This was originally written for Terror Test episode 26 on The Green Room, The Invitation, and Antichrist.
Existential Horror from Kaufmann to Breillat
This week’s trio of terror is different from the horror films I generally watch. “Existential horror” came to mind as a way to describe them, so I researched the term. After some searching and a brief email exchange with Murray Leeder, I couldn’t find a satisfying definition (or definitions) and I saw everything from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to Jaws (1975) to Lovecraft’s Mythos celebrated under the concept. Maybe all horror is existential.
This trouble with clear definitions and examples reminded me of Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre and the way he deals with the notion of existentialism, the difficulty in defining it, and its lack of tenets. He writes:
“Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Most of the living ‘existentialists’ have repudiated this label, and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing they have in common is a marked aversion for each other. To add to the confusion, many writers from the past have frequently been hailed as members of this movement, and it is extremely doubtful whether they would have appreciated the company to which they are consigned. In view of this, it might be argued that the label ‘existentialism’ ought to be abandoned altogether.” (11)
Kaufmann suggests the term is useless, and then describes ten writers that meet his essential feature for existentialists: a “perfervid individualism” (11). This led me to the idea of taking his thoughts and basic outline and transferring them over to film. This “perfervid individualism” sounds a lot like the auteur theory of film studies in which the director is considered the author of the creative vision of a movie. My thought was to match each of Kaufmann’s thinkers with a director of what I will call existential horror.
One of the points of discussion that came up with this week’s movies was how much they were either horror movies or movies that use horror elements. Movies that fall in these cracks can be imaginative and wondrous, and they can be confusing. I think they often disturb people because of the way they disrupt genre expectations, but even if that may not be satisfying, I think it’s important. Kaufmann writes that “The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism” (12). Kaufmann refers to this refusal as a search for authenticity, living an authentic life. I think this idea of being not “remote from life” is why so many films called “existential horror” are movies about real-life horror and terror, such as home invasion, random kidnappings and murders, sexual abuse, etc.
But fear and dread are in the eye of the beholder. If I take The Invitation (2015) as an example, I imagine my sense of dread as a viewer and father is different from a childless college student’s dread. I can even imagine a viewer’s anxiety over such a multicultural dinner party, like the party is a stand-in for the liberalism and lack of morals in “California.” Blacks and Asians and Bisexuals, oh my! As Sartre wrote, Hell is other people. In this instance, maybe Hell is Other.
While The Invitation has certain odd similarities to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, they also feel extremely different. Chain Saw is a classic horror exploitation film, but it seems like The Invitation is doing something else. Partially, I think this something else is the willingness to explore internal dread and anxiety, as well as the horrors that come from without. Horror fans may not even like them, but I think films like this are important to the genre. In writing about existentialists, Kaufmann writes that “An effort to tell this story with a positivist’s penchant for particulars and a relentless effort to suppress one’s individuality would only show that existentialism is completely uncongenial to the writer. This is not meant to be a defense of arbitrariness. A personal perspective may suggest one way of ordering diffuse materials, and be fruitful, if only by way of leading others to consider dissent” (12). It’s in this spirit of “ordering diffuse materials” and “leading others to consider dissent” that I offer this list.
I. Breillat / Dostoevsky
Kaufmann, writing about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, says “What we perceive is an unheard-of song of songs on individuality; not classical, not Biblical, and not at all romantic. No, individuality is not re-touched, idealized, or holy; it is wretched and revolting, and yet, for all its misery, the highest good” (12). This description reminded me of the films of Catherine Breillat, particularly Romance (1999), Fat Girl (2001), and Anatomy of Hell (2004).
To say the least, these are difficult films and for sure they have been called wretched, revolting, miserable, and even worse by critics. The protagonists of these films are as challenging as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. All three films involve female protagonists wrestling with, if not Being, at least Body, and in particular The Feminine Body. The films also problematize these notions, the entanglements that bodies have in context and culture and engenderization. Critic Ginette Vincendeau refers to Breillat’s “ideological contradictions” and asks us to consider what is subversive and challenging in the films, and what is there for shock value. With Breillat’s films, these aren’t easy questions to answer. In other words, the films can’t be written off as simply “feminist,” and I don’t believe that they can be written off as “shocking.”
Romance became infamous for its use of unsimulated sex. Anatomy of Hell features a bloody tampon cocktail. Fat Girl is about the horrors of coming-of-age for two young girls. I say horrors, but that’s just the thing, part of the film may just be depicting a reality for young women. And while on the surface nothing like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) (though now that I think about it, there may be a similarity in the camera work, in the way the camera gazes at its subject), it inspires similar dread and anxiety about unfairness in the world and the dark side of human nature. Haneke’s film though, watched in a certain way, contains a somehow hysterically-pitched, dry wit. Fat Girl isn’t funny (okay, now that I think about it, there is some seriously dark irony in the film), but Breillat’s focus on sexuality and victimhood is piercing in the context of adolescence. Her films don’t idealize, romanticize, or offer many answers, but they provoke thought and many questions.
Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, for Kaufmann, “believes […] man’s self-will is not depravity: it is only perverse from the point of view of rationalists and others who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality” (13). Breillat’s films embody a “rich texture of individuality” and she problematizes the individual’s place in these constructs whether masculine or feminine. Interestingly, Breillat began her film career in a brief part in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). Tango has had similar complaints lodged against it that Breillat’s films have: They are pretentious, disgusting, and only attempt to shock. Yet, Tango is considered a classic, which for me means that there’s something to the subject matter and feminist themes of her films. Kaufmann believes Notes from Underground tells us that “no good society can rid man of depravity” (13). If that’s true, maybe these films help us understand that depravity within us, and even cause us to question what we define as depraved.
Unlike previous stand-alone Test Prep columns, this one will be a series that will be released intermittently. The next article will feature a comparison of Kaufmann’s second existentialist, S
oren Kierkegaard, paired with director David Lynch.
I like red peppers and Jan Švankmajer movies.
1. Current Listening: Lots of soul from Muscle Shoals
2. Current Viewing: A Hard Day's Night (1964).
3. Current Reading: H.G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet