Jean-Luc Marion’s Postmetaphysical Phenomenology and Film

Jean-Luc Marion’s Postmetaphysical Phenomenology and Film

An Analysis of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Ida

Raoul Eshelman
Jean-Luc Marion is well known as a theologian and philosopher, but as yet his innovative postmetaphysical thought, which arose in part as a reaction to Derrida’s deconstructive critiques of traditional phenomenology, has not yet been widely applied to film. The article makes a systematic attempt to show how Marion’s phenomenology of givenness could be made fruitful for film analysis, and it demonstrates how his philosophical approach can be applied to two films, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.
Jacques Derrida; Jean-Luc Marion; Cristian Mungiu; Pawel Pawlikowski; phenomenology; anamorphosis; giving; givenness; gift; 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; Ida; performatism; film

Marion’s Basic Strategy and Concepts

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days





Suggested Citation

In the following article I would like to propose an approach to film analysis based on the phenomenology of Jean-Luc Marion. Marion himself is hardly unknown. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost philosophers and theologians, and there is already an extensive body of literature dealing with those aspects of his work. However, within the field of film criticism little or no attention has been paid to the opportunities that his visually oriented philosophy offers for interpreting cinema.1 The purpose of this article is hence to introduce basic aspects of Marion’s phenomenology to film scholars and to propose – and then apply – an approach to film based on his philosophy.

In the last thirty years there has been a slow but fundamental shift in the focus of phenomenology.2 One of the main catalysts of this development was Derrida’s deconstructive readings, which showed Husserl to be indifferent to the mediation of thought through language and Heidegger to be tacitly obligated to the tradition of Western metaphysics he claimed to have overcome.3 Marion’s own philosophical project may be seen as a direct answer to these critiques. Rather than “digging in” behind the philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger, Marion accepted the basic thrust of Derrida’s deconstructive arguments and began using them to formulate a phenomenology that could both accommodate a critique of metaphysics and move past it in an affirmative way. By stressing the givenness of things over their use value or truth potential and the intuition over discourse, Marion’s phenomenology opened up bold new perspectives on aesthetics, subjectivity, contingency, eroticism, and ethics.

It is this new postmetaphysical phenomenology that I would like to use to analyse film. As my point of departure I am taking Marion’s writings in which he develops the notion of phenomenological reduction after Derrida. Of particular importance is his major work Being Given (Marion 2002a) as well as the shorter study In Excess (Marion 2002b) and his article “The Reason of the Gift” (Marion 2005). After briefly summarising Marion’s philosophical concepts and adapting them for the purposes of film interpretation, I wish to apply them to Cristian Mungiu’s film 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile / 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania, 2007) and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland, 2013). These two critically acclaimed, prize-winning films were selected in order to demonstrate the horizon of possibilities opened up by applying Marion’s thought to film: both share a similar plot pattern (one active woman helping another, passive one) but are otherwise very different in style, theme, and narrative presentation.

Marion’s Basic Strategy and Concepts

Marion’s first move is to distance himself from the traditional phenomenological preoccupation with the precise determination of objects (Husserl) and with the existential search for authentic truth in Dasein (Heidegger). Not surprisingly, this move has led to sharp criticism from traditionally minded phenomenologists,4 and it has led Derrida to suggest that he is no longer practicing phenomenology at all.5 At the core of Marion’s turn away from Husserl and Heidegger is his establishment of givenness (French: donation, German: Gegebenheit) as the first principle of phenomenology. This means that phenomenology now directs its attention towards the way things present themselves to us and position us in the intuition, which is to say directly through the senses. This intuitively guided positioning takes precedence over every sort of ends-oriented intentionality, whether it be a search for the objective measurement of things or a search for truth. The result is a tacit aestheticisation of reality that owes much to Kant, for the occlusion of ends-means relations foregrounds Kant’s aesthetic principles of disinterestedness, necessity, and lack of concept and purpose as famously set forth in the Critique of Judgment (§ 1-22). Marion’s new analysis of givenness however differs from Kant markedly by situating its phenomenology solely in the intuition and not in the reason. And, although Marion does not speak directly of aestheticisation, it must be regarded as a crucial feature of his philosophical project.

