Bad Romance + Happy Endings

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On Tuesday 23rd February, Glasgow Film Festival hosted Physical Impossibility’s first live event, Bad Romance. We had eight speakers – Claire Biddles, Craig McClure, Shona McCombes, Cayley James (via video from Toronto), Morvern Cunningham, Kris Petrov (heroically subbing for Kate Coventry), Dr Becky Bartlett and myself – who presented to a sold-out crowd in CCA’s club room. I ruthlessly cut my own presentation, scheduled last, since we’d started late and had overrun a fair bit too. This is what my presentation would’ve looked like, with perhaps a little less stuttering. Note: contains spoilers.


The Hollywood ending is a cliché everyone is familiar with – happily ever after, against all odds. However, and you may not have noticed, there’s actually something a little off about a lot of romantic movies. For example, take a look at Time Out’s 100 Best Romantic Movies (there are a lot of similar lists but they don’t vary too much. This one is relatively recent and relatively respectable). We’ll skip the first 80 and take a look first at numbers 20-10, specifically how these films end:

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You can see there that a happy ending is not a pre-requisite for a classic cinematic romance. In fact, four out of ten end pretty badly for everyone involved. Take a look at the top 10, though, and things start to look even darker:

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Only two happy endings, and none at all in the top five. The final tally is  8/20 happy, 9/20 not happy (with the caveat that not all the non-happy ones end “sad”, per se) and 3/20 ambiguous. And what are these films saying that makes them so agreeable? Ladies and gentlemen, from your number one favourite romantic film, what top critics agree is a good romance…

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So much for happy endings. It’s clear that good romances are generally bad for the people in them. In fact, it seems to me there’s a clear correlation between how romantic a film is and how devastatingly bleak. But it’s the ambiguous ones in the list that, for me, are really interesting. After all, if we can claim any of them for the happy tally, the balance starts to shift.

The ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) is like a Rorschach personality test. For anyone that hasn’t seen it, the premise is Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone a new process to wipe all memories of her recent ex Joel (Jim Carrey). He retaliates by wiping his own memories of her. Ultimately they find each other again, only for someone to expose them to the truth, whereupon they recoil from each other once more. This is the final scene:

Good for them, right?! But is that a happy ending or not? Before we find out who’s right and who’s wrong, a brief digression. There’s a film called 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) which chronicles the romance between two characters played by Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. In the end, their relationship hinges on their respective readings of the end of The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) when Dustin Hoffman “rescues” Katharine Ross from a loveless marriage. You remember how it goes. A quick reminder, it ends like this:

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As you can kind of see from the last image there, the ending makes Zooey sad and Joseph doesn’t understand why. He thinks it’s a just a thrilling romantic ending, but Zooey understands the troubling incursion of real-world consequences. They’re written, to be fair, all over their faces. Zooey and Joey break-up soon after the screening.

So I think these endings can be a good indicator of how cynical you are, how romantic or perhaps just how crushingly naïve you are. Like Joseph, I used to think Eternal Sunshine had a thrillingingly romantic ending – they accept each other, warts and all, even though they know – they really do know – it’s doomed to fail. A few years ago, I watched it again (following a break-up). I figured it would cheer me up, but this time, it read differently. Immediately following that last scene we get this:

The same shot repeated three times, cut shorter and shorter, fading each time, suggesting the gradual erasure of their relationship. So even though you could say they ultimately realise their memories together are valuable even if the relationship ends, you could also say that they’re kidding themselves and each other, and that they’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes, trapped forever in a vicious circle. In fact, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s original script is bookended with scenes set in the future, with an elderly Clementine set to erase Joel for the sixteenth time in 50 years.

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So, like Joseph and The Graduate, it was there all along, staring me in the face. Only not, since Gondry excised the bookends to preserve a little of that ambiguity, perhaps a little concession to that mythical Hollywood ending. But where does that leave us? The tally has swung the other way, but why does that matter? And why don’t we seem to like happy endings? As is often the case, we have to go off the beaten track for true insight. This clip is from The Last Unicorn (Arthur Rankin, Jr, Jules Bass), an animated fantasy film from 1982.

Besides the mansplaining from Jeff Bridges’ Prince Lir there, Schmendrick’s right! It’s kind of like in The Matrix, when Neo meets the Architect, who describes an early, Utopian version of the Matrix where everybody got exactly what they wanted and humanity just kept rejecting it.

Another one of those ambiguous endings, which again often reads as purely happy, is for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Jack Lemmon finally tells original manic pixie dream girl Shirley Maclaine that he loves her. And she responds by handing him a pack of cards, saying…

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It’s a smart, funny, beautiful ending because it contains no false or empty platitudes. It might seem like it, but really there’s no happy ever after here. It’s like she’s saying, “Me and you, right here, on this couch is enough for as long as it lasts. You don’t need to tell me you love me, you just need to be there.” And, as Schmedrick suggested, that’s really the best anyone can hope for.

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Sean Welsh

Pick up a copy of Physical Impossibility here. Keep up-to-date with events here.

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