European Cinema and Continental Philosophy: Film as Thought Experiment, by Thomas Elsaesser [Book Review]

Alphaville 18:232–238 (2019)
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Thomas Elsaesser’s recent scholarship has examined the “mind-game film”, a phenomenon in Hollywood that is broadly characterised by multi-platform storytelling, paratextual narrative feedback loops, nonlinear storytelling, and unreliable character perspectives. While “mind-game” or “puzzle” films have become a contentious subject amongst post-cinema scholars concerned with Hollywood storytelling, what is to be said of contemporary European independent cinema? Elsaesser’s timely publication, European Cinema and Continental Philosophy, examines an amalgam of politically inclined European auteurs to resolve this query. Elsaesser concedes that there exists a phenomenological confluence between the mind-game film and contemporary European cinema. For instance, both produce characters afflicted by productive pathologies, designating new socially useful forms of agency and identity. One only needs to consult the amnesiac protagonist M (Markku Peltola) in Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002) or, as regards Lars von Trier’s cinema, Beth (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves (1996), Selma (Björk) in Dancer in the Dark (2000), “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Antichrist (2009) or Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Nymphomaniac (2013) to evince this overlap. However, this book is more concerned with performative self-contradictions, whereby cinema-as-enunciator is put under erasure, thus aggravating the inherent discrepancies troubling Europe today. Elsaesser, indeed, evaluates a growing general disaffection with politics, the rise of populist nationalism and far-right fringe parties, as well as an increasing population of economic migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

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