the first time i saw you
Another possibility is that Phil suffers a psychological breakdown in the middle of the film. I mean, the repeating day has got to be stressful. Your brain would have to come up with entirely new ways to process some information. And, film Phil, without the book calendar, has no way of tracking his passage of time. So, maybe Daughton and Bacha have a point in saying Phil is idealizing Rita. Perhaps, he's losing his mind and all those date days, even more identical than previous days were, finally break him, and those slaps just do him in.
I mean, consider this: When Phil steps in front of the truck to commit suicide, he opens and closes his hands, an odd move, but seemingly meaningless. However, that motion mirrors Rita in front of the bluescreen back at PBH in Pittsburgh. Maybe he's depressed and suicidal not because he can't have Rita but because he can't be Rita. And, even as he's killing himself, he's still trying.
So then, in this context, Phil's speech to Rita as she sleeps is not the sweet confession of a man in love but a the last desperate plea of a broken man with nothing else on his plate.
And, when you're broken, emotionally, of course you would speak in absolutes, as if your love were eternal, as if, despite all the evidence, you fell in love the first time you ever saw her. Now, even this speech falls in Phil's adolescent period, because he's in the early bit of love when your feelings are not just the most important thing but often feel like the only thing there is. And, every quality about the object of your affection is superlative. Rita is the "kindest, sweetest, prettiest" person Phil's ever met. I don't know--Mrs. Lancaster seems quite nice.
He's never seen "anyone that's nicer to people" than Rita is. This is one of those weird details in the movie because we haven't really seen Rita be nice to anyone. Well, she put up with Phil. Maybe that was enough to get his attention. He never really saw anyone else because everyone always seemed disingenuous, either because that is just the type of people with which Phil spent his time, or Phil was projecting his own disingenuousness on them, or because he couldn't recognize anything genuine because he was too self-absorbed. Now, he's finally paying attention, so of course Rita, putting up with his craziness, seems like a saint.
Now, he claims, "The first time I saw you, something happened... to me." But, maybe the key there is not to deal in literality. I mean, sure, the movie does give us a brief "meet-cute" moment when Phil first sees Rita in front of that bluescreen. But, really, at that point, it's hard to believe he's falling for her. Of course, he tells her "that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could." What does that mean? It doesn't indicate love per se. While it seems sweet when he says it, the phrase almost denotes some possessiveness entirely inappropriate for the wholesomeness to come.
(And, how weird is it that a film that involves time loop date rape (trademarked) is still wholesome?)
But, it's not about when Phil literallysaw Rita for the first time, maybe. Maybe it is, maybe that deliberate moment at PBH is a legitimate setup of what's to come between Phil and Rita. But, maybe it's only in retrospect when he truly sees Rita as a real, three-dimensional person, that it means something.
Then, the question becomes, when does Phil truly see Rita?
That's a hard moment to pinpoint in a relationship. You can figure out links in the chain that eventually led to falling in love, but can you really pinpoint the exact moment where something lesser turned into love?
I'm reminded of Harold Ramis' commentary track, where, in describing the scene in which Phil says these nice things to Rita as she sleeps as the moment his assistant Suzanne Harrington fell in love with Phil... He explains that she has a moment in all of their films in which she falls in love with the main character. Ramis goes on to suggest this is the moment when the audience falls in love with Phil as well.
Or maybe it's just the moment when we noticed we already loved him. He was incorrigible but he was charming and funny. We liked him even at his worst moments. Did we want to hold him as hard as we could? If so, was it because we saw in him a kindred spirit or someone who we thought just looked like he needed a hug?
The point is, in this moment, Phil is either announcing (or discovering) a love that's been there all along or perhaps proclaiming a love that still isn't there but he knows it can be, because what else is there? As I said, maybe he's broken. And, that just happens to be when he and Rita finally spend some honest time together. It's like Siddhartha's moment in the tree, dangling over the river. He's been living his life the best way he's known how, but it has come seemingly to naught. Spiritually, perhaps, Phil's pronouncement that he's killed himself so many times he doesn't exist anymore is true. The time loop makes him physically more the same guy than anyone else who had experience the same number of days in real time. But, that bit that is not reset with each resumption--his mind, his spirit, his soul--that piece has even come to an end. and, what is left but a new Phil, who must not replace old ways of life with new ones exactly but completely rebuild himself from scratch. And, knowing all he knows, having experienced life and death, he builds himself a better self, one capable of not only saving lives but easing them with gestures small--lighting that woman's cigarette after he saves Buster--and big--changing the old ladies' tire. On some level, there's no difference between these things, between any of Phil's good deeds. Good is good. Phil has sprung anew from the vile dust into an entirely new life that just happens to resemble his old one.
That's the way I imagine my own life sometimes lately. So many details are the same as they've always been, but then I'm living alone when I've gotten so used to living with a wife and kids. I still like many of the things I used to like, but I don't, for example, look at the stars right before I get into bed every night anymore. Is that merely a practical thing, since I used to have that window that had such a great view of the night sky? Or, is it because my place in the universe is more secure now and I don't need to look into the great darkness to figure out who and what I am? Or less secure now, so the vastness of the universe is frightening? Or, was that just a routine that didn't mean anything?
For that matter, can I pinpoint the moment I fell in love? With my wife? With the girlfriend I had before her? The one before that? Does it matter? If I spend my time exhaustively searching the past to find that one special moment, will that alter the present? Will there be some great epiphany that twists me around into some new man? Do I want there to be?
Phil's life in the time loop has a structure to it that allows for plenty of variation, but it also grounds him. I'm jealous quite often of that. I mean, how great would it be to know tomorrow's weather exactly, to know how people might react to your each and every move? Well, maybe that last bit could be more a bother than a benefit.
It's a strange thing that Phil Connors' greatest fault as he enters the time loop is almost exactly his greatest virtue as he leaves it--he lives in the moment.
Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to live in the moment. To pinpoint not the key events in my past but in my present... because, living now, every single thing that happens is a key event, capable of being transformative and profound or of being forgotten.