(500) Days of Summer is an exercise in expectation. We are told from the start that this isn’t a love story, yet as the narrative unfolds, we keep feeling that we have been lied to. This must be a love story, we think. She likes the same music he likes (which he happens to be serendipitously listening to while they ride on the elevator), look at how cute they are playing house in IKEA. It’s all cute and bubbly and sweet, and don’t forget they sleep together so that must make it a love story. Despite Summer (Zooey Deschanel) articulating very ardently all through the movie that she isn’t looking for something serious, we don’t believe her. We are fooled in the same way Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) the protagonist is.
When we look at Summer we don’t see a woman with flaws or sharp edges – we see a beautiful, quirky girl who is there to complete Tom’s love story. Tom, in his search for love, makes the mistake of putting Summer on a pedestal to idealize. When she tells him a personal story about herself, he doesn’t really listen to what she’s saying but rather, pats himself on the back for being the one she tells the story to. So you see, there cannot be a love story when Tom doesn’t even see her for who she is beyond the lens of his own creation.
It is a tale as old as time, and we see this just as acutely in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has been chasing Daisy Buchanan for 5 years of his life. He sees her not as a person but someone who is there to complete the person he wants to be. We never get to see Daisy, just fragments of her littered all over the text. We don’t know her dreams, her desires, we just know Gatsby’s via narrator Nick Carraway. She is depicted as a careless person (her being rich contributes to this as well), however, most of us are.
We are careless with the feelings of others when we don’t feel the same. There is an expectation that ‘they should know’, because if we truly wanted them, they would know. Summer plays that game. She tells Tom over and over again that she doesn’t want anything serious, yet her actions lead him on. To her, flirting and dancing with Tom at a wedding, leaning her head against his shoulder on the ride back, are insignificant in the large romantic scheme of things. It doesn’t mean anything, yet for someone like Tom, these are signs from her of renewed interest.
The film is a great study about our preoccupation with falling in love in our minds. We play little bits of possibility like reels of film in our heads, indulging in the soft bed of love and yearning. But as the movie shows us, all this expectation never amounts to anything real. The film plays this out in a fantastic split screen sequence, showing the difference between expectation and reality.
If we back away from Tom’s rose-coloured lens for a minute, we see how it was never really perfect, and it was never really love for her. She tries to muster up some sense of it, like when she randomly kisses Tom at the photocopy machine. To Tom, this is amazing. A hot girl just kissed him senseless for absolutely no reason. But for Summer, it is clear the kiss just doesn’t do it for her. She gives him an awkward glance before leaving the room, not the look of a woman who has been properly ravished. She had never been sure with Tom, and that my dear friends, is the deal-breaker.
There are no fairytale love stories in real life, no cosmic earth-shattering moments of meant to be, just relationships between flawed people who have both decided to make things work with each other. Choice is everything. You cannot single-handedly carry a relationship or love a person who doesn’t desire affection from you. As these loved-up folk walk the path they have decided to forge together, they leave behind cobbled streets of destruction and broken hearts recuperating on solitary benches. This is the great human condition – to fall and be caught, or to fall into a black hole where even light cannot be light. Don’t despair though, the boat always rights itself: for every summer that hurts, there is an autumn that cures.