By Penzilneck 8 Comments
For anyone interested in film theory, philosophy or both. A recent essay comparing the 2003 film The Dreamers, which I suspect too few have seen, and the existentialist philosophy of Sartre. Hope you endure and enjoy, and are intrigued enough to decide to see the film if you haven't already.
The question of whether one is justified in making connections between certain films (the problem does of course apply to other art forms as well) and particular philosophical ideas is an interesting one and not easily done away with. A loose definition of the opinions of two different kinds of philosophers, admittedly polarizing, might shed a light on the problem.
This tendency is a step in sound, logical thinking which pushes the imagination to form theories to further test and hopefully lead to better understanding. (Positive towards the relevance of film, P from now on)
It is simply an imaginative flight of fancy, a sort of poetic escapism, to be dismissed for posing as an acceptable way of progressive philosophical thinking. (Negative towards the relevance of film, N from now on)
Although I will not try and conclude either hypothesis in this short essay, I will point out and elaborate on the connection I find between The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003) and a simplified, popular version of Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism. Different readers of different opinions of film's relevance to philosophy may not be moved in their persuasion by this short essay, but I will show that the possibility of relevance is indeed there.
After some elaboration on the difference of opinions P and N, and a short outlining of the film, I intend to single out the most important of Sartre's concepts and show how scenes and characters in The Dreamers can be viewed and, indeed, read as examples of those concepts and ideas, although varying in subtlety. Whatever connections I make may well be far from the intention and inspiration of Bertolucci, which makes one of the protagonists lines sound especially fitting in the light of this essay: “I didn't know I was being philosophical”.
Both the film and Sartre's ideas have a reputation for being obscure and even pretentious. My aim is to utilize each to hopefully shed a light on how the film can be said to, in fact, show or act out philosophy by vivid Sartre-like examples that engage any open-minded viewer.
A familiar example from the culture of film will hopefully show the reality of these simplified opinions and the difference in philosophers it makes for.
Paul, a P-thinking person, and Ned, his N-thinking friend, exit the theater after seeing the film The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998). Paul is filled with thoughts on the significance of the events and dialogue of the film and how they may relate to his own and others' lives; questions about the existence and nature of God, ethics of war and so on. Ned enjoyed the film as a piece of art, found it superbly directed if a bit long and would recommend it to anyone interested in films on war. He is, however, not willing to go to the same lengths as Paul to analyze the film's undercurrents. To him this was a well crafted, partly historical film about men at war and, at most, the different psychological impact it had on each of them. He is not interested in reading between the lines.
Paul and Ned happen to be philosophers, and the film will likely leave very different impressions on each of them. Paul is inspired to watch the film again to catch dialogue and situations which may resonate with something he has previously studied, and this in due time may just bring him to a breakthrough in his way of thinking and working philosophically. Ned on the other hand is merely intrigued by the film as a form of social commentary which will not help him in his search for logical truths or solutions to tricky problems.
To Paul the characters in the film are at least something like human beings like himself. To Ned, they are at most something like himself and not to be empathized with too much (except perhaps as a deterrent to going to war). The difference between them is then one of ability or openness to perceive and accept analogy; to make connections between things and events outside their own private experience and use those as examples to get a different perspective on their own reality.¹ It is not a question of different tastes, but of different mindsets.
Of course it should be pointed out that Paul might not be the optimal philosopher if to him just about any film begs to be analyzed and taken as philosophically significant. He would be better off with a touch of logic on his side. As for Ned, it seems his philosophical thought lacks something if there isn't room for anything but superficial evidence. Insight and lateral thinking might add some spark to his thought. Most people are likely somewhere in the more moderate range between P and N.
So now we may turn to the film at hand. The Dreamers tells the story of Matt (Michael Pitt), an impressionable, young film buff and American exchange student in Paris, France in 1968. There he spends most of his free time in the famous movie-houses, watching some of the most influential and progressive cinema of the time.
