Why do we love to watch sad films when we’re already sad?

As Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind turns 20, we ask experts why we find comfort in the movies that move us

A man and woman lying in snow
A man and woman lying in snow

As Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind turns 20, we ask experts why we find comfort in the movies that move us

By Kyle MacNeill02 Apr 2024
6 mins read time
6 mins read time

Ironically, for a film that's about trying to forget, I know pretty much the entirety of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by heart. I’m not alone here; clips of the cult film are constantly shared on social media from serial rewatchers and it’s recently reentered the pop-culture consciousness thanks to Ariana Grande’s latest LP, eternal sunshine. Plus, there’s a reference to it in the gorgeous Past Lives, when Nora tells Hae Sung that she's heading to Montauk, where Eternal Sunshine is partially set (Hae Sung, trying to impress his love interest, is immediately shown watching it).

Released exactly 20 years ago in the UK in April 2004, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s sci-fi romance sees Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) get swept up in a whirlwind relationship that rapidly spirals out of control. Left broken after a destructive break-up, both lovers choose to erase every memory they have of each other through Lacuna, a tech start-up with its own sketchy past.

It’s deeply, desperately depressing. Some films give you a headache, but Eternal Sunshine leaves you with a heartache. And a banging, pounding, throbbing one at that. One of cinema’s truest representations of lovesickness in all its variants, it spans the pining, aching pangs of the honeymoon phase to the insidious, poisonous pains of waning desire. And, then, the toxic fallout that comes when you fall out of love.

Strangely, though, I choose to rewatch it over and over again. Especially, in fact, when I’m already sad. For me, it’s part of a suite of bittersweet romances that offer a kind of cinematic catharsis: from Her (also written by Charlie Kaufman) to Past Lives, Lost in Translation to The Before Trilogy. But we all have different movies we return to when we’re down, from sentimental animations to tragic epics. Why, though, do we actively watch sad films when we’re already feeling sad?

Well, sad themes aside, the act of rewatching can help us when we’re feeling low. Sure, whacking on high-stress movie Uncut Gems again might not be the best idea when you’re wanting to relax, but pressing play on something you’ve already seen can in itself be a source of comfort. Barbara Klinger, a legendary film professor at Indiana University, studied the phenomenon of watching the same movie over and over again. “It’s a nostalgic means of comfort that helps viewers to escape, forget or remember,” she wrote, adding that people enjoy the familiarity of these films, the ability to rehearse memorised dialogue and the therapeutic aspect of reenacting a ritual.

After all, there are no jumpscares, undesired surprises or unexpected endings – you know exactly how everything is going to pan out. It gives you a sense of control, pressing pause on life and play on something you know you like. It’s why many of us who are neurodivergent or experience anxiety choose to rewatch films, offering us a cinematic experience that won’t leave us reeling.

I'm a firm believer in rewatching your favourite movies once or twice a year. I think part of the comfort in rewatching is revisiting a feeling you once had
The Film Zone

Plus, if you have fond memories attached to the movie, you can rewind to that happy place. “I'm a firm believer in rewatching your favourite movies once or twice a year. I think part of the comfort in rewatching is revisiting a feeling you once had,” says Instagram movie community The Film Zone, also a fan of Eternal Sunshine. “It’s also quite nice when you’ve aged and view the film a little differently than you did years before,” they add. So rewatching is comforting; but why would we choose a sad film?

Simply put, sad movies help us remember that we’re not alone. Seeing glum characters on screen is a reminder that we’re experiencing something perfectly normal. “Most movies, no matter how sad, can also make us feel happy because they make us feel like we’re not the only ones going through something,” says film fanpage Cinevile. “For example, Clementine made me realise I’m not the only one who would be better off just forgetting about a bad relationship. We find comfort in watching people go through everyday things,” they add.

