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The Happy Ending in Modern Romance Films, Vol. 1: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Written by James MacDowell.

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This is the first of what will likely be a series of articles dealing with issues surrounding ‘happy endings’ in modern American romance films. The individual volumes will not attempt to form one coherent through-line of an argument - rather each will focus largely on one individual film and its relationship with the ‘happy ending’. My hope is that these mini investigations will help me better understand this fascinating, and often misunderstood, feature of Hollywood filmmaking.

I would argue (and have, at length, in my Master’s dissertation, which I may at some point post on the site in some form) that ‘the happy ending’ - i.e.: a standardised ending that is repeated consistently across the spectrum of classical Hollywood filmmaking - does not exist. One ‘happy ending’ may be so entirely unlike another, and so on, that to claim the existence of one monolithic type seems to me to mean very little. However, it is my belief that many people (probably most?) nevertheless imagine ‘the happy ending’ does exist. Indeed, I believe that there is an imagined, exaggerated, Platonic ideal of what the ‘happy ending’ is supposed to be lodged in a great many people’s minds - an image that is likely not too far from the description offered by Fritz Lang in 1947, that:

'The traditional happy-ending story is a story of problems solved by an invincible hero, who achieved with miraculous ease all that his heart desired. It is the story of good against evil, with no possible doubt as to the outcome. Boy will get girl, the villain will get his just deserts, dreams will come true as though at the touch of a wand.'

<i>Modern Times</i> (1936)
Modern Times (1936)
Having settled upon and internalised a similar understanding of Hollywood’s ‘happy ending’, I believe that the question for most then becomes - not whether it is in fact accurate - but rather what one’s opinion of it is. As testified to by many critics’ (both journalistic and academic) professed attitudes towards it, we can confidently say that it is at the very least a concept that is not universally admired, and is often in fact openly disparaged. The rejection of the ‘happy ending’ is often couched by academic critics in terms of its supposedly conservative ideological function, and by journalistic critics on the grounds that it is broadly ‘unrealistic’. Leaving aside the first accusation for now, what is it about the ‘happy ending’ that causes many to see it as ‘unrealistic’?

Despite the many ways in which an ending might plausibly be considered ‘happy’, the most ‘traditional happy ending’ involves romance. This kind of ‘happy ending’ is especially prevalent in romantic comedy, but also recurs frequently in a great number of other Hollywood genres, and often depicts a man and a woman who, in the film’s final moments, express their love for one another and begin a romantic relationship (in either a real or symbolic marriage). Since such an ending concludes with only the first few moments of a new romance, it should in fact perhaps not be seen as an ending at all, but rather as a beginning. There is nothing necessarily automatically dishonest or ‘unrealistic’ about ending a story of romance in this fashion: it can hardly be denied that, in the real world, countless couples experience similar states of happiness to those shown at this kind of ‘happy ending’ every day due to the first flushes of falling in love.

<i>Sunrise</i> (1927)
Sunrise (1927)
As I have previously argued (in my essay ‘Happy Endings and True Love’ ), what is potentially ‘unrealistic’ about such an ending is that it often also allows us to assume that this happiness will continue, unchanged, forever - in an eternal bliss, or a ‘happily ever after’. This notion exists rather at odds with romantic relationships in the real world, which will necessarily face many difficulties and fluctuations, and must change and evolve if they are to survive. A cinematic ‘happy ending’ may imply its unchanging and eternal nature by reinforcing closure to such an extent that the beginning of a relationship comes to appear as ‘that beyond which there is no more’, a point that ‘arrests the discourse and propels it into an undifferentiated “happily ever after”’ (as Rick Altman puts it).

This is certainly not the be all and end all of why the ‘happy ending’ might be considered ‘unrealistic’, but it is an important component, and in particular one that many critics have commented upon. As Robin Wood says, for example, ‘Films centred on the “romantic couple” traditionally end in marriage but are conspicuously silent about what happens next,’; similarly, David R. Shumway points out that:

'The ending leaves the couple isolated in their own bliss… It is an "absolute point", an eternal moment in which all contradictions are resolved under the force of a force that allows no difference, no excess. In other words, there is no possibility of a post coitum triste, but rather the explicit denial of the temporality of satisfaction. It is in this illusory eternity that marriage is rendered mystical, in spite of whichever of its realities the film has indulged earlier.'