Marion allows the concept of givenness to unfold by outlining a series of stages in which he painstakingly reconstructs how phenomena “show themselves” and “give themselves” to a receiving consciousness (he deliberately avoids speaking of a “subject” or of intentionality in the usual phenomenological sense). Here one can make out two different degrees of intensity. In the first stage we find a weak or moderate influence such as might proceed from a run-of-the-mill painting. Such a painting imposes itself on us through a visibility that remains “banal, mediocre, widespread” (Marion: 2002a: 40); it “is a phenomenon that addresses to your attention nothing if not its visibility [...]” (Marion 2002a: 40). This modest claim to attention is not just confined to paintings, but is also shared by other “beings and objects” in the world (2002a: 40). Marion describes the encroachment of this “mediocre” visibility on consciousness using five so-called “determinations” (déterminations). These govern the initial positioning of the receiver by the object (anamorphosis), the contingency conditions influencing this positioning (“unpredictable landing” and “fait accompli”) and finally the degree to which the phenomenon is experienced as something out of the ordinary (“the incident” and “the event”).6 The process may be summarised briefly as the anamorphic positioning of a consciousness through a phenomenon that gives itself in such a way that its appearance can neither be predicted, nor previously constructed, nor reduced ex post facto to an adequate causal explanation.7 This “reduction to givenness” is the core procedure of Marion’s approach.

In the second, stronger kind of reduction to givenness we find four paradoxical processes that Marion calls saturated phenomena (phénomènes saturés). These phenomena, which Marion defines as figures of excess, encompass temporality, aesthetics, corporeality, and the ethical confrontation with the Other. In formal terms, they are derived from the Kantian categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality.8 The first such category is the event (l’événement), which saturates the category of quantity.9 Since the event cannot be reduced to individual moments, places, individuals, or causes, it leaves in its wake a block of time or an epoch. In the lifeworld it opens up the possibility of history; in the fictional world (which Marion himself does not address) it opens up the horizon of eventness. The idol (l’idole) is excessive in regard to quality. Unlike Kantian aesthetics, in which quality is simply intensified, the idol appears under the sublime aspect of “the unbearable and bedazzlement” (2002a: 229); it arrests the intentionality of the observer, fills it out, and blocks it in the manner of “an invisible obstacle – or a mirror” (2002a: 229). The idol may be likened to a strong work of art that floods our concepts through the intuition and forces us to formulate them anew.

Flesh (la chair), which saturates relation, refers to the touching of the body by itself (“auto-affection”): “The flesh auto-affects itself in agony, suffering, and grief, as well as in desire, feeling, or orgasm” (2002a: 231); it “gives me to myself” (2002a: 232). The directness of this auto-affection occludes the relation to an Other (producing solipsism) and “blocks the space where the ecstasy of an intentionality would become possible” (2002a: 231). The sense of being oneself or Mineness (Jemeinigkeit) is no longer determined by death, as with Heidegger, but by the flesh, which allows individuation by “letting the immanent succession of my affections […] be inscribed in it” (2002a: 232). It might also be added that proceeding from the notion of the flesh Marion has formulated an entire phenomenology of eroticism, which however cannot be treated here in greater detail.10

The fourth category, the icon (l’icône), paradoxically overwhelms the category of modality under the aspect of the “irregardable and irreducible, insofar as they are free of all reference to the I” (2002a: 232). The icon corresponds to the gaze of the Other “which weighs on my gaze like a weight, like a burden” (2002a: 232) and keeps me from constituting myself as a transcendental or whole subject – in effect counteracting the individualistic solipsism of the flesh. As is the case with Levinas’s ethical philosophy, the receiving consciousness is confronted by the face or gaze of the Other, which literally “gives [it] nothing to see” (2002a: 233) and makes it into a potential “witness” (2002a: 233) by confronting it with its irreducible and unbearable otherness. The icon stands at the threshold of transcendent religious experience without however achieving it. Marion also ascribes it the quality of bundling together the characteristics of the three other saturated phenomena: like the event it demands a “summation of horizons and narrations”; like the idol it “begs to be seen and reseen”; and like the flesh it accomplishes individuation by causing the I “to lose its function as a transcendental pole” (2002a: 233). Finally, Marion adds a fifth category, that of revelation, which consists in the “saturation of saturation” but which is explicitly theological rather than phenomenological; it takes the quality of paradox to a higher level defined by Christian doctrine and dogma (see 2002a: 234-237).

