Three Colours: Blue (1993) – Tightrope Walker

We are, according to existentialism, hopelessly free. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that, in the absence of God and the sort of meaningful meta-narratives that give life an objective meaning and purpose, we are free to define our own natures:  ‘To Do is To Be’ because ‘Existence Precedes Essence’. The problem is that freedom is a double-edged sword and while the death of God may well have done away with all limitations on our freedom, it has also served to render all of our choices meaningless.  Indeed, if all paths are open to us and equally inviting then there is no correct path to take and so every decision we do make is tainted by the knowledge that all of our choices are effectively meaningless and arbitrary.

Freedom’s double edge so concerned Sartre that he wrote a short pamphlet entitled Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) addressing the charge that existentialism is a gloomy credo.  The pamphlet ends with a barnstorming rant against Christianity:

 This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realise himself as truly human (…) In this sense, existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confusing their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.

Barnstorming though it may be, this rant is hardly convincing as the vision of human nature that Sartre describes is one of perpetual vertigo and while ridding ourselves of the tyrannical sky-pixie is no bad thing, Sartre seems to have saddled us with another form of tyranny: The tyranny of responsibility for ourselves and the tyranny of endless choice.

This tension within the concept of freedom is beautifully demonstrated by Krzysztof Kieslowski in Three Colours: Blue, the first of a trilogy of films interrogating the values of the French Revolution (Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite).

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The September Issue (2009) – The Lair of the Clockwork God

Due to a lack of money, a lack of time, a lack of people to impress and a lack of a body that someone would want to make clothes for, I have little interest in what is fashionable.  I dress in pretty much the same way I did when I was 14 and I think I still have some of the same socks.  As a result, you might expect me to have little interest in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about the construction of the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine.  Well, you might very well expect that, but you would be utterly wrong.  It is precisely because I have no interest in what is fashionable that I find the world of fashion so profoundly compelling. Films about the fashion industry are explorations of another culture completely different to my own.  A culture with a good deal of impact upon the world that we all inhabit.  Because of its power and the strangeness of its people and institutions, the fashion industry is a fascinating subject for a film.  Regardless of whether it is explored through mockery (as with Robert Altman’s 1994 Pret-a-Porter), hagiography (as with Rodolphe Marconi’s 1997 Lagerfeld Confidential) or thinly veiled contempt (as with David Frankel’s 2006 The Devil Wears Prada).

R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue approaches the subject with a mixture of awe and mockery but, despite some initial setbacks, the film provides some genuine insight into how it is that the world of fashion functions and why it is that it has so much power over our society.

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Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) – Yearning for Submission

When Hamlet says “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” he is not pre-empting the modern shift towards moral relativism.  Instead he is reflecting on the capacity for human thought to render moral judgement almost completely inert.  He is begging for ignorance.  Cursing his intellectual nature.  Wishing for simplicity.  This anguished reaction against an intellectual temperament is central to Claude Chabrol’s Just Before Nightfall, a film that strives to answer the question ‘When is a murder not a murder?’.

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