<i>From This Day Forward</i> (1946)
From This Day Forward (1946)
It is this ‘denial of the temporality of satisfaction’ that I would suggest is the main - or at least an important - way in which a ‘happy ending’ featuring a ‘united romantic couple’ may be reasonably considered ‘unrealistic’ (within limited terms). On this subject, Virginia Wright Wexman (in her book Creating The Couple) has pointed out that there exists an essential contradiction between the nature of romantic love as ‘an intense, all-consuming passion that is by its very nature short-lived’ and its current position in modern societies as the building block for ‘lifelong monogamous marriage’. She goes on to say that ‘Hollywood film has elided this contradiction through the convention of representing weddings (or the promise of weddings) as the culmination of its romantic-love fantasies; thus, romantic love after marriage need not be portrayed’. A ‘happy ending’ that attempts to ignore this contradiction by suggesting that the happiness that accompanies the beginning of a romantic relationship will go on to characterise the entirety of the romance indefinitely may thus, in this sense, and for my current purposes, be defined as ‘unrealistic’. (See ‘Happy Endings and True Love’ for more on this.)

Recent American romance films & Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“Why do people think relationships are supposed to last forever anyway?”

-Jesse, Before Sunrise (1995)

From the late 80s/ early 90s onwards, there has been a growing trend in Hollywood films that deal primarily with romance that I believe can be seen as a reaction this ‘unrealistic’ reputation that the ‘happy ending’ is assumed to have. Such endings are not overtly ‘unhappy’, but neither are they ‘happy’ in quite the same way as the prototypical ending described above. As such, rather than end with this uncomplicated depiction of a happy couple, these films attempt to find different ways in which to avoid accusations of being ‘unrealistic’, whilst still not dispiriting viewers by providing them with an explicitly ‘unhappy ending’.

<i>Punch-Drunk Love</i> (2002)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
One strategy these films may employ is to end with a ‘traditional happy ending’ that is exaggerated almost to the point of parody (e.g.: Pretty Woman [1990], Sleepless in Seattle [1993], or, in a very different way, Buffalo 66 [1998]) so as to undermine the trope even whilst presenting it. Or a film may end with the central couple dissolved (or unconsummated) but the lovers still nominally happy (e.g.: Vanilla Sky [2002], Lost in Translation [2003], The Break Up [2006], Waitress [2007]), thus avoiding a conventional ‘happy ending’ whilst still concluding in a relatively upbeat manner. Equally, the romantic status of the couple may be left unresolved (e.g.: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset [2004], Sideways [2005]), thus allowing for the possibility of a ‘happy ending’ taking place after the film has ended, rather than providing it within the film itself. Or, finally, there may be an acknowledgment that the first flush of love does indeed only represent a beginning rather than an ending (e.g.: As Good as it Gets [1996], Magnolia [1999], Punch-Drunk Love [2002], Me and You and Everyone we Know [2005]), thus acting as a partial rejection of the ‘timeless’ vision of the ‘happy ending’ many argue is the norm for Hollywood romance endings. I will be looking now at one of these strategies - the ‘happy ending’ that acknowledges its status as a beginning - in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003), asking what its effect is for the viewer, and how this effect is achieved.

In the final moments of Eternal Sunshine, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), who are on the verge of beginning a romantic relationship, learn that they have already previously fallen in and out of love, but that this two-year relationship has been wiped from their memories (at their request) by an organization called Lacuna. Both receive cassette tapes in the post, on which each can be heard separately listing the reasons for the failure of the relationship and the aspects of each other’s personality that they have grown to dislike, or even hate. After listening to Joel’s tape in his apartment, and being offended by the things he says on it, Clementine makes to leave, but is stopped by Joel in the hallway:

JOEL: Wait…

CLEMINTINE: What? What do you want, Joel?

