For many of us not in essential or “safe” occupations, the lockdown has been an enforced period of home entertainment.
It’s a matter of opinion as to whether that is too much of a good thing or has brought on a case of ennui.
Bolstered by some long-delayed reading, the latter resembles France in the leadup to and early part of World War II, when hostilities were at a low ebb.
Some called it the “phoney war”, and it coincided with the blossoming of a philosophical trend known as existentialism, notably in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Its origins lay in phenomenology, and the philosophy was expressed as a feeling of “nothingness” – that life has no meaning other than experiencing the present as it was (“existence precedes essence”). It has parallels with today’s global lockdown and how to cope with the impending doom of a viral pandemic.
The normality of community life has been upended to one of isolation, and waiting for the return of a meaningful existence.
This, of course, is an oversimplification, but it identifies a strong theme in the arts that flourished during the post-war decades, and remains a force in contemporary movies.
These thoughts were prompted by the revival on Netflix of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a joint effort by scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry.
It’s a romantic drama in which a couple, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, try to end their relationship by having their memories of each other wiped from their minds.
Kaufman is noted for his fascination with mind-altering technology and the way people use multiple personalities. His earlier films as writer – Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), both directed by Spike Jonze – explored similar themes, as did his more recent Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa.
Netflix is due to release his latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which gives a flavour of Kaufman’s bleak view of human existence.
He is not alone in this. Woody Allen used the title of a well-known existentialist text for Irrational Man, about a professor who decides he can get away with a murder.
Likewise, this title is echoed in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, also about a professor torn by a philosophical dilemma.
Existentialist themes are common in science fiction, including the Blade Runner and The Matrix series, as well as another Carrey vehicle, The Truman Show, written by New Zealand’s Andrew Niccol.
American director Terrence Mallick spent some of his early years studying and translating the works of German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
He was controversial because he remained in Nazi Germany during the war when many of his colleagues fled. But this did not stop his exposition of phenomenology from being influential in the subsequent development of existentialism.
Mallick, a practising Catholic, expresses these ideas in his most recent films, notably The Tree of Life (2011) and A Hidden Life (2019), based on the real-life story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who sacrificed his own existence for his beliefs.
This low-key family drama from Taiwan resembles The Farewell in its examination of the social impact of migration to a foreign country, in both cases from Asia to America. The promised opportunities are not guaranteed and the break with those left behind is often irreconcilable. That can create lifelong regrets, despite the material gains. In this example, a factory worker drops his girlfriend and agrees to marry the boss’s daughter in exchange for emigration. Years later, in New York, they split after achieving modest comfort but little satisfaction. Their grown-up daughter attempts reconciliation with her now-retired father, who looks back on what an alternative course in his life could have produced. Writer-director Alan Yang has crafted a near-perfect visual gem that understates the broad relevance of its theme.
Netflix rating: 7+. 91 minutes.
The Occupant (Hogar)
A middle-aged businessman (Javier Gutiérrez) loses his job, social status and luxury apartment after he is judged no longer relevant in his chosen industry, advertising. He is forced to downsize, but fails to gain new employment, as he is over-qualified. This is a common dilemma or fear among many professionals. But few take the path of becoming psychopathic. He befriends his successor (Mario Casas) at the agency and goes a step further by encouraging him to take over the former residence. The stalking intensifies as it includes illegal entry into the apartment and searches of personal material. Yet, at all times, you have no sympathy for his toxic personality. This makes it hard to empathise with the build-up in suspense. Writer-directors Alex and David Pastor miss an opportunity for a great thriller that could match Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which has many similar elements.
Netflix rating: 13+. 103 minutes.
The Platform (El hoyo)
This second thriller/horror show from Spain suggests that that country is at the forefront of world cinema when it comes to breathing new life into old genres. Here, the concept is based on a hierarchical structure in which prisoners are placed in pairs on hundreds of floors in “The Hole” (El hoyo). Each day, a feast arrives at each level, starting at the top and moving down. Only minutes are allowed for consumption at each stop and any hoarding of food is punished. While there’s ample for all inmates, if they all took just enough to survive, most of it is consumed by those on top levels. The parable is amplified by regular shuffling of floors, literally shaking the hierarchy. But be warned, this is not a pleasant process. The horrors on the lower floors are visceral, while the use of Catholic imagery and, dare I say, existential angst, are far from comforting. Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, from a script by David Desola and Pedro Rivero, doesn’t let up in a series of shocks and surprises. Coincidentally, Parasite director Bong’s Snowpiercer, also available on Netflix, has a horizontal version of haves and have-nots in its never-ending train journey.
Netflix rating: 18+. 94 minutes.