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Self-Knowledge • Fulfilment

We Need to Change the Movie We Are In


It would be hard to think of two more different kinds of film than those of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the one hand – and Eric Rohmer on the other. In the first kind, an action hero battles enormous odds in a succession of dramatic escapades: dangling across ravines, jumping out of helicopters and firing shoulder held missile launchers from the backs of motorbikes. In the films of the French director Eric Rohmer on the other hand, the action is relentlessly minimal and unashamedly quiet. The entire plot of a typical Rohmer film might revolve around a young woman deciding where to go on her summer holiday, a civil servant deciding whether to stay in touch with an ex or a student working up the courage to say hello to an attractive stranger in a boulangerie. The most high octane thing ever to unfold in a Rohmer film is one of the protagonists slamming a car a little bit too loudly after a misunderstanding in a restaurant (Pauline à la plage, 1983).

  Eric Rohmer, La Collectionneuse, 1967

Though it may sound counter intuitive given the way we present ourselves to the world, most of us lead lives that internally far more closely resemble those in a film with Arnold Schwarzenegger than those in one by Eric Rohmer. However uneventful our routines, inside our minds, we are committed to action drama; we race to defuse bombs, wrestle with our enemies, detonate bridges, outwit cartels – and only narrowly make it out alive. Every evening as we settle down on the pillow, we can look back over another round of enervating struggles. No wonder we respond so viscerally to action films; this is who we are, on the edge of our seats, waiting for the next bang.

Why do we live in this gruelling way? Almost certainly because this is how we were brought up, because our parents (those powerful cinematic role-models) and their parents before them and a cascade of ancestors stretching back across the centuries were all schooled in the theatrical arts of replying with ferocity and adrenaline to the plot turns of an ordinary life. 

There are – we should add – considerable advantages to doing so. So long as everyone is shouting, we don’t have to notice that time is passing by; death recedes almost entirely from view when every day is a crisis. We don’t have to pay attention to our quieter regrets or more solemn moods, so long as there are always eruptions to attend to. We don’t need to notice the beauty and poignancy of existence when we can never hear the dawn chorus over the pulsing of our frightened hearts.

We fail – in all this –to register that we have a choice. There are very different kinds of film we could be in. The bare facts of our lives don’t have to be narrated as they are. We could – of course – yet again ignite the kerosene. Or, perhaps, we could for once play matters in the style of a sober European film where the highpoint is a conversation about whether or not to lay the table outdoors and everyone is in bed by ten. 

Might we not quit our extremely impressive, decades-long career in Hollywood blockbusters for a more interesting future in the French provinces? 

It takes a lot of talent to make a quiet film (we shouldn’t be deceived); it arguably takes a far greater talent to live as if we might be in one.

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