A philosophy that was popular with writers and other intellectuals of America and Europe in the mid-20th century, existentialism holds that life is essentially meaningless and is directed by no force other than human beings, who are often petty or ignorant. This attitude can lead to a bleak worldview, although some interpret it as a call to live passionately and humanely. Existentialism in films has been present since the French New Wave movement of the 1960s, and the philosophy has been applied to many popular and critically successful movies. Filmmakers who have explored existential themes include Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Coen brothers.
Existentialism was pioneered by the 19th-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. It was well suited to the intellectual and artistic movements of the 20th century because it does not depend upon belief in God or other metaphysical factors. After the world wars, disillusionment with the attitudes of the past was widespread, leading to works of philosophy and art that were cynical, naturalistic, and radically different from older works in tone and structure. Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit and Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, both created in World War II France, were the defining literary works of the movement. Existentialism in films began to manifest soon after, in the groundbreaking and influential art films of the French New Wave.
The classic New Wave film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, featured a lawless, doomed protagonist, similar to the one in Camus’ novel. Like many works of existentialism in films, it dispensed with traditional storytelling techniques to present a world in which life is arbitrary and absurd. Filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais brought their own existentialist approaches to worksm such as Jules et Jim and Last Year at Marienbad. During the 1960s, the movies of the French New Wave were influential and critically acclaimed around the world. In the United States, they were popular among film students, including some of the most successful directors of the next few decades.
Stanley Kubrick, for example, explored existentialism in films like 1957’s Paths of Glory and 1973’s A Clockwork Orange. Both films found their central characters trapped in legal systems that were neither moral nor sensible. Coppola’s 1979 classic Apocalypse Now brought the same approach to the war movie, reflecting the attitude of many Americans to the Vietnam War. Modern films like Donnie Darko and American Beauty placed absurdist dramas against a suburban backdrop. In 1999’s Fight Club, the fractured protagonists use their existentialist philosophy as a motivation to rebel against all of society’s standards.
In existentialism, even events like death and imprisonment can be meaningless and absurd. Existentialist dramas have a reputation for being bleak and somber, but existentialism in films often plays up this absurdity for darkly comic effect. The comedy troupe Monty Python tackled many philosophical topics in its films and skits, including existentialism. This was particularly pronounced in their final film, The Meaning of Life, despite its title. Joel and Ethan Coen, who are noted for the high intellectual level of their scripts, placed a hapless hippie at the center of their 1998 existentialist comedy The Big Lebowski.