Perhaps, like most people, you get out of the same bed every morning, have the same breakfast, say goodbye to the same partner, go to the same job along the same route, in the same office and see the same people – day on day. It’s a disturbingly familiar, automatic chain of events we do almost subconsciously; any breaks in routine only go to underline the sameness of most of our daily activities.
In Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis 1993) Phil Connors (Bill Murray) finds that no matter what he does, this is what happens to him – only on the same day (February 2nd, ‘Groundhog Day’). During the day he is free to do anything he wishes, but he knows that as soon as that day is complete he’s condemned to repeat it tomorrow. Even when he wants to die he cannot – so he’s achieved a kind of unenviable immortality.
If this repetitive round sounds familiar then it’s probably because we’ve met it before in the ancient Greek story of Sisyphus, the king of Corinth who was ‘a bad king’ whom Zeus punished by having him push a rock up a hill and then watch it roll down again – for eternity.
In 1942 the French existentialist philosopher (and goalkeeper*) Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, where he introduced his ‘philosophy of the absurd’: mans’ futile search for meaning and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths and values. In the last chapter he cited Sisyphus’s struggle as a metaphor for the absurdity of man’s existence. Like Connors, Sisyphus cannot die even though death seems to be the only escape from his personal Hell.
So how does Phil Connors deal with his dilemma? It is the love he has for Rita, his female colleague played by Andy MacDowell, which proves decisive. He largely muddles his way through but, driven on by love, he becomes so involved with learning how Rita ‘ticks’ he is transformed. Throughout the film he discovers his feminine side and loses his sexist, masculine attitude to emerge a more rounded individual and it is this that releases him from the recurrence.
Despite the repetition in his life Connors still has free will and choice. At first, he is shocked by his predicament and then he feels godlike until suicidal depression takes over – but he cannot die. He can change though. Either he can go insane, remain sane but in distress or accept his fate and make the most of it. He chooses the last option; he becomes skilled in many fields, develops as a person, and achieves self-awareness and self-enlightenment. By the end of the film Connors escapes recurrence and gets back into the normal flow of time – as a transformed human being.
Similarly, Camus has Sisyphus transform his soul-destroying situation by accepting it; eventually even enjoying pushing his rock and seeing it roll back. To him the empty universe seems neither sterile nor futile – the struggle alone is fulfilment and he becomes happy; Connors too has achieved this. If the film has a lesson for all of us, it is that we can escape from whatever dilemma we’re in by adopting the correct attitude – it’s a tough lesson on how to escape an existential bind but here it works.
So, has Groundhog Day offered us a valuable treatise on how to cope with adversity – thus making it a philosophical movie – or is it just another improbable, enjoyable rom-com? You decide.
*Played in goal for the University of Algiers.