So Pretty So Sad: Doomed-Romance in Cinema

Picture of By Keanaya Chandrika

By Keanaya Chandrika

Love is an undoubtedly ubiquitous theme in cinema. Its multifacetedness and universal appeal allow endless portrayals to always find their own crowd at the end of the production line. The same goes for a more lowkey subgenre of love movies – that of doomed romances. Challenging the traditional narrative of happy-ending romantic films, these movies charm viewers in their own unsettling way, and often suscitate media-induced eudaimonic happiness. 

In The Mood for Love 

All because of a single day, February often inadvertently drifts the world into a global frenzy for romance. Coaxed by the overwhelming representations of romantic prototypes around them, many are compelled to succumb to the sought-after notions of soulmates, and the “happily ever after” conception of true love. People suddenly feel the need to indulge in daydreams and fairytales endings. They get immersed in media products that embody these ideals, ranging from feel-good Richard Curtis rom-com to passionate Nicholas Sparks’ weepies. Even streaming platforms like Netflix seem to be visibly ready for this occasion as they promptly ensure that all sorts of love-themed content resurface into recommendations around this time.

And yet, despite the craze, I still often find myself inextricably drawn to a separate niche of the genre, enchanted by the lure of doomed romance films, so pretty and sad in their delivery. Seemingly an antithesis of the happy ending, what is it about this subgenre that makes it so loved and, dare I say, enjoyable to some people? 

Beyond Sad Endings 

To dismiss doomed-romance as films with sad endings would be, in my opinion, an arguable mistake. Doomed romances are not your typical weepies where the grandeur of romantic gestures abruptly ends due to a terminal illness entering the scene. And surely there is no room for retrospection and loyalty vows to deceased lovers – no. In doomed romances, no grand promises are made, and protagonists are often conscious of the improbability of the relationship that is about to unfold. Characters are aware of the ill fate they are walking toward, conscious of the consequences, and yet still act upon it. They do so out of instinct, and out of the complex circumstances they find themselves in. 

In Sofia Coppola’s movie Lost in Translation, the two characters are living a strikingly different phase of their life. A man stuck in his 25 years long marriage and a newlywed woman accompanying her photographer husband find themselves developing a bond as unlikely as profound in modern and foreign Tokyo. Heartbreaking in its subtleness, the film touches upon unspoken desires that translate into an improbable companionship. This brings us to another feature of doomed-romance that I love so dearly – the often microscopic depiction of the love between the characters. 

In this genre, third parties are simply ignored. It seems as if the characters do not feel the need to announce their feelings and thoughts to the world around them. Directors rather focus on minuscule and intimate details, trying to describe how people fall in or out of love. To put it short, the characters develop and live in an intimate and detached bubble. This concept was poignantly portrayed in Wong Kar Wai’s infamous cinematic masterpiece. In the Mood for Love looks into the intricate dynamic between two doomed neighbors caught in an extramarital affair, and it is set in the claustrophobic environment of Hong Kong’s flats. With long scenes that frame nothing but the eyes of the two protagonists, the film depicts and delivers an atmosphere of isolation and helpless intimacy. 

As if woken up from an unforgettable dream, doomed-romance characters and viewers are forced to face the truth. Reminded that fairytales are indeed fantasies and that for a relationship to work, it takes more than just reciprocal love, but also aligned paces, priorities, and favourable circumstances.

Non-closure and realism are also major features of this genre, as no matter how cinematic the relationship between the lovers seems, in the end, they recede to the gravity of the real world. As if woken up from an unforgettable dream, doomed-romance characters and viewers are forced to face the truth. Reminded that fairytales are indeed fantasies and that for a relationship to work, it takes more than just reciprocal love, but also aligned paces, priorities, and favourable circumstances. What these movies address quite movingly is the concept that this detachment from the typical “happily ever after” ending does not make the love between the protagonists any less true. The lack of a white ending might even lead to individual self-discovery, and the realization that the love portrayed was bigger and more genuine than the status of the relationship.

Eudaimonic experience 

People turn to entertainment products looking for enjoyment, to escape a dire reality, but also seeking some kind of encouragement. An article published by The Atlantic in 2016, revealed that portrayals of a heroic protagonist’s “persistent pursuit” in romantic movies affect real-life behavior. In particular, people are more likely to adopt behaviors that seem to lead to a positive outcome, as it encourages them to act upon their feelings. This positivity however could be considered a blind one as in the end fiction is fiction, and mirroring a movie character’s action might not lead to success, but rather to an embarrassing anecdote. 

A study by Wirth and Hover in 2012 however shows that after being exposed to eudaimonic entertainment products (of which doomed-romance movies are a part), viewers experience “self-reflectiveness and deeper contemplation about the human condition and life poignancies”. The study also indicates that these more somber films activate not only cognitions about but also positive evaluations of central issues not only in one’s own life but also in the lives of the depicted characters, meaning that these films encourage sensitivity to the values of human life. 

On a larger scale, a dichotomy exists between types of well-being experienced thanks to entertainment products – hedonistic vs eudaimonic. Within the hedonistic view, happiness derives from the absence of negative affect, and short-term satisfaction follows. Thus it is very much outcome-oriented and could be easily attained by watching feel-good movies. Whereas eudaimonic happiness is experienced through the expressions of virtues and sharing of deeply held values and hence is deeply process-oriented. Therefore it is probable that despite its endings, people still enjoy doomed-romances as it invokes a different kind of happiness, one that is explained by eudaimonia as opposed to hedonism. 


If reading this article gets you in the mood for doomed-romance, or if you’re sick of watching sappy rom-coms, here is a list of some of my favorite movies so far, enjoy! 

Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola

In The Mood for Love – Wong Kar Wai

Her – Spike Jonze

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Michel Gondry 

Blue Valentine – Derek Cianfrance 

500 Days of Summer – Marc Webb

Casablanca – Michael Curtiz 


Cover: In the Mood for Love

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