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Heartbreak, breakups captured in Caitlin Cronenberg and Jessica Ennis' photo book 'The Endings'

TORONTO — It's the end of a love story, not the beginning, that fascinates photographer Caitlin Cronenberg and set designer Jessica Ennis.

They wanted to detail the raw, messy, gut-wrenching emotions of a breakup in an elaborate new photo book, enlisting actresses including Julianne Moore, Keira Knightley, Tatiana Maslany and Imogen Poots.

Each of the 28 stories in "The Endings" could have been films themselves, acknowledges Cronenberg, who took a cinematic approach to crafting the book by drafting elaborate back stories and leaning on Ennis for detailed sets and props to build entire worlds for each scene.

It all began with the two Toronto friends sharing their own stories of heartbreak, and hearing the "universal" experiences of friends and colleagues who had similar accounts of being overwhelmed by emotion upon losing love.

"As Jess and I were exploring the topic we realized just how much it bonds people together. You can talk about your insane breakup and your ex and a person you just meet will say, 'Oh my God, I just had a similar experience,' and all of a sudden you're bonded," says Cronenberg. 

"There's a certain romance in something ending and I think that we sort of shot it in that way," adds Ennis. "When you look at the photos we kept referencing, 'New York, I Love You,' and these short films about love."

In one collection, Patricia Clarkson plays a woman crouching in the shadows of a campus library book stack, waiting to meet her much younger lover for a clandestine rendezvous.

In another, Juno Temple appears as a heartbroken woman who spirals into risky behaviour in the wake of her loss, while elsewhere, a naked Alison Pill is smeared with blue paint and swoons in front of an art installation she dedicates to her unrequited love.

"Every person has an emotional response to love ending and it's not always negative, it's not always crying. (There's) relief, exuberance, devastation — these are all the things you can experience with a relationship ending and we wanted to run the gamut on that and see if we could tell all of those stories, or a wide range," says Cronenberg. 

The intensely intimate shoots consisted largely of just Ennis, Cronenberg and their actress. Cronenberg says she encouraged each woman to move freely through the scene uninterrupted, and to embody whatever emotion that came to her as she immersed herself in the character.

"It was really hard to cut some of them. Noomi (Rapace) really comes to mind, because we had a playlist going of songs that were inspiring the mood and she was just going for it and she kept coming up with new things — she was putting rings on her toes, she was pulling pages out of books and making little castles and doing all this incredible stuff with the props," she says of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" star, who plays a jilted woman who insists on living alone.

It took seven years to co-ordinate the whole project, with the duo producing every element "from bottom to top" — from scouting locations to sourcing wardrobe to arranging craft services and transportation for all cast and crew.

"We were clearly in above our heads in a lot of ways," says Ennis, chuckling.

"When we look back at the book we can't believe that we pulled it off, basically," agrees Cronenberg.

They shot in Toronto, New York and London, and captured anywhere from 1,200 to 4,000 stills for each story — even though some ended up whittled down to just one image for the book, says Cronenberg.

Despite Cronenberg's auspicious movie lineage — her father is director David Cronenberg — she says she has no aspirations to make a feature film herself.

"I appreciate film and I love watching films and I enjoyed being part of film sets and doing stills on film sets but I just really love the feeling of capturing a moment," she says.

"The challenge for me is to capture that one moment that tells a story and to be able look at it and say this is what I intended to say with this singular moment."

However, she notes she and Ennis did make a short film inspired by the photography book to help promote it. The film premieres Sept. 10 at an event co-hosted by the Toronto International Film Festival.

The book launches with a party Tuesday at Toronto Fashion Week.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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