Of crucial importance is also Marion’s phenomenal concept of consciousness, which he defines in its ideal form as “the gifted” (l’adonné). When “rising up from the unseen” the given is “projected on l’adonné (or consciousness, if one prefers) as on a screen” (2002b: 50)11 ;the gifted is like “a prism that stops white light, until then invisible, and breaks it up into a spectrum of […] colors that are finally visible” (2002b: 50). This gifted consciousness “no longer precedes the phenomenon, or even accompanies it any longer as a thought already in place” (2002b: 50). The more force exerted by the given, the greater is the resistance of the gifted: “Whence comes the inevitable and logical hypothesis of saturated phenomena – so saturated with given intuitions that significations and corresponding noeses are lacking” (2002b: 51). The result is what Marion labels “the call,” which reverses or inverts intentionality: the saturated phenomena, in particular, produce this effect. The gifted thus “stands as the collateral responding for all the saturated phenomena, which happen to him as so many calls” (2002a: 293). This, in turn, has the effect of broadening the feeling of ethical responsibility (as outlined by Levinas in Totality and Infinity) from the challenge posed by the face (what Marion calls the idol) to include the event, the icon, and the flesh, which is to say the ethical challenges posed by historicity, by the aesthetic, and by eroticism. It must be remembered that the receptive consciousness of the gifted is a phenomenological and not an empirical concept: it has very different manifestations in the lifeworld. The focus is however now on consciousness as a receptive medium vis-à-vis the world rather than as an effect of discourse.

Marion’s phenomenological focus on the intuition has the advantage of undermining in its entirety the deconstructive critique of language, which is engaged in endlessly uncovering aporetic truth statements. For Marion is not concerned with truth declarations couched in language but rather with describing the pre-conceptual impact of things on an observer in the phenomenological reduction of givenness. It is nonetheless legitimate to ask whether this quasi-aesthetic sensory engagement with the world does not immediately collapse when exposed to a stringent deconstruction such as practiced by Derrida in works like The Truth in Painting or Given Time.

Marion anticipates this step by confronting deconstruction directly. In particular, he takes Derrida’s critique of metaphysics regarding the gift and shows how even mundane phenomena can elude this critique by being bracketed – in effect being shut out of the process of giving itself. Marion’s main point of departure is Derrida’s critique of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift in Given Time I (Derrida 1992). There, Derrida argues that Mauss’s definition of the gift leads to an “insane” situation in which the gift can exist only when it is not recognised as such.12 For according to Mauss, the gift, which in certain primitive cultures is ascribed a numinous, magical quality that regulates the system of exchange, does not allow for any immediate reciprocation. Yet if there is no immediate reciprocation, then what the gift-giving or taking really requires is the giving or taking of time (a time that would somehow operate separately from the concrete conditions of exchange that it regulates). Hence Mauss’s attempt to make the making-present of the gift into the basis of a totalised, binding system of circular exchange leads to an “insanely” contradictory discourse that does not recognise its own dependency on factors like time which cannot be thought outside the system itself. The circular making-present of the gift is revealed as an illusion (or delusion) that Mauss projects onto an archaic system of economic exchange. As an alternative Derrida holds forth the open-ended prospect of a “dissemination without return” (1992: 48) that would “prevent the locution from circling back to its meaning” (1992: 48). “Giving” would not be a closed act of making-present but an open-ended process continually being undermined by the language acts that constitute it.

Marion accepts Derrida’s critique without reservation, takes it however a decisive step further. Whereas Derrida limits himself to exposing aporetic arguments and holding forth the prospect of uncontrollable, open-ended dissemination, Marion sees new productive possibilities of giving precisely in the failure of economy, i.e. in such cases in which the making-present of the gift does not occur and an economic or metaphysical calculation is blocked. As he demonstrates in a series of eminently plausible case studies in Being Given and “The Reason of the Gift,” it is not only possible to bracket or eliminate the giver, the recipient and the gift itself, but it is also strikingly easy. Thus the giver is bracketed if he or she remains anonymous or, in the case of a will, has died; in such a case the gift can hardly be returned to the giver. Similarly, the recipient is bracketed when he or she is an enemy or is ungrateful; out of spite, such a recipient will reject the reciprocity demanded by a metaphysics of presence. Finally, even the gift can be bracketed when someone is given power (through a crown, a cross, a key etc.), when I give myself to someone else (as in marriage), or when I give someone my word.13 Here we are evidently dealing not with the material value of the given objects, but rather with a much further-going promise or performative obligation.

