From “Looking-Into” to “Living-Into”: Theorizing Existentialism in Cinema. By Karan Tripathi

Isabelle Huppert and Andre Marcon in L’avenir/Things to Come (Les Films du Losange, 2016)

In the early scenes of L’avenir (Things to Come, 2016) we see a French artist resting in peace at a place where he wanted to submerge himself in the music of winds and sea till the eternity. Commenting on the same, Heinz (Andre Marcon) tells Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) that music is not only felt, it is seen. As the movie progresses, we see Nathalie experiencing the same contradiction, a semiotic rather, in her own self. We see her exploring and experiencing the various interpretations of herself, a development of an empathy she creates with the space and circumstances. In a cinematic construction that enables it, we see Nathalie oscillating from a life which she “thinks” of being hers and the life she somehow indulges herself with. It is the fascinating movement of her identity from the past to the present to the future and the constant divergence of it all that made me question the idea of linearity and unity of life and identity.

Extrapolating Nathalie and contextualising her to the actress who “played” that character on screen – Isabelle Huppert – I see an extension of this idea. In her interview to Stephen Colbert, when she was asked the cliché, what is acting, she quite resolutely replied that it is anything but “acting.” She said that it is the denial of oneself as one exists in order to be someone else. This is something way more than merely method acting. This is a more psychological and physiological process of “looking-into” the object of consideration. As the German Romantic philosophers or English Aesthetic School might call it, active empathy, I would partially agree with that construction, only to extend it to a more complex idea of “living-into.”

I begin with the question of “self.” It’s an existential question that requires understanding of the two components or elements that are in a dialogical relationship in order to raise this doubt in the first place. Rachael Corbett identifies this point while asking that if we work on an assumption that we consist of something self, then what makes us think that the other is devoid of that self? In the present case, the two components that I shall consider are the actor and the character.

The uniqueness of cinematic empathy is that the object and subject are both representational of an interconnected signified. For instance, what it means to be a human is not only reflected in the artist but is also extended to the character. So, it would be a woman playing a role of a woman, or a man, so on and so forth. This nature of duality separates it from the Man and Nature duality of Johann Gottfried Herder. Unlike Herder’s association of “human elements” such as consciousness to nonhuman elements such as nature, the characters possess humanness in themselves and the same is not artificially extended. This shall also be distinguished from David Hume’s concept of sympathy because there is no recognition of the “beauty” of the character in either relative or absolute terms. Rather the nature of the character is not adjudged by the actor from any representational signifier. There can be slight similarities of this idea with the anthropomorphosis effect as elaborated in Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s operational symbolism, although the presence of magical-symbolism thinking in his theory is the one that frictions the synonymous relationship between the two.

Moving away from Vischer, there isn’t a consciousness of “self” completely present during a cinematic process of acting. As Isabelle Huppert herself confessed in her interview to The Hollywood Reporter, “the moment and space of acting is not completely conscious or unconscious in the actor’s head. It is characterised by the state of mind where one is halfway lost of oneself and halfway in gain of someone else.” So Ms. Huppert believes that an actor, during the process of acting, occupies a space (both physically and psychologically) that is separate from the socio-temporal space of the actor’s existence.

The idea that an actor can escape the “existence” that is often synonymous to having a body, and be someone else – it itches me to question this very synonymy. Occupation of a space would require some magnitude of mass in the thing that is occupying it. Therefore, it would be safe to say that given the fact that a thing occupies a space, that it possesses mass, it henceforth exists. Since, an actor escapes to possess a space that is separate from the space occupied by her when she is not enacting a scene, it could be a plausible extension to say that she goes on to occupy a space that her body (body that she carries when she’s not enacting) does not occupy. So, the process of acting associates some sense of mass in the nonmaterial existence of the idea of the character. It is this mass that is transferred to the actor when she escapes from the mass of the original body. The presence of mass in the nonmaterial idea of the character would now lead us to believe that such an idea exists. Thus, the character itself exists. It may be nonmaterial (devoid of body) but it exists. So much so, that it would be safe to say that the character’s existence is independent, and perhaps, predates the existence of the actor.

So, why did I recognize the existence of a nonmaterial idea that possesses mass? Well, let’s talk about Descartes here. In his Meditation II, the French philosopher says that the reason that I doubt is because that I think. Therefore, there should be a thinking thing that exists. Since I think, I am a thinking thing. Therefore, since I think, I exist. When it came to the question of body, he said that the only reason that I know the existence of body is due to perceptible sensations, which can possibly be the deception of the demon. But the fact that he thinks about whether his body exists or not shows that that thinking thing (mind) exists. Thus, it is possible for him to exist even when he does not have a body because he has the thinking thing (mind). This duality between mind and body get further detailing in Meditations V and VI where he states that he knows that clear and distinct ideas are true. Therefore, every idea that he can conceive clearly and distinctively shall be true. Since he perceives mind and body to possess clear and distinct ideas, that is “thinking thing” and “extension” respectively, mind and body are two distinct things. Since these are two different things, the existence of one does not depend on the existence of another.

