Director and writer Irene Emma Villamor takes an interesting approach to the romantic drama in her latest film ‘Five Breakups and a Romance.’ Villamor fills up her 102-minute movie with only certain key points during the tumultuous relationship of her two main characters, Lance and Justine. The chosen moments? The film chronicles their union and their breakups. It never shows us the relationship of the two. We always witness them at the point when they get together (or get back together) and the point when they break up. It is a theatrical structure that is interesting to use in a film, but it has its own advantages and disadvantages.
The film opens in Singapore in 2015, when Lance and Justine meet for the first time. He’s visiting with his friends to watch a concert and he meets Justine, who is a friend of a friend who has been living in Singapore for 3 years. It’s love at first sight as Lance can’t get let Justine leave without making his move. One thing leads to another and the two make a go for it. Lance extends his stay for an extra day and the two get to know each other more. When we get back to them again for scene number two, it is two years later, they are now a couple, but the cracks are already there. They are on the verge of splitting up.
The movie continues on in this manner. Each scene is either of them coming back together or breaking up (hence the title). The advantages of this is that Villamor can focus her narrative on just the highly emotional parts of her character’s world. She can situate her character and these emotions in particular locations for full use of any symbolic meaning whether it be the streets of Singapore at night, a mansion in Alabang during a barkada Christmas party, a beach-side celebration of Justine’s parent’s renewal of vows, or the claustrophobic hallways of a hospital during the height of the Covid pandemic. This is a space for nuanced and detailed filmmaking. It is an arena for capturing human behavior and passion and longing in confined spaces.
The disadvantage here is that the film favors telling over showing, a risky endeavor for any filmmaker. David Fincher does it well in his series ‘Mindhunter.’ Ridley Scott also manages this well in his film ‘The Counselor.’ There are great moments in both where the story is told rather than shown but it works because of the actors involved. This structure puts the whole burden of director and writer Irene Emma Villamor’s film on the shoulders of its leads, Alden Richards and Julia Montes. We never get to see the relationship in action so all of each other’s joyous moments together and the growing resentments are not for us to see. We need to see it when Richards and Montes go through these raw, emotional moments in the respective scenes.
And this is where the film doesn’t find its footing. There is a missing chemistry between the two that happens as early as the first scene and they never quite pick it up as the film progresses. At the beginning, Montes struggles with Justine’s cold and dismissive attitude towards the forward Lance. Montes doesn’t seem comfortable being mean or cruel and you can see this later on because when she has to play Justine as warm and loving, she does it so well. She seems more comfortable with Justine’s vulnerable side than she is with her strong moments. Montes gets better as the film unfolds. I can’t say the same for Richards.
Richards has never looked better than in this movie. He has the looks and the presence of a leading man. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to push out a rehearsed smile and that sparkle in his eye that I see in his commercials. I feel that he is afraid to get ugly for the scenes that requires it. The scenes Villamor wrote and directed requires a rawness of emotion that Richards doesn’t quite get. He is always poised, always pretty, I needed him to get real.
‘Five Breakups and a Romance’ does not have Irene Emma Villamor’s usual masterful navigation of the intricacies of the economic factors that affect a relationship. Here, Lance is supposed to be privileged and rich and it is supposed to inform on some of his choices (and mistakes) while Justine is from a simple, middle-class family from Batangas. But Justine’s first appearance is that of a professional in the cosmopolitan Singapore and that never actually leaves her. And Richards never seem to carry the posture or the air of the upper class, which he is supposed to be from. And as much as the film tries to bring these issues up as important ones to the story, there are no real implications of it to the characters and their relationship because we never get to see it at play.
Both actors needed to really live out their character’s whole lives in each other their scenes with their posture, line delivery, their physicality. The film doesn’t allow us to really get to know them, so they have to completely inhabit these characters in those five or six scenes that they are given. It’s a great demand for any actor and unfortunately, these two can’t seem to bridge it together.
The chemistry isn’t there. There are scenes where I truly wonder what it is that they see in each other, other than physical attraction. This is something both deliver well. When they kiss, there’s magic. But when they talk to each other, something is missing. Richards comes off as stiff in comparison to Montes’ outpouring of pain and affection. The love that is at the center of this film is missing and doesn’t allow the film to fully realise its risky cinematic structure.