As a case study of the reduction of the gift to givenness Marion uses the example of fatherhood. Fatherhood, so Marion, has political and economic ramifications, but must be understood first and foremost in its excessive phenomenality. Fatherhood gives without cause and without being able to be foreseen; it “produces itself as an event and not as a simple fact: welling up from pure possibility, it does not produce a finished result […] but rather brings about a possibility (the child), whose future, in turn, cannot be foreseen […]” (2005: 118; italics in the original). Furthermore, fatherhood can be said to take place through the threefold process of bracketing described above. First, the father is missing, since after procreation he withdraws – what is left is the immanence of the mother and the father’s “unfortunate transcendence” (2005: 119): he can “remain united with the child only by taking leave” (by providing for it elsewhere and returning to help it); he is said by Marion to “shine by his absence” (2005: 119). The father always remains absent in another sense because his fatherhood can never be confirmed immediately; even in the case of a genetic identification in a legal framework the identity of the father is mediated and remains putative. Secondly, the recipient or givee (the child) is bracketed, because the child can never return the gift of life that has been given to it; even if the child shows subjective gratitude towards the father it cannot return the gift of life in kind. At best, the child can “render a peaceful death to the father” (2005: 120). Finally, the gift of life itself is bracketed because it “cannot be converted into an object or a being” (2005: 121); it is “a nothing that tears us away from nothingness” (2005: 121) and constitutes itself by bestowing upon us a non-objectifiable potentiality, by “giving us our appearing, our being, our possession of ourselves” (2005: 121). Marion caps off his argument with a typical theological twist: “if we ever have to name God with a name, it is very appropriate to call him ‘Father’ – and Him alone,” since fatherhood “marks the sole indisputable transcendence that all human life can and must recognise in its own immanence […]” (2005: 122). As always, Marion does not insist on the necessity of this theological dimension, but he presents it as the logical extension of the phenomenological reduction.

Marion’s approach to the gift and giving promises a way out of Derrida’s epistemologically correct, but ultimately defensive critiques that intervene ex post facto in metaphysical discourse and are dedicated to endlessly exposing the aporetic arguments of others. Marion’s phenomenology, by contrast, replaces Derrida’s critical attitude towards already existing discourse with one that is open towards things that appear to the consciousness as qualitatively new. And, by bracketing different parts of the process of giving – by acknowledging and taking advantage of their absence – it opens up new, affirmative possibilities for acting that are no longer obligated to the metaphysics of presence propagated by Mauss. In the place of Derrida’s acerbic deconstructions and his scenario of endlessly meandering, unmanageable discourse Marion posits an intuitively guided aesthetic or experiential paradox that allows us to reconnect with the world as well as to undercut and exceed ends-means-thinking, truth seeking in authenticity, and epistemological fault-finding in an affirmative way.

Through his aestheticising of the phenomenological reduction, through his occlusion of metaphysical and economic calculation and through his overcoming of the aporetic epistemological critique practiced by Derrida, Marion opens up four methodological avenues that are of potentially great value for film analysis. The first relates to the way the five determinations can be used to describe how things position us through perception (anamorphosis), how contingency works (unexpected landing and fait accompli) and to what degree incidents and events occur in film. The second involves analyses of the four saturated phenomena (the event, the idol, the flesh, and the icon) and their appearance and interrelations in filmic narrative. The third would address the postmetaphysical patterns of giving defined by Marion in terms of the bracketing of giver, recipient and gift. Finally, the fourth involves an analysis of subjectivity based on assumptions that focus on consciousness as a receiving screen or prism and, in its strongest form, as the gifted, as someone ideally suited to receiving saturated phenomena and acting ethically in response to their calls. In methodological terms I wish to apply these concepts by conflating them with the four levels already well known from neo-formalist film analysis, i.e. story, narrative, style and viewer response. As the analyses below will show, this move is highly productive in both regards: Marion’s phenomenology is broadened to encompass visual narratives in the medium of film,14 and the normally noncommittal neo-formalist approach is forced by the radical act of reduction to address weighty ethical, aesthetic and metaphysical issues.