Through this he meets a pair of bohemian twins; Theo (Louis Garrel), a rebellious young man familiar enough with the radical ideas of the time to pose as a proper, worldly intellectual, and Isabelle (Eva Green), a colorful girl with a penchant for drama and theatrics, always ready with a quote from a memorable scene to recite even in the most ordinary conversation. When asked about her birthday, she answers, with an inspired look in her eyes: “I entered this world on the Champs-Elysées. 1959. [...] And you know what my very first words were? […] “New York Herald-Tribune!”” This would make her nine years old, yet nothing is said of the matter.
Meanwhile tempers are rising among students and followers of the cinema out on the streets of Paris (which will eventually lead to the famous riots of May 1968). The twins' parents leave town for some time and Matt moves in. Fun and games ensue, but soon turn sinister and more perverted. Matt's values and morals are shaken and even mocked by the twins, which they claim to do out of love. He in turn manages to unveil each of their own insecurities and tries to push them towards maturity, out of his own love, until the world literally crashes in through their window. Matt, refusing to resort to violence, loses the twins as they rush into the student riots that have been raging outside their nest for the past weeks.
A summary of most films doesn't have to take more than a single page of text, but a sufficient summary of a single philosophy will take more. In the case of existentialism, understanding might have less to do with the length of the summary and more to do with being met with an open mind. For the sake of clarity I will explain a few of Sartre's concepts to have in mind on the way through the main body of the essay.
Primarily I will focus on the issue of bad faith. By what Sartre calls 'bad faith' he means a certain form of inauthenticity. It is a refusal to take responsibility for actions or situations. In his own jargon, the many different forms and instances of bad faith will always be constituted of a person's inversion or separation of their facticity and their transcendence.
'Facticity' means, simply put, the concrete reality of a person and the world she inhabits. A person's choices and actions are in response to her own facticity. By doing that, the person exercises the freedom to choose her own future in response to her own past. This freedom is a necessary aspect of any person since it is each person's own decision how she sees herself in her concrete, physical situation. This freedom is in fact an obligation. A widower's facticity is his sudden solitude, but he is necessarily free to choose his interpretation and meaning of it.
A person's existence in this flight from the facticity of her past is called 'transcendence' for the fact that the person realizes her worldly surroundings and exercises her freedom to choose the next step, placing her outside or above the state of less aware beings of the world. The transcendent consciousness sees itself as more than a mere object in the world.
This person is what Sartre calls 'being-for-itself' (BFI) (as opposed to 'being-in-itself' which simply is and can not be fully explained but can be crudely compared to Kant's idea of 'noumena' as things-in-themselves which I will not dwell on here). The BFI is aware of and acts upon the world but is trapped in a complicated relationship with it. BFI constantly wishes to surpass the physical and its complications to become something like an idea of God. It follows then that BFI lives in perpetual anxiety over its necessary options and possibilities, that is, responsibilities.
The ones who try and deny this reality of facticity and transcendence, to avoid responsibilities, are in bad faith. They think themselves unable to choose, and thus in fact choose not to choose. It is important to distinguish bad faith from self-deception, since one and the same consciousness can not seriously lie to and deceive itself. Bad faith is more akin to self-distraction. This self-distraction is not all bad, since a person can and will utilize it in difficult circumstances to stave off the anxiety or 'vertigo of possibility' she feels in the face of unlimited freedom. A person in bad faith might tell herself that the option of pushing the man next to her in front of the oncoming train is not open to her, and thus she doesn't feel anxious over the realization that she is free to do so. She sees herself as a transcendence-less object, purely in facticity.
On the contrary, when a person deliberately accepts her freedom without regret for her past or present facticity, and realizes that she must choose her actions and reactions at each moment and by that transcend, she is living in authenticity, opposed to bad faith. Again, being in bad faith would not be bad in all cases, but neither is BFI necessarily the best or most right way to be at all times (Sartre does away with most value concepts, so there are few if any definite rights and wrongs, goods and evils in his worldview, similar to Nietzsche's).
