Watch: What Makes Existentialism Work on Film?
These directors have proven how well philosophy lends itself to the medium.
These days, exploring the themes of isolation, alienation, loneliness, and anxiety whilst questioning the fact of your existence is truly some of the most fun a filmmaker can have. Yes, that may be a bit facetious, but when you think about it, for whatever reason, the ideals of existentialism truly shine through on film.
By watching Paul Bland's video essay below, you can grasp a greater appreciation for the effect the philosophy has had on some of cinema's greatest auteurs, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Abbas Kiarostami, Bela Tarr, Terrence Malick, Sofia Coppola, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Hou Hasiao-Hsien.
While Bland looks to the past in the video, it's easy to see how existentialism has contributed to the work of today's visionary directors. Perhaps the most recent example centering around man's struggle with his own existence can be seen in David Lowery's A Ghost Story, which shows existential crises can still be found in death.
Most filmmakers use realist cinema methods for these kinds of films. Realism was first recognized by the French critic Andre Bazin, who remarked the style could bring a greater degree of realism and truth to the screen. Bland believes the hallmarks of this style for existentialist films are long takes and action that unfolds in close to real time on screen.
"Existentialism and the questioning of human nature seems to be inherent in this style of low wide-angled long takes, where in the absence of action, the contemplative side of the audience’s mind is engaged," Bland says. "As the audience looks further into the frame, they begin to question the motives of the often trivial actions of the characters, and by doing so, are forced to confront their own existence."
Throw in characters who lack purpose, an emphasis on the long, tedious tasks a human being must go through to survive, the inexplicable feeling that something’s wrong with the modern world, and a dash of fascination with death, and you are well on your way to creating an existentialist film of your own.