I’m not saying that this theory completely follows the duality principle of Descartes, because saying so would mean that Leibniz’s law of indiscernible identities would be a perfect criticism to it. On the contrary, the Leibniz law is a plausible ally of this. The idea that two things that are completely distinct cannot resemble each other satisfies me to create a distinction between the character and the actor. Since there exist distinctions in the characteristics or properties of these two objects, we cannot say that the actor resembles herself or continues to carry the identity of herself, while providing material existence (physicality) to the character. Although, the fact that the humanness of both the entities is not affected at all, or sometimes the language, voice, or inhibitions continue to persist in the transformation, we cannot fixate the aforementioned law of indiscernible identities here without certain meticulous reservations.

While pondering upon Leibniz, I went further ahead to the concept of “bringing about materialism or physicality to the idea of the character.” When the actor escapes the materiality of her original being, she goes on to provide the character her material existence. Well, how does this happen? I believe that the actor’s original body is a mere carrier of the identity that the actor represents. The idea of representation that works here is similar to the one present in the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. He says that language is a system of signs where each sign is a combination of a form (signifier) and a particular meaning (signified). Moreover, the relationship that occurs between the signifier and the signified, that goes on to produce a linguistic sign, is created by a convention (usage). Let’s see this in the context of what we use to define ourselves. Or how we define ourselves. We don’t say that I am a particular person because I have a pair of legs and limbs. Perhaps, we don’t say that so as to reemphasize our understanding of identity, which is something more than the animalistic existence and distinctive from others in some way.

The aforementioned argument proves that we have a perceived understanding of ourselves, of who we are, of our existence, which is based on the way we represent ourselves through language. So for instance, if I begin to think about my friend or a colleague in their absence, I would use representational signs of a language to make sense of their existence. “He’s very funny” or “she’s quite witty,” these sentences reduce our existence to a representational system based on language that focuses more on how we “come across” than what we “consist of.” This further enables me to think that if it is our representation that defines our existence, then such existence can be understood beyond the presence of the body itself. Therefore, it can be concluded that the body is a mere carrier of an actor’s identity and when she enters the process of “becoming” a character, the same body becomes a material representation of the identity of the character.

Since I have established the duality of identity and body and the transformation of material representation from the actor to the character, there is not much left for me to deliberate upon but to reckon. So this is what I think it is – when an actor chooses to take up a certain character, she enters a process of becoming where she moves away from (hence denies) the existence (if existence depends on recognition of itself) of her original identity in order to give existence to the identity of the character. The spaciotemporal existence and reality of the transformed actor (character) are separate from that of the original actor (we can probably say that it replaces the space occupied by the actor for that moment of enactment). The now existent mind of the character gets its body with the material transfer of mass from the actor to the character (since body is nothing but a carrier of identity). Therefore, during the process of a scene, it is the character that exists and not the actor. The reality is associated with the cinematic construction and not the contrary.

Since everything has been said quite contently, I cannot help but raise a few questions by keeping this theory as a premise. One of the most prominent of them being that if it is the character that exists during the shooting of a scene, and not the actor, then who should get the remuneration that flows from the aesthetic appreciation of that art? Is it justified to create a personality cult around the original figure of the actor when it is the figure of the character that created that psyche among the masses? This, and a lot more, triggers my mind for further deliberations and inquiry.


The Hollywood Reporter. “Full Oscar Actress Roundtable.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Jan. 2017. Web. 12.03.2017.

“The Identity of Indiscernibles,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, July 1996. Web. 17.03.2017.

“The Invention of Empathy: Rilke, Rodin, and the Art of ‘Inseeing,’”, 2017. Web. 15.03.2017.

“Johann Gottfried von Herder,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Sept. 2007. Web 15.03.2017.

Lacewing, Michael. “Descartes’ Arguments for Distinguishing Mind and Body.” Taylor & Francis, 2016. Routledge. Web. 16.03.2017.

Sayre MacCord, Geoffrey. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. Web. 15.03.2017.

Vischer, Friedrich T. “The Symbol.” Taylor & Francis, 2016. Routledge. Web. 16.03.2017.

Author Biography

Karan Tripathi is pursuing a degree in Law and Humanities from Faculty of Law, Symbiosis International University (India). He is a poet, writer, and jazz patron. Karan likes learning ancient languages, studying cinema, doing theatre, and dreams of acting alongside Isabelle Huppert one day.

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