Generally, BFI can still be said to be better than being-for-others (BFO) where the person lets herself become an object whose role is defined by the Other. A person never stays BFO for long in usual circumstances, but in human interaction two or more consciousnesses play this game of transcending each other, choosing for each other. Imagine the interplay between a head-waiter and his chef, a prisoner and his warden, or teacher and student: each individual is free to choose the meaning of their own role, but also that of their antagonist. Each is aware of the benefits of playing the role that the Other expects of them and choose to do so temporarily before turning back to their own transcendence.
'The Other' in this context is simply consciousnesses other than our own, from whose perspective we can not help but see ourselves occasionally. Still, those who are more prone to bad faith than most may tell themselves they are transcending when in fact they choose their attitude and actions based mostly on other people's judgments and expectations, that is their transcendence. That way, a person BFO is essentially a transcendence-transcended.
Now that the relevant concepts (bad faith, transcendence, facticity, being-for-itself, being-for-others, the Other, authenticity) and their chemistry have been touched upon I will list scenes from The Dreamers and explain how Sartre's philosophy can be seen manifesting on screen. Hopefully these examples will in turn fill what gaps of understanding my previous, brief explanations have left with the reader.
Matt, when introduced, feels relatable to many viewers who remember being impression-able and awkward yet adventurous in their adolescence. His narration sounds cocksure and experienced, but is told after the events of the film with an 'if I knew then what I know now' attitude. A boy living in exciting times with plenty opportunity to search for and come into his own, it is ironic then that he is halfway across the world but spends all his time in the cinema. “I was one of the insatiables, the ones you'd always find sitting closest to the screen” he states early on. Far from being alone, every night the theaters are full of adolescents in search for escape, inspiration or even guidance.
When Matt meets the twins he is instantly struck with admiration. To him they seem cool, experienced and completely sure of themselves and their surroundings. He recognizes in them what he has seen and admired in movie stars. To him they are what we would, in the context of this essay, call BFI. He wants to become like them. He wants to transcend. In a letter Matt writes home to his mother, he talks about “getting in with the right kind of people”.
Early on, the twins' father points out that Matt has more to offer than they may realize, after Matt shares some analyzing and insightful thoughts with the rest of them. This becomes more apparent through the film, as Matt appears to step ever closer to BFI, but not by becoming more like the twins. On the contrary, as Matt and the viewer see more and more evidence of the twins' inauthenticity, he realizes ways to practice his own freedom of choice. His realization is strengthened by how hard it is for the twins to join him in his growth, as their immaturity is exposed each time. It is no coincidence that the scenes where Matt is pushed the most towards actualizing his BFI are the ones with the most conflict between him and one or both of the twins.
From the moment Isabelle is introduced, to most viewers, she comes across as pretentious. Her theatrics are apparent from the beginning and we wait for her mask to come off. She is first seen (except for a brief glimpse in the film's opening) where she stands against the gates of the closed theater, wrapped in chains and wearing a bright red beret, a cigarette hanging of her lip, with a somber, defiant look on her face. She exhibits herself as a martyr of the cause only to playfully toss the chains off as soon as the curious and awkward Matt is sufficiently intrigued. She is practically flaunting her BFI, her self-diagnosed authenticity.
The unveiling however seems to begin only when Isabelle is put under extreme pressure, knocking hard against her comfortable 'bubble'. She is most notably shaken just after making love to Matt for the first time, again when she hears Theo having sex with a girl in the adjacent room while Isabelle is at her most vulnerable in her private and up until then hidden room with Matt, and at last when she realizes her parents' discovery of the kids' debauchery and attempts to go through with her promise of suicide should they ever be found out.