Sometimes, it reminds us that we are actually having a less sad time when compared to our cinematic companions. “Downward social comparison theory claims that viewers enjoy – or at least use – negative representations in films for reasons of comparing themselves downwardly. It supposedly lifts well-being and bolsters self-esteem,” says film professor and author of The Audience Effect Julian Hanich. In other words, seeing Joel not only go through a breakup, but also the regret of wiping his entire memory, makes us feel better – at least we didn’t do that, right?

Hanich, though, believes this isn’t the full story. “When you go to watch a melodramatic film you don’t do it to feel superior to the characters,” he says. The theory, basically, doesn’t explain why we enjoy the actual act of feeling sad while watching a sad film. Enter his distancing-embracing model, created in collaboration with colleague Winfred Menninghaus and a team of German scholars, which says that we can enjoy sadness because we can distance ourselves from the film (we are remote from their world and have a remote control to stop it at any point) and then embrace the negative emotions (we willingly accept these to create a positive experience). But how can feeling this sadness lead to pleasure?

Hello catharsis, my old friend. See, for many of us, watching a sad film is a form of emotional release, letting us let it all out. “Shedding tears over a moving film such as Eternal Sunshine can certainly be very enjoyable,” Hanich says. “It’s relaxing, softening and expanding and allows for a way to counter stress and tenseness. That's why we sometimes speak of having a good cry,” he adds.

More important, though, is the experience of being moved by a movie. Rather than just enabling an emotional release, sad films cause us to experience emotions. This, of course, isn’t always very nice. “I don’t think that the cinematic experience is always cathartically pleasurable,” Dr. Tarja Lane, film professor and author of Feeling Cinema, says. She argues that we stay with a truly harrowing film, like Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, “for the sake of intense experience,” not because it helps us purge our emotions.

But, in a way, the feeling of being moved is itself pleasurable. “We watch melodramatic films to have a deeply moving experience,” Hanich says. “Being moved is an emotion we all know well but that scholars have only begun to explore over the last decade or so,” he continues. For Hanich, some films are joyfully moving (punch-the-air moments of overcoming obstacles) while others are sadly moving (a classic cry-in-your-popcorn melodrama).

Sadness contributes to the overall positively experienced emotion of being moved. It can be extremely intense but it’s enjoyable in the safe surroundings of the cinema or living room
Julian Hanich, film professor and author of The Audience Effect

Being ‘moved’ leads to a more stimulating cinematic experience. “Sadness contributes to the overall positively experienced emotion of being moved. It can be extremely intense but it’s enjoyable in the safe surroundings of the cinema or living room,” he says. So we rewatch some sad films because, by their virtue, they are particularly engrossing: to find a film sad in the first place, we have to be moved by it, something which we humans strangely enjoy.

But wait, what happens if the sad films we rewatch actually aren’t as depressing as we first thought? “I personally do not consider Eternal Sunshine ‘sad’, even though it has sad scenes,” Laine thinks. “I would describe the emotional core of the film as bittersweet instead, which is a sort of delightful sadness, where the positive and the negative emotions are inextricably intertwined.”

Maybe she’s onto something here; melancholic movies aren’t all frowns-and-rainstorms. While all sad films, as we’ve seen, are somehow pleasurable because they move us, the ones that we choose to rewatch often have a wistful bittersweetness. Eternal Sunshine, for example, has moments of life-affirming joy amid its misery: Joel and Clementine’s early meet-cute, the comforting moment under a duvet den, the scene where they wrestle in the snow without a care in the world, not even realising how cold it is.

This mixture of light and dark is, after all, the film’s message: a spotless mind, cleared of pain, doesn’t really lead to eternal happiness. Sadness can be unpleasant, sure, but it’s also a necessary coping mechanism for mediating our other emotions. We need rain to enjoy the sunshine (or however that Dolly Parton quote goes) – and that’s what a bittersweet film precipitates.

It’s why, by the end of the movie, Joel realises that getting rid of both his memories and tangible reminders of Clementine didn’t lead to happiness. If only he had forgoed the forgetting and embraced his negative emotions instead! Or, he could have just rewatched a really sad movie. I know a good one...

If you are struggling with your mental health, organisations such as The Samaritans and Mind are at hand to reach out to.