What is an Absurdist film?
Absurdism, as outlined primarily in the works of Albert Camus, refers to the contradictory nature of human existence. This arises from the conflict between the human desire to find meaning in life, and the inability for humans to do so. Absurdism points to a meaningless, directionless universe, made more bleak by the futility of human endeavours that are doomed to be cut short by death. In Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he compares human existence to the figure of Greek mythology known as Sisyphus, who was forced to repeat the same task for all eternity: pushing a large boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down once it had reached the top. While Camus ultimately concludes that Sisyphus must be happy in this trial, it is his conscious recognition of the futility of his life that gives rise to Absurdism. It is this moment in which consciousness recognizes the Absurd that Camus finds particularly illuminating:
“It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, street-car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, street-car, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”
This process continues, giving rise to a sensation much like what Sartre refers to as an “existential crisis,” though Camus ultimately diverges with Sartre in his conclusions:
“Likewise and during every day of an unillustrious life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it…[Man] admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.”
The recognition of one’s self leads to a recognition of the world around, creating a new and frightening perspective of one’s surroundings:
“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia. For a second we cease to understand it because for centuries we have understood in it solely the images and designs that we had attributed to it beforehand, because henceforth we lack the power to make use of that artifice. The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us…that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.”
And finally, once plunged into the unintelligible world that now surrounds us, one comes face-to-face with the futility of it all:
“Men, too, secrete the inhuman. At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea,” as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd.”
This all brings together a picture of the Absurdist philosophy, but how can we apply this to film? What criteria distinguish an Absurdist work of art from anything else? First and foremost, this is an analysis of films based primarily on interpretation, rather than intention. There are filmmaker’s whose works are intentionally a reflection on the Absurd, but for the purposes of this list, we will mostly look at film’s for which Absurdity (in the philosophical sense) can be readily extracted by the spectator, regardless of the filmmaker’s intention.
So, in order for such a list to exist, we must define the characteristics which inhabit an Absurdist film. While an Absurdist work should meet some of these, it need not meet all or even most of them. The characteristics are as follows:
- One or more characters become conscious of the inherent pointlessness of life.
- One or more characters are faced with repetition, which gives rise to a sense of futility.
- The narrative emphasises chaos in the universe around the characters. Things and people and events continue haphazardly beyond the control of the protagonist or other characters.
- One or more characters fall into a state of despair when faced with the infinite and indeterminable world around them.
- One or more characters are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
- And finally, one or more characters exhibits confusion or a lack of comprehension with their life and surroundings.
To summarize, the following films embody the concepts that arise from Camus’ theory of the Absurd, either through intention or interpretation, and meet at least some of the above criteria.
10 Absurdist Films for Philosophy Students
10. Two Days, One Night (the Dardenne Brothers, 2014)
There are few things more terrifying than the prospect of losing financial security and falling into a life of destitution. Such is the plight of Marion Cotillard’s character in Two Days, One Night (French Title: Deux Jours, Une Nuit). In the film, Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker recovering from a nervous breakdown. During her time away from work, her employers determine that Sandra is non-essential, and offer her coworkers each a €1,000 bonus in exchange for a few hours more work each week. The consequence of them accepting this offer is that Sandra will be made redundant. Desperate to save her job, Sandra must visit each of her 16 coworkers over the weekend to persuade them to reject the bonus before it comes to a vote on Monday. Needless to say, she is faced with varying levels of sympathy and indifference, and sees her task become increasingly difficult as the clock ticks down.
Two Days, One Night is available rent or purchase via Amazon here.
9. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
When faced with our own insignificance in relation to the larger universe, a certain amount of awe and anxiety ensues. In The Tree of Life, we see the the life of a man named Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) juxtaposed with the life of the universe. We see him grow and learn as we see the universe come to be and evolve, eventually allowing for Jack’s existence. Nothing in Jack’s life is particularly noteworthy, nor is it important when set against the infinite void that surrounds him. He has a connection to nature and the universe, but it is one that is largely beyond his comprehension. Aside from the beautiful visuals and audacious narrative, the film addresses our existential anxieties in a way that few other films have.
The Tree of Life is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
8. Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani, 2005)
Man Push Cart is a rumination on the futility and hopelessness that pervades the working classes. In this film, a Pakistani immigrant named Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) drags his food cart out onto a busy street corner in New York City to sell coffee and bagels, and then drags it back into storage at the end of the day. He repeats this process everyday, and though he occasionally finds the time to make a few new friends, he must dedicate the majority of his time to his cart, a fate that seems impossible to escape. Often lauded as new take on Italian Neorealism, Man Push Cart reinforces the simplicity and repetition of Ahmad’s life through cinematic minimalism.
