For someone who writes a lot about hatred and other destructive impulses, who has a completely unsentimental view of human nature, I confess I’m a sucker for a good love story; my favorite theme is the power of love to transform character in a way that leads to real psychological and emotional growth. Few films portray this power better than ‘Groundhog Day’ with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell.
In the early moments of the film, we meet Phil Conners, an egotistical TV weatherman defined by his arrogance, conceit and contempt for those around him. “People are morons,” he tells Rita, his new producer. He ridicules her for finding the groundhog story endearing; he mocks the citizens of Punxsutawney for dancing all night before the Groundhog Festival (“They’re hicks”) and insinuates sotto voce that the waitress in his B&B is an idiot for not knowing how to spell cappuccino or espresso. All in all, he’s a rather nasty fellow who believes he’s superior to everyone.
“I make the weather,” he tells the highway patrolman who turns them back from Pittsburgh in the face of a blizzard. In psychoanalytic terms, I’d say his character is defined by its omnipotence.
While well-defended people like Phil Conners don’t often seek treatment, I’ve worked with several individuals with a similar character structure. For all of them, the issue came down to a hatred of dependence and neediness; instead of entering into relationships with people they regarded as separate, where mutual dependency was a fact, they would either devalue the people they needed and cared about, viewing them with contempt, or try to control and manipulate them to avoid feeling separate and dependent upon them.
In my school of thought, control, triumph and contempt are the primary defenses against an awareness of need, a need so powerful it makes you feel helpless in the face of it.
Phil treats the objects of his desire in just this way. First he sexually manipulates Nancy Lincoln, a beautiful stranger he spots at the groundhog festival, by concocting a shared history and telling her he wants to marry her. Because he lives the same day over and over, there are no consequences to his actions and he can do whatever he likes. Social restraint has been removed and as a result, he feels free to exploit people ruthlessly, with no regard for their feelings and no fear of punishment.
Next he goes after Rita, the true object of his desire; as portrayed in a brilliant montage, he spends weeks learning about her, altering his own behavior to manipulate her, progressing step-by-step to the point where he gets her into his room at the B&B and tries to seduce her.
When Rita realizes he has been manipulating her, she asks him, “Is that what love means to you?” The answer is yes, of course — for Phil, loves means attempting to control and manipulate the woman he desires. “I could never love anyone like you,” she then tells him, “because all you care about is yourself.” Phil’s response is telling: “That’s not true. I don’t even like myself.” For a man like Phil — and my clients in treatment — powerful self-hatred lies at the core of their superior defenses.
After another brilliant montage in which he tries with increasing desperation to relive the almost-perfect night with Rita, he finally gives up in despair. In the next scene when he once again appears at the Groundhog Festival and greets her, he looks depressed. His hopeless longing for her is palpable. At last his defenses have cracked and he has come into contact with desire and need so powerful he feels helpless in the face of them.
In the next post, I’ll conclude the discussion and show how Phil’s character is transformed by the power of love.