It might also be noted that the main philosophical objections to Marion’s phenomenology of givenness – that he confuses givenness and giving and that he mixes theology with philosophy – do not at all compromise the application of his philosophy to film. While it is possible to object that Marion’s idea that sensory data in the world are “given” to us is nothing more than a metaphor thinly concealing the workings of a presumed Creator, there is little doubt that a film is created by an author or authors in the film production team and presented or given to us as a work of art. The intentionality of their authorship must necessarily be factored into the phenomenological analysis when it is applied to the empirical experience of a film. Also, Marion’s explicit theological reflections can prove useful in such cases where films touch upon religious themes directly. His focus on paradoxically mediated transcendence is well in keeping with a more general recent epochal trend towards projecting acts of transcendence through art; this, in fact, is what makes his approach especially well-suited for the analysis of many contemporary art films.15

Finally, it should be noted that Marion’s positively formulated phenomenology of “reduction to givenness” is rarely (if ever) achieved in its entirety in terms of empirical reality. This applies not only to the authorial intentionality mentioned above, but also to all relevant individual concepts (determinations, saturated phenomena, giving etc.). These concepts and the reduction they involve are frequently blocked, contaminated, or perverted by what Marion would call “metaphysical” qualities attendant to empirical reality. Hence when operationalizing Marion’s phenomenology one must unavoidably extend it to include a negative set of concepts encompassing such things as evil, nausea, egoism, bad faith etc. In terms of practical analysis these negative concepts are often no less important than the positive ones advanced by Marion himself, however the positive notion of reduction remains the primary point of departure.

While it would be tempting to extend and deepen this brief discussion of Marion’s phenomenological project, it is best to apply it immediately in order to demonstrate its potential for film analysis.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

I will start with the film that would at first seem to offer the poorest prerequisites for a phenomenological analysis – Mungiu’s 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile / 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The narrative form is for the most part linear, the economy described in it – an illegal abortion that is carried out in exchange for money and sex – is sordid and banal, the contingency conditions surrounding it harbour no major surprises and in narrative terms there is no striking event. Yet even a movie with scant excess or paradox can be viewed productively in terms of Marion’s phenomenology.

The plot of the movie is, as already noted, banal, and it can be summarised quickly. The action takes place in 1987 during the Ceaușescu dictatorship. Otilia, a self-assured and assertive student, helps her frightened and passive roommate Gabita abort an unwanted child. The risky procedure has been made more difficult because Gabita has not bothered to seek out either a hotel room or an abortionist. Also, she has lied about the date of conception: because it occurred longer than four months ago it carries a possible murder charge with it. As a result, the abortionist demands more money and, when this is not forthcoming, sex with Otilia. In the only subplot, Otilia leaves her friend alone in the hotel room to attend the birthday party of her boyfriend Adi’s mother. There, Otilia is visibly put off by the self-satisfied table conversations of the guests, who are mainly doctors. After a fight with Adi about his reaction to a possible pregnancy on her part she leaves the celebration and goes back to the hotel. There, Gabita has successfully aborted the foetus and thrown it in a towel onto the bathroom floor. Otilia leaves the hotel with the wrapped-up foetus and disposes of it in the garbage chute of a high-rise apartment building. Afterwards she returns to the hotel, where she finds Gabita, who has grown hungry, in the hotel restaurant. In the last scene they both sit silently across from one another, framed in the window of the restaurant.

Marion’s phenomenology posits a horizon of givenness in which a receiver is anamorphically positioned by a phenomenon that comes toward her and that she intuitively refracts in the manner of a filter or prism (Marion 2002a, 265). The further possibilities arising from the bracketing of giver, receiver and gift as well as the possibility of being constituted as gifted are meant to shut off and exceed the metaphysics of economy, rationality, subjectivity and contingency. With this background in mind, 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile at first viewing appears to impoverish or even pervert the anamorphic axis and the undercutting of metaphysics resulting from it.

The poverty of the anamorphic creation of an axis shows itself clearly in the spatial relations contained in the film. Space is often presented in terms of clear-cut, centred vanishing points (in narrow corridors, in the depiction of hotel reception desks, sidewalks, bridges etc. [Fig. 1 and 2]).

Cristian Mungiu, 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile, 2007.
Cristian Mungiu, 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile, 2007.

Anamorphosis is thus constricted and reduced to the geometric forms that Marion characterises as “poor” because they show and give themselves without paradox, merely in their abstract objectivity (see 2002b: 112 and 2002a: 311). Yet even where space opens up (as, for example, in the night-time sequence, when Otilia disposes of the foetus), there is an