Throughout the plot Isabelle keeps up an air of maturity which still seems borrowed from her role-models in films. She addresses the boys with phrases such as “...my little Matthew...” and “Oh, yes you do, my pet”. Isabelle holds up the appearance of being in control of the unconventional situations they find themselves in. During Theo's forfeit, she seems completely unsurprised that he is actually going through with the humiliating task. Later, when Theo has Matt in a hold after hunting him across the apartment, Isabelle asks, stark naked: “...you aren't being very gallant. Is the prospect of making love to me so hateful?” A few scenes later, when Matt and Isabelle have grown comfortable with the unabashed and frequent lovemaking, he professes that at first impression he thought she had had many lovers before him: “...you looked so cool. So sophisticated. Like a movie star.” and she replies, proudly: “I was. I was acting, Matthew”. Without any sense of irony or doubt, she admits her inauthenticity.
On the surface, Theo is not unlike any other rebellious teenager. His manner can easily be excused by pointing towards his immediate surroundings. At that time and place, Paris in 1968, there were plenty more people at Theo's age who were swept along with ideals and ideas of change and rebellion, influenced by larger-than-life characters on the movie screen and on the streets.
It is not until after closer inspection in more intimate enclosure that Theo is exposed as someone going through more than just a phase. Theo considers himself an embodiment of the radical, rebellious spirit, in a complete mode of BFI. Matt, as well as the viewer, meets Theo outside the theater where he arrives with a following of his peers while reciting names of famous directors. Theo has his peers' attention, and catches Matt's just as easily, while keeping a constant air of coolness about himself. His coolness stays throughout the film (except for some excitement during a few arguments which all revolve around matters of culture and nothing deeper) until near the end when Matt finally exposes a chink in Theo's radicalist armor and hits too close to home, pushing Theo to violence. Up until then, he had kept his cool during his forfeit after losing Isabelle's movie challenge, even going as far as to assure Matt a moment later that he had performed the forfeit willingly and thus negating the humiliation. “Why don't you admit you were thrilled? […] You think Isabelle forced me, do you?” Even when he is hunting after Matt through the apartment to force him to have sex with Isabelle, Theo's own sister, he is levelheaded. “This is silly. Come out of there”. When he finally has his way and Matt makes love to Isabelle on the kitchen floor, he calmly makes an omelet while the moans of the pair blend in with the excited yells of the rioters running in the streets outside.
Theo has by then proved his influence and power over Matt. Soon, Theo thinks Matt is getting too comfortable with the situation, so he starts staking his claim over Isabelle again. At one point he takes Matt's place next to sleeping Isabelle while Matt takes a short trip to the kitchen. “Let's get something straight, okay? […] but no. It wasn't always meant to be the three of us.”
The relevance of Sartre's concepts manifests best in the scenes where the kids' various existential states clash. The plot might be boiled down to the suggestion that the twins have thrived on their mutual recognition of each of their own fragile state of BFI, hiding away the fact of their bad faith for however long until Matt comes into the picture unwittingly in the role of the Other. In exercising their transcendence over Matt, they push him towards maturity while fighting against the realization of their own inauthenticity, digging themselves ever deeper into a state of bad faith.
In the beginning, Matt is infatuated with the twins. Through painful steps of embarrassment they at last get him under their spell, their forced transcendence, during the sex-scene in the kitchen.² Later, in a scene in the bathroom, Matt professes his love of Isabelle. She answers him casually, unemotionally, and even answers for both her and Theo as if it is a joint decision to accept Matt's love. “Oh, poor Matthew. We do love you very much”. Matt, irritated, pushes for a direct answer from Isabelle alone. Isabelle grabs the chance for yet another of her games and proposes a way for Matt to prove his love. She toys with his hope of transcending to their level, of becoming their equal, which Matt thinks must have already occurred. When it becomes clear that this is yet another embarrassing task, to shave Matt's pubic hair, he finally takes the reins and rebels. Theo retreats uninterested, but Isabelle is visibly shaken. Matt, at last in control of an embarrassing situation, calls on the twins, and especially Isabelle, to let the mask drop and join him on a regular date. “Don't look at Theo. Isabelle, you don't need his permission”. After their date, Isabelle has a breakdown and it becomes obvious to Matt that she is unchanged.
