Although my history with the film I am going to discuss certainly hasn’t been the longest, it made me think about the story a lot and – more importantly – it ultimately made me want to write about it. It’s like I either commanded myself to write about the movie or that the movie somehow commanded me to write about it. Whichever, I don’t know. But here we are now, dear reader, in this weird area of time-space in writing where I’m currently typing this down and you’re already reading the finished piece.
Let’s start right off then, shall we?
You see, romantic relationships and so-called “love stories” are probably one of the topics that are most often depicted on screen. Actually, it’s got to be the most common theme – even if we’re not talking about one of thousands of romcoms, everything needs a good catchy love story… right?
The setting has been the same for way too long and way too often: boy meets girl or girl meets boy, they slowly or quickly fall in love, they have a tragic fallout and now we’re left to hope that they make up before the rest of the movie is over. And, surprise – they (usually) do!
“Roses are red, violets are blue… fuck you, whore!”– (500) Days of Summer
So, what are we going to do today?
We’re going to take a look at a love story similar to the typical setting I just described – except… it’s not really similar. Of course it’s far from revolutionary, but for me at least (500) Days of Summer is still a movie worth discussing. Amusingly enough, it’s a film that came out exactly a decade ago – January 17th 2009, at Sundance Film Festival.
(500) Days, as I’m going to call it from now on, is something that I remember as being very versatile in its use of filmmaking methods and thus already fun and somewhat exciting to watch. Furthermore, before I’m going to talk about its overall twist on yet another traditional love story, I’d like to take a moment to name some of the many little things I appreciate the film for.
The option that a woman is a lesbian is given and taken seriously by male characters. There’s drunk karaoke, recreating sex ideas seen in porn and two grown adults playing the penis game. There’s use of music by The Smiths and a real yet unreal animated bird in a spontaneous dance number. And there’s a reference to Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – perhaps the most unnoticed yet the most relevant to the story.
And while Goethe certainly (probably?) hasn’t phrased his writing along the lines of “fuck you, whore”, (500) Days and Werther are somewhat similar in terms of their portrayal of a man left heartbroken by an impossible or lost love; we as readers or viewers are clearly meant to emphasise with said man – or, at least initially.
To quickly sum up the film: Tom and Summer meet at their workplace, Tom is an idealistic person that believes in finding his one true love (in Summer, that is). Summer, however, isn’t looking for a serious relationship and doesn’t really believe in love either. That’s her initial disposition, yet the two of them enter a romantic relationship. After their break-up, Tom reflects on their time together – which we see in between of sequences that show him ridden with grief and anger.
– (500) Days of Summer
“[Summer] took a giant shit on my face.” – “Literally?” – “Not literally. That’s disgusting. Jesus, what’s wrong with you?”
And just like that, the heart-shaped birthmark on Summer’s neck that Tom lovingly describes turns into a cockroach-shaped splotch after she leaves him.
And just like that, we’re left wondering what happened – and how and when they find their way back to each other, because that’s what we’ve come to expect from a love-story.
That doesn’t happen.
What Tom has been failing to see the whole time is that Summer wasn’t in love with him, at least not in the way he was with her. And as we are shown most of their relationship from Tom’s perspective, we too fail to see that theirs isn’t a mutual love. But we’re not meant to stick with that perspective – at least towards the end we’re meant to realise alongside Tom that his memories are more than subjective. They’re a projection.
By the end of the movie, Summer will be married and, as she tells Tom, will have found a sort of love she can call such. You see, a romantic relationship based on love that isn’t mutual can’t work out the way it’s supposed to. And that’s the lesson here, for Tom.
For us viewers, however, there’s another one.
After having watched the movie, I remember being left with one question: does it do its female protagonist (in)justice? As I’ve said, we’re shown every aspect of their relationship from Tom’s perspective only. So… where is the look into her character development? It’s not there, which is why her sudden marriage may have thrown some viewers off. Those that were very much immersed in Tom as a suffering protagonist that portrayed himself as a man whose heart was inexplicably broken by a woman.