JOEL: I don’t know… I just want you to wait for a while. […]

CLEMENTINE: I’m not a concept, Joel. I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. I’m not perfect.

JOEL: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you right now - I can’t.

CLEMENTINE: But you will, you know - you will think of things, and I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped, because that’s what happens with me.


JOEL: (Shrugging) Okay.

CLEMENTINE: Okay… (Laughs) Okay…

JOEL: Okay…

"Okay..." "Okay..."
We then cut to an image of Joel and Clementine running and playing on a snowy beach, an image that we have previously seen through Joel’s mind’s-eye during his memory-wiping procedure. We can understand the first time this image is shown to be a depiction of a mixture of memory and imagination, since it ostensibly repeats actions that we later learn took place on the day of their first meeting (finding the abandoned house on the beach), but changed slightly (it is now snowing, the two seem already to be a couple). It follows, then, that this final image is not to be understood as a glimpse of the couple’s future, but rather of a (probably imagined) past. As we watch them cavort on the beach, the image becomes whiter and whiter until it finally disappears and we are left with only a white screen (a nice inversion of the more conventional fade-to-black, which is more commonly associated with a ‘traditional happy ending’).

This ending is rather extraordinary. The conclusion depicts a united romantic couple embarking on a relationship (as is usually considered the norm for a romantic ‘happy ending’), but it also explicitly states that its characters’ subsequent relationship will likely finally fail for the same reasons as it did the first time. Formally speaking, the ‘happy ending’ - as commonly defined - is certainly present: the couple have fallen in love, are about to begin a relationship, and are framed in a moment of shared bliss in the film’s final frames. Indeed, there is even a mini version of ‘the run’ - that familiar romantic comedy moment at which one half of the couple realises they are in love, and runs (or at least travels) to tell the other how (s)he feels. However, the list of things that will likely go wrong for the couple, and the following “okay”s that signal that they also accept the likelihood of the affair’s eventual failure, makes this ending entirely unlike any other Hollywood ‘happy ending’ I have come across.

<i>The Philadelphia Story</i> (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
How are we to feel about the relationship whose beginning we witness here? The answer to this question rests on our interpretation of Clementine’s final predictions in the hallway, and on whether or not we should take these predictions seriously. To reach an informed conclusion, we have to examine what we see of Joel and Clementine’s relationship throughout the preceding film. In terms of its narrative structure - which sees a couple begin the film apart, before they fall in love once again and re-embark on their relationship - the film appears to share some similarities with the genre of films defined by Stanley Cavell (in his Pursuits of Happiness) as ‘comedies of remarriage’. In a ‘comedy of remarriage’ a divorced or separated couple may decide eventually to give their romance a second chance (though this is not always the case). In such films (e.g.: The Awful Truth [1937], The Philadelphia Story [1940]) there is seldom any suggestion that the remarriage is likely to be an unsuccessful one - rather it is far more common for the antagonistic trials that the couple have undergone to appear to strengthen the relationship, suggesting that it may well be healthier this time around. What we have seen of Joel and Clementine’s relationship, by contrast, certainly does seem to confirm the doubts that Clementine voices in the hallway.

Through the fragments of the relationship that are presented to us via Joel’s eroding memory throughout the film, we learn that he and Clementine have fundamentally very conflicting personalities, and that the largest problems for their relationship all stem from the ways in which this affects the ways they communicate. Joel is introverted and cautious, while Clementine is extroverted and proudly impulsive; as a result, they have seemingly incompatible ways of expressing themselves and relating to one another - Clementine vocalising her thoughts and feelings at the moment she has them (as seen when she begins a shouting match about motherhood in a scene at the flea market), and Joel keeping his bottled up. This is made especially clear in the scene in which Clementine accuses Joel of never opening up to her, a scene which concludes with Clementine storming off:

CLEMENTINE: You don’t tell me things. I’m an open book. I tell you everything - every damn embarrassing thing. You don’t trust me.