Later, it is Theo's turn to have his authenticity seriously questioned. The boys discuss matter of rebellion. Theo tries to convince Matt of the beauty and truth of Mao's socialism and how justified the revolution is. Matt speaks out in doubt: “...if you really believed what you were saying, you'd be out there”. Theo becomes upset, angry, and starts choking Matt, only to stop when he discovers Isabelle standing behind them. Matt mumbles: “I think you prefer when the word 'together' means not 'a million', but just two”. Theo remains unchanged in his bad faith.
At last, when the twins have had their authenticity seriously doubted, they grab the chance to run into the streets when it finally seems like the whole city has poured out to protest. Matt begs them to reconsider, to think and see that violence isn't the answer. Matt has realized his freedom to choose and act on his own accord, when the whole city seems to go against his believes around him. He is finally BFI, transcending above his facticity. Theo reclaims Isabelle, grabbing her in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other, and runs into the oncoming lines of police in one last desperate attempt to choose and be free, to defiantly transcend.
Sadly, yet hopefully encouraging for the reader to explore the film further, there is a plethora of topics concerning the film and its relevance to philosophy, psychology, sociology and so on which the length of this essay simply will not suffice to cover, and that just from one particular film. Some of the further investigation may be used to fight the suggestion of film's philosophical relevance I have argued for here. But I, like many lovers of film, would welcome the opportunity of enlightening arguments rather than settling for the notion of film being no more than film.
In the end I hope that the reader can see how even a seemingly pretentious film and a philosophy notorious for being unnecessarily obscure can combine to form a mind-expanding, eye-opening experience. Together they may be enjoyed and explored, but also mined and used to possibly reflect on one's own existence for new perspectives. Some films can supply the viewer with that on their own, and few if any philosophies have accompanying films to their credit.
Many philosophies have a soulful message to bring the regular everyman (or cinemagoer), especially ones to do with some form of psychology, but may have a hard time getting that message across due to, for example, technical or obscure language. A film may have a lot to say to its viewer but would suffer for putting its message too bluntly. Film's advantage lies in the fact that it gets more and quicker exposure to more people. These people are bound to read the films differently, P- or N-minded as they may be, but anyone with a sufficiently open mind is bound to find a film which speaks to them on a personal level, as so many philosophies are meant to do.
It may take a conversation after a film with a more philosophically acquainted friend to make some of the connections, but that should not subtract from the relevance and relation one feels to a film and its message, whether fully intended or no. One of the film's reviewers put it well enough when he said that “living in and through movies is not a solitary neurosis but a mode of communion” (Scott, 2004).
There are of course varying levels of analogy, so to speak. It is hard to imagine a sensible adult incapable of reading between the lines in stories such as Aesop's fables. Analysing more complex stories as those in films with multiple interwoven plots, variously relatable characters and veiled messages is a different, bigger task, but not too taxing.
The use of the word 'spell' feels especially appropriate since Sartre himself, in Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, speaks of the 'magical'. When consciousness is faced with an extreme or dangerous situation which it can not deal with or overcome, it tries to change it's own perspective of the situation. It transforms the experience almost as if by magic. Some may, for example, “choose” to faint in such circumstance to escape from what goes on and evade the danger or humiliation.
Cox, Gary. The Sartre Dictionary. London: Continuum, 2008.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Being and Nothingness: an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. London: Routledge, 2005.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, trans. Philip Mairet. Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. London: Routledge, 2004.
Scott, A.O. "When to Be Young Was Very Sexy." Review. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/06/movies/film-review-when-to-be-young-was-very-sexy.html?src=pm. Accessed 22/11/2011.
Copyright; Gestur H. Hilmarsson, 2011