So – does it do Summer justice? Clearly not. Alongside seemingly billions of movies, it treats its female protagonist wrongly. It doesn’t portray any point of view from Summer that is consistent or at least somewhat existent throughout the whole movie. That is a clear flaw, and I’m not trying to argue that it isn’t. But here’s the thing: (500) Days does it for a specific reason. I would even say the movie counts on its viewers’ active critique on what it does and why.
Before I reveal said reason for you, I’ll first – to raise your suspense, maybe – discuss another question that I asked myself after I finished the film. Should we characterise Summer as a so-called “manic pixie dream girl”? You know, the one that solely exists the way she does in the male lead’s imagination, having little to no inner life on her own?
“Yes!”, you may now proclaim, dear reader.
But I’m not so sure.
“Why not”, you ask?
Well – Summer clearly shows characteristics of this trope at first (and probably second and third), their final conversation alongside Tom’s realisation makes me lean towards a negotiation of said question. Watching the movie, it reminded me a bit of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which came out four years prior. In the film, Kate Winslet’s character addresses the picture the male lead may have of her and rejects such a classification. And I’d say that, in a way, (500) Days deconstructs it by trying to make us realise that we shouldn’t idealise our romantic partners, as this may lead to a complete projection of the relationship itself.
That is, as I’ve said, exactly what Tom does. In Summer, he sees his one true love ideal personified and thus expects her actual real-life self, behaviour and feelings to match his expectations. Therefore, he fails to see her discomfort. And while some people have argued in the 10 years since the movie’s release that Summer should’ve cut Tom loose earlier, that clearly isn’t the essential point. Since Tom fell for her immediately, I’m sure he would’ve been just as struck by her ending their relationship some days earlier of those 500.
Of course, those are dynamics we are so very often shown in film and television – although mostly in chronological order and without the intention to distance ourselves from the main character’s perspective. But what’s rather (and I mean rather) unusual in this twist of a traditional love story is that, in my opinion, the breakup is clearly the best option. Since everything needs a good catchy love story, aren’t we usually meant to want a happy ending? And aren’t we used to getting just that?
Concerning (500) Days and many other films, popular discourse circulated around the following: whose fault was the grand breakup? That means that there’s someone to blame, implying that said falling-out was something negative that could have been prevented or that could’ve at least been fixed. And that isn’t the case with (500) Days, which is why it’s so memorable to me in its take on a traditional (temporary, that is) ending of a relationship. As it splits the story into a before and after, the breakup has been evident throughout the entire movie, making us wonder what went wrong. In the end, however, we can (and should) recognise that it’s the absolute right thing.
After their final conversation towards the end, Tom realises – after a long stage of serious grief and delusional hate towards the not-present Summer – his idealisation. Thus, he grows in order to possibly enter another relationship where he won’t repeat his mistakes. And concerning Summer? She’s taken the chance to find love – mutual love, that is – somewhere else. Again, the fact this contradicts her initial disposition towards love is due to her absent on-screen development, which is undoubtedly the film’s biggest flaw.
But hey – remember how I said that not only does Tom learn about the nature of a functional relationship, but that we as viewers get our own lesson as well? Yeah, that’s what I want to talk about now.
Here’s the deal when it comes to the dynamics between women and men in movies.
Hating a woman that was barely present as an authentic character from start to finish for a falling-out she has every right to want is because we’re meant to be much more sympathetic to men. Men that don’t really realise they’re in the wrong. And here’s the thing: women (Summer, for instance) are authentic in their being, they’re simply not presented as such quite so often. And we’re used to that. So it’s understandable why some might have felt like Summer is in the wrong – but in my opinion that’s, quite frankly, wrong.
And while I can’t say that this portrayal and treatment of women in films has been made clear to me because of the movie and it alone, I value (500) Days of Summer because it illustrates these dynamics like few other movies have.