JOEL: Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.

CLEMENTINE: I don’t do that… I want to know you. (Pause) I don’t constantly talk. Jesus! People have to share things, Joel: that’s what intimacy is. I’m really pissed that you said that.

The fact that they eventually broke up would seem to confirm that they could not - or would not - adapt and work through this apparent problem, which might then in turn suggest to us that they will be similarly unable to solve this issue in the future, after the film ends. In a ‘comedy of remarriage’ - and in classical Hollywood screwball comedy - the arguments that the lovers have tend often to be exercises in comic one-upmanship that reveal the compatibility of the couple (e.g.: their shared love of such combative game-playing) even as they argue. The arguments between Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine, on the other hand, are bitter and humourless, and only reveal the extent of their incompatibility. They fight over whether or not to have a child (Joel doesn’t think Clementine responsible enough), over the fact that Joel is ‘boring’ (Clementine’s view), over Clementine’s drinking (Joel calls her an irresponsible ‘wino’), and over issues of trust (Joel assumes Clementine has cheated on him because, he says, it’s ‘how you get people to like you’). It is significant that at no point do we see them ever resolving any argument civilly: instead one or the other always storms off, or the scene simply ends, the issue at stake no closer to being resolved (the final example of this being the blank acceptance of, rather than the discussion of, the problems they hear each other voice on the cassettes).

Thus, as Clementine predicts, at some point after the film ends, after the couple have been back in a relationship for a certain period of time, it is likely that their incompatibility will almost certainly rear its head once again, causing them to re-discover the faults with each other that we have heard them itemise, eventually leading - we might well presume - to a second break-up. It is also worth noting that, unlike a ‘comedy of remarriage’, Joel and Clementine do not have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of their previous relationship for the simple reason that they have no memory of having had a previous relationship at all.

An ‘affirmative’ ending?

However, the ending does manage to appear in many ways ‘happy’ due to the fact that the couple accept the anticipated problems they will no doubt encounter, and yet decide to continue with their second romance regardless. If the conclusion is a ‘happy ending’ though, it is of a very different order to the model of the trope offered by Shumway et al above. What the ending of Eternal Sunshine suggests possible or likely for the future of its couple is certainly not an ‘undifferentiated “happily ever after”’ (Altman), offering neither ‘the explicit denial of the temporality of satisfaction’, nor an ‘illusory eternity’ (Shumway); indeed, the film’s final lines more or less explicitly state that the ensuing romance carries an expiration date. Not only do Clementine’s words imply a termination point for the relationship, but they also briefly sketch the precise factors that will lead to its demise. This is almost an opposite approach to the avoidance of temporality and differentiation (regarding love) that critics have pointed to in the ‘traditional happy ending’. That the ending does nevertheless feel uplifting in a rather profound sense suggests that perhaps a change of adjective from the over-used (with regards to film endings), and thus potentially confusing, ‘happy’ would serve us better here.

In his aforementioned article, Fritz Lang suggests using the term ‘affirmative’ in relation to ‘happy endings’, and in many ways this word would seem absolutely to apply here. Joel and Clementine’s shared acceptance of their past and future mistakes with “Okay”/ “Okay”, and particularly their subsequent bemused, sad, relieved laughs, are hugely cathartic. The moment acknowledges the simple fact which so many Hollywood romances avoid addressing - that the great majority of romantic relationships are doomed to failure - whilst simultaneously reaffirming a belief in the worth of embarking upon each new romance regardless. It brings to mind Woody Allen’s famous “We need the eggs” conclusion in Annie Hall (1977).

