It’s a hoary cliché that television is corruptive, but there is truth to that from a certain angle: there surely is no greater source of mind-altering ideas today than those that come from your TV. Our screens provide a way for us to viscerally experience different perspectives or to be so swept up in spectacle that the meanings, no matter their sometimes-insidious presence, seem unapparent.
Our interest in this column is in teasing out the messages hidden in the media, bringing a variety of voices in and merging old philosophies with contemporary stories. Ennui factors in because it is, perhaps, the core condition of our age – a feeling of dissatisfaction with contemporary life and society that can manifest in apathy or even lean towards restlessness. The screen challenges us in so many ways to act, to think against the grain, or even to accept ourselves, and hopefully here there might be some clarity as to how, and to why it matters.
Ennui rarely has more relevance than with LGBTQ+ fiction. A clear counterpoint to ennui is that resolution can be found through self discovery: seeking and addressing certain aspects of the self that have been pushed into submission by society. The lives of LGBTQ+ individuals have clearly been been challenged by opression and repression so, therefore, film and television that explore them will inevitably have grapplings with the nature of oneself at their surface. A deep dive, however, show psychological and philosophical roots beneath; these stories tackling a broader and much-considered uncertainty of really knowing your own desires.
Carl Jung is a 20th century psychologist whose work blurs with philosophy, and he has some of the most pertinent insight into how our buried concerns can undermine us. The Jungian link to the idea of ennui is that all dissatisfaction doesn’t come from things or experiences themselves, but not addressing the own hidden or ‘shadow’ self that guides our responses. It’s suggested, as per Jung’s theories, that the only way to advance beyond internal conflict is to bring to light yearnings and compulsions not normally addressed — and it’s in the nature of LGBTQ+ stories that the “hidden self” is an identity repressed or mischaracterised. It’s inevitably the case, then, that the ennui which characters experience is a mask that can be removed by tackling deeper concerns.
Many works show characters frustrated by the full extent of their ideas or powers being held in check. Two pertinent examples are Elio (Timothee Chamalet) of Call Me By Your Name and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, seemingly simultaneously disaffected and dissatisfied characters. They seem, to others, aloof and even apathetic, but their positions could be explained by Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis of what drives us. He suggests in his seminal 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil that humans are driven not by the survival instinct but instead a need to vent their power – or, in an alternative way to phrase this, to exercise their will. The will of these characters is constrained which, as Nietzsche would expect, brings about great frustration.
Active recognition of the self is the crucial turning point, then, in dispelling ennui and embracing life. Elio’s journey and Nietzsche’s perspective support the Jungian idea that repressed thoughts and feelings have to be brought fully to consciousness for liberation from their power: the first time Elio has sex with love interest Oliver (Armie Hammer) you might expect overwhelming freedom, but you see ennui’s pall cast over his features again as they both feel the pull of habitual behaviours. It’s only when Oliver repeats the act that he implicitly suggests to Elio that they both can, or should, freely bring their sexuality to consciousness, and this releases them both from the stifling unconscious to bring about the promise of lasting bliss.
Much of the most interesting work, however, looks at the complex intersections between the restrictions placed on sexuality and those entrenched in other aspects of our lives. Lesbian cinema most blatantly draws these links, whether we’re looking at the lascivious, controlling interest of men in The Handmaiden, or the passion-containing codes of behaviour in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The latter provides a particularly potent one as Héloïse, under the watchful eye of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), feels alive simply with the opportunity to run across a field. An inability to openly express sexual desire and to enjoy the freedom of openly sharing love is clearly intimately tied to wider societal constraints, and so it can be assumed that confronting one issue often allows another to be tackled too.
But from that same recognition of life’s interconnectedness, the idea of coming to terms with oneself naturally means different things for different people, and the show Cucumber perfectly addresses how layered this can be. Cucumber presents the idea that lingering dissatisfaction can found even when sexuality is superficially no longer a concern. The show’s main characters, Henry and Lance, find themselves unwilling to directly address the great wounds that snake around their sexuality — an example of an array of interwoven, same-rooted issues that unquestionably reflects the Jungian theory of complexes. Jung theorises that we have core issues that create multiple fractures in our minds, and it appears through fiction that there’s some truth behind this.
There’s a bold reassurance in the reminder that simply expressing one’s identity isn’t always the complete resolution that some fiction might suggest, but even Jung tries to flatten this with his idea of his complexes. S exuality is only one part of a person, no matter how compelling and cathartic a narrative it is to see people fit more easily into their own skin; a total acceptance of oneself can still blocked by the strength and weaknesses of one’s own character. Henry consistently engages in self-sabotaging behaviour because it’s in his character to engage in avoidance, and therefore stops himself from ever being comfortable in his own skin. Jung’s answer to this is that by confronting ourselves starkly, we can achieve psychic unity; but this approach falsely a regimented and logic-driven version of life that doesn’t fit with our a disordered, emotional, infinitely complex reality.
Still, there remains great value in presenting works with differing angles on life: sensual romances, tragedies where people never attain their freedom, and textured, multi-faceted stories that might blend those approaches. Call Me By Your Name, for example, is something akin to prestige entertainment in being a precise, steady, aesthetically elegant drama that shows a heady awakening, but to suggest that it doesn’t have relevance to experience is to limit human experience to frameworks of logic. Philosophical frameworks provide a way in to understanding different circumstances, but life has so many different experiences to offer; something that is increasingly and thankfully evident in LGBTQ+ entertainment.
These works share commonalities which Jung would recognise; they present people distant from life who find connection through inner reckoning. Nietzsche, too, provides us with an understanding of why anyone in fiction or life itself might want to see change, to follow desire through rather than letting life rest. However, both fail to recognise the complexities of life and the numerous obstacles to becoming who we might want to be, or who we aren’t even willing to recognise we want to be. Fiction provides depth to these philosophies as they repeat tacitly that old adage, know thyself – but provides the caveat that the permutations of the path towards this are endless.
All video content can be found on streaming services apart from Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Jung and Nietzsche’s writing can be bought online or read as part of Project Gutenberg.
Header image courtesy of Channel 4