s set in the forties. It’s romantic and tragic! Good songs.

    Reply
  10. Charity

    Oscar & Lucinda. I want to punch that author in the face, but 3/4ths of the movie is utterly spectacular and charming and sweet and romantic… and then it becomes tragic.

    Moulin Rouge!

    Not sure what to watch tonight. Might try something new…

    Reply
  11. Janette

    I am always grateful to St Valentine’s day. It reminds me of family birthday obligations. (which incidentally I should be attending to right now.) but has no other purpose in my diary. My favourite unhappy ever after is Anna Karenina but as I have not even bothered to watch the film it may not count. Atonement and Duchess would probably top of list of films. But for the me the only film to watch on St Valentine’s Day is Picnic at Hanging Rock.

    Reply

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