The film as a whole appears to have little faith in the notion of romantic love as the basis for ‘lifelong monogamous marriage’, since it includes, alongside its central couple, an unusually high number of failed relationships: Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Dr. Mierzwiak and his wife (Deirdre O’Connell), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Clementine, Mary and Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and Joel and his ex-girlfriend, Naomi. We might compare this to the more common romantic comedy strategy of reinforcing the central romantic couple with one or more other happy secondary couples. The fact that Joel and Clementine decide to begin their romance again is thus particularly affirmative precisely because it sees the couple openly accepting love as ‘an intense, all-consuming passion that is by its very nature short-lived’, and, rather than attempting to avoid this fact, fully embracing it. In this sense, we might say that - despite the fact that the majority of the narrative has been concerned with the process of forgetting - the couple have eventually acquired knowledge of something very valuable. When they relearn about their forgotten pasts, Joel and Clementine gain self-knowledge in a very literal sense. Their subsequent decision to begin their relationship again is made in the knowledge both of their past mistakes, and of the essential fragility of romantic love. Whether this knowledge will allow them to avoid the previous pitfalls of their earlier romance is another question, but in many ways this is no longer the point, since the conception of love presented at this ending combines both a faith in the desirability of love, and an acknowledgment that it needn’t last forever.

Looked at in this way, the final shot of the couple playing on the snowy beach can be read as an image that explains why Joel and Clementine still want to pursue their relationship even though they know it will probably eventually fail. It communicates the fragile, but nevertheless intensely pleasurable, happiness that they know love can provide them with, whilst suggesting a state that is at once fulfilling and also transitory. The image contains a number of echoes of more ‘traditional happy endings’. Firstly, the couple are ‘isolated in their own bliss’, as Shumway says is always the case in classical Hollywood romantic comedy. Secondly, the movement of the couple away from the camera repeats an image that is familiar from many Hollywood romance endings, wherein a man and a woman either walk away from the camera into the distance (e.g.: Modern Times), or are made to appear smaller through the camera craning away (e.g.: From This Day Forward). In this sense, the ending echoes such an idealised vision of romantic love. However, rather than implying eternity and stasis, as such images may do, there are a number of ways in which the love represented here is suggested to be innately transitory. The bleached-out nature of the image (especially the fact that it slowly grows whiter and whiter, before eventually fading entirely) suggests fragility, the fade-out here communicating a sense of disappearance rather than an emphatic finality. That the couple are playing in snow also contributes to this sense of the ephemeral, since one of the main characteristics of snow is the fact that it is destined to melt and eventually disappear. Finally, the music accompanying this image (Beck’s song, ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime’) is pointedly melancholy in tone, and was in fact first heard towards the beginning of the film over the top of images of Joel crying following his break-up with Clementine; thus, this moment of intense joy at the beginning of a relationship is enacted to the strains of music that had previously accompanied images of intense despair at its dissolution.

In his book Life to Those Shadows, Noel Burch suggests that Hollywood films often conclude with an ‘emblematic shot’ that is designed to provide ‘an “ideological point”… that each spectator should be able to take away at the end of a film’. He explains that such a shot communicates ‘not always a particular “message”, sometimes just the reconfirmation of an institution like marriage,’ and cites ‘the final kiss in so many Hollywood happy ends’ as one example. Whether Burch’s broader point is true or not is perhaps questionable (it is no business of mine at this moment to say either way), but it is a useful notion, if only because it corresponds closely to the majority opinion of ‘happy endings’ I introduced towards the beginning of this essay. If we can say, then, that the final shots of Modern Times or From This Day Forward are designed to reaffirm the notion of romantic love being something that has the potential to be eternal and unchanging, then we may interpret the ‘ideological point’ of the final image of Eternal Sunshine to be rather different. The ending of this film is not reaffirming the concept of romance as an eternal bliss on which lifelong happiness, monogamous marriage, and a family may be built, but rather affirming a different conception of romantic love that incorporates both its basic desirability and its inherently ephemeral nature. This position feels especially refreshing and (in Lang’s words) affirmative precisely because it is so rarely presented in Hollywood depictions of romance, and also because it appears both optimistic in its depiction of romantic love as something that may bring happiness, and - to return to my earlier formulation - ‘realistic’ in its suggestion that this happiness cannot, by its very nature, be eternal.

This article was published on November 16, 2007.