The Genre Genre: Repetition and Love in Palm Springs

**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the Hulu movie Palm Springs.**

“The person who chooses himself ethically
has himself as his task, not as a possibility,
not as a plaything for the play of his arbitrariness.”
—Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Roy: You gotta find your Irvine.
Nyles: I don’t have an Irvine.
Roy: We all have an Irvine.
—Palm Springs

Palm Springs is the latest film installation in what I have started to call “the genre genre.” It began, as far as my admittedly limited dive into the annals of pop culture could find, with the classic early-’90s hit Groundhog Day, in which the cynical lead, Phil, is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over until he breaks the cycle of his own cynicism by finding love—though, it’s worth pointing out, he tries many ways out of the cycle, and it’s left to viewer imaginations whether or not it was the romantic love per se or the accumulation of the entire journey and process that finally breaks him out of the cycle.

What Palm Springs does so well is show a marriage of these elements in the blossoming romance of its two main characters, so that their love for each other ultimately symbolizes a theory of love generally.It struck me watching Palm Springs that this genre of time-looped day-repetition is incredibly fertile ground for commentary on so many characteristics of modern living. Many comedies have approached the mundanity of, for example, modern work environments as fertile ground for culture-commenting and criticism. The genre is also, however, a commentary on genre itself (thus my dubbing it “the genre genre”) in its depiction of regularity and normalcy. The question that it asks is, “How can a work of art break out of the repetition of audience expectation into a place of transmitting genuine meaning?” Every new day is just the same as before in the same way that every new rom-com is inescapably just like all the others: loneliness, connection, high point, low point, resolution. Palm Springs, it should be noted, kind of doesn’t even really break this genre expectation, even though, given its indie status, viewers may even expect to have their expectations broken.

In the ancient law of cinema duality, the law that every summer there will be at least two movies released that have the exact same plot (i.e., The Prestige [2006] and The Illusionist [2006]; or The Double [2013] and Enemy [2013]), there was a Netflix production in the genre genre called Love Wedding Repeat that was also released post-lockdown. It received generally negative reviews, with a 32% on the Tomatometer. Palm Springs, however, which was produced by Hulu and stars SNL’s Andy Samburg and How I Met Your Mother’s Cristina Milioti, currently holds an astonishing 94% critical response on the Tomatometer and an 89% audience score. It had all the charm of an indie rom-com with big, colorful, slow-mo shots of weird things (see for example the gorgeous shot of Nyles’s millionth birthday party); a stellar soundtrack; and crazy nihilistic and depressive under- and/or over-tones. Perhaps both Netflix and Hulu thought that a genre genre movie in this time of global, hyper-focused repetition would be appropriate.

In this version of the story, a mysterious cave outside of a wedding venue in Palm Springs causes everyone who enters into it to relive that day over and over ad infinitum. Though it’s never depicted in the movie, Nyles, the main character and a “sad boy,” apparently walked into it one day and has since been stuck reliving that particular wedding day—he is the boyfriend of one of the bridesmaids—for so long that he has even apparently forgotten what he did for a living before he came to the wedding. One night, after he saves the bride’s sister, Sarah, from having to give a drunken speech she is wildly unprepared to give, they shuffle off for a tryst that gets interrupted in the most bizarre and hilarious of ways, ultimately resulting in Sarah’s entrance into the cave. She consequently joins Nyles in his bizarre adventure of reliving the same day forever, only now he apparently has someone to share it with.

However, I was struck while watching this movie that the genre genre, in the context of Groundhog Day, Love Wedding Repeat, and Palm Springs, is also a commentary on love and, particularly, what happens to love after the excitement of newness has faded. Furthermore, not only are both Love Wedding Repeat and Palm Springs post-lockdown releases, they are also centered on the actions of millennials at wedding ceremonies, a place of common anxiety for my generation. No wonder both of those movies take on feelings of dread and despair when the main characters become stuck in the marriage world forever. Nyles at one point likens their situation to purgatory.

Søren Kierkegaard thought that repetition was and would continue to be of particular interest for modern people and philosophers, and he was certainly right that it would be of greater relevance to modern society. Heidegger dedicated a lot of ink to the subject of boredom, and David Foster Wallace committed suicide halfway through a massive novel about IRS agents struggling with the mind-numbing boredom of repetition. It doesn’t take very long at all for Palm Springs to turn toward the nihilistic. As a part of his introduction to the life repetitive, Nyles casually tells Sarah that now, because they are stuck in that day forever, all of life and everything is meaningless. Interestingly, he takes this to mean that they should probably just sit back, drink, and try to attain as sharp a pleasure-to-effort ratio as possible. Sarah, though perhaps convinced initially, gradually becomes less content with that method, and she eventually becomes the catalyzing force in their getting out of the loop.

Nyles’s view—the movie never makes explicit reference to the fact, but his name puns on his view of the universe; nihilism & Nyle-ism—can be expressed clearly by this passage from Kierkegaard’s Repetition: “[T]he more competent one becomes, the less satisfied one is. Satisfied, completely, absolutely satisfied in every way, this one never is, and to be more or less satisfied is not worth the trouble, so it is better to be completely dissatisfied” (109). This initially works for Sarah because, as we slowly discover throughout the movie, she is struggling to accept so much about who she is and where she’s just come from—I don’t want to spoil much, so, suffice it to say, she bears a heavy burden of shame. But her role in the movie is to point out that, no matter how much one wants to live in the oblivion of meaninglessness, it is not a sufficient atonement for shame and the evil within. A major impediment to her actually loving Nyles is his radical acceptance of their situation in the time loop. As their relationship deteriorates, Nyles himself begins to lose faith in his theory of repetition.

But the movie’s thesis is not simply that repetition is bad for relationships. It is a half of the two-part process that comprises the job of love. On the one hand, as the movie demonstrates through the character Roy’s subplot and through Nyle’s insistence, the acceptance of repetition is to some extent important. But its importance is also hinged on the leap of faith. True love is the marriage of both of these elements, the unsexy patterns and liturgies of faithfulness and the individual moments of choice that break patterns and help us to improve ourselves, others, and the world at large. What Palm Springs does so well is show a marriage of these elements in the blossoming romance of its two main characters, so that their love for each other ultimately symbolizes a theory of love generally.

The genre genre is useful for depicting the boredom inherent in modern living and marriage. But what makes Palm Springs different from the others of the genre is its message that repetition, though at times hellish, is an important component in the world of loving. Interestingly, after Nyles and Sarah finally break free from their time trap, they go immediately back to one of their favorite places they’d always gone to when stuck in the time loop, the pool of an empty house of a family on vacation. The last scene of the movie is the arrival of the family back at their house, a literalization of the metaphor that the honeymoon phase is over. But Nyles and Sarah are, by this point, prepared it seems for the return to normalcy and a new beginning to their old liturgy of love.