Man Push Cart is available to purchase via Amazon here.
7. Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
Though there are many films of the Italian Neorealist movement that could have probably made it on this list, Umberto D. is perhaps the most emblematic of the Absurdist school of thought. The protagonist, Umberto D. Ferrari, is an elderly man who lives on a meager pension. When his landlady threatens to evict him, Umberto tries everything within his grasp to raise the funds, only to find indifference among his friends and barriers at every turn. Umberto not only despairs for his own existence, but that of his faithful dog, Flike, for whom he no longer has the means to look after. Umberto D. is a painfully sad story, reinforcing the notion that the universe is a cold, unforgiving place, and there is nothing we can do to change it.
Umberto D. is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
6. Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, 2013)
In Michael Gondry’s surrealist romance, Mood Indigo (French Title: L’Ecume des Jours), a whimsical man named Colin (Romain Duris) lives a wonderful life, which is made even better when he meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou). They fall in love, get married, and begin their seemingly perfect life together. However, Chloé falls ill during their honeymoon, and Colin spends his fortune on caring for her in the hopes that he can cure her ailment. While Mood Indigo begins with beautiful colors and ornate sets, it descends into a bland palette and depressing atmosphere to echo Colin’s despair and Chloé’s failing health.
Mood Indigo is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
5. The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
The Zero Theorem is one of the only films on this list to address Absurdist concepts directly in its narrative. The protagonist, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), is an eccentric computer programmer charged with solving a mysterious formula known as the “Zero Theorem.” Qohen’s mental state declines as he becomes increasingly obsessed with receiving a phone call that he believes will provide him with the meaning of life, and as he digs deeper into the Zero Theorem, Qohen discovers that his employer, Mancom, has not been honest with him about the nature of his work, or the phone call he hopes to receive.
The Zero Theorem is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
4. The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
Post-apocalyptic films are generally a treasure trove of philosophical musings and moral quandries, and The Road is no exception. An unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel by foot across a cold and unforgiving landscape. A global disaster has depleted resources and forced the few remaining survivors to scavenge for supplies. In addition to the harsh environment, roving gangs and cannibals make existence a living hell. Though there is virtually no hope left for the pair, they persist, facing the Absurd head on, unable to choose suicide even in such miserable circumstances.
The Road is available to purchase via Amazon here.
3. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
Seemingly endless repetition is often the starting point for the Absurd, and few settings encourage more mind numbing repetition than domesticity. In this Belgian arthouse film, we encounter Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), a single mother who follows the same routine every day. She cooks and cleans and works as an escort from her home in order to provide for her son. While this does not sound like the typical routine of a stay-at-home mother, the crushing mundanity of a schedule that never changes still produce existential angst and a keen awareness of the Absurd. Chantal Akerman’s feminist rumination forces the audience to face the Absurd as seen through the day to day life of a mother trapped in a never-ending cycle.
Jeanne Dielman… is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
2. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
Depression often breeds an acute awareness of the Absurd, even leading to the ultimate choice between facing the Absurd or choosing suicide that Camus addresses in The Myth of Sisyphus. In Melancholia, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is set to marry Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), but suffers from severe melancholy, and struggles to gain sympathy from her dysfunctional family. As Justine descends further into her own darkness, her marriage seems all but lost, and the family is soon faced with a much more real and terrifying existential crisis.
Melancholia is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
1. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
While it has yet to be addressed in this list, recognition of the Absurd naturally goes hand in hand with crises of faith, particularly for the devoutly religious. In Winter Light (Swedish Title: Nattvardsgästerna), Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) struggles to the fill the pews and reconcile his outward belief in God with his inward doubts. Tomas loses his sense of purpose and finds himself unable to console members of his congregation who are similarly anguished. The characters even lament that the crucifixion must not have been as painful as God’s subsequent silence, as a lack of real answers is at the heart of Absurdist anxiety. The melancholic tone and sense of depthless anguish never subside in the film, forcing viewers to see the Absurd as the characters see it.
Winter Light is available to purchase via Amazon here.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)
Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
If you have any other films that you think should have been included, feel free to leave a comment!
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. www.scribd.com/doc/3223928/Albert-Camus-The-Myth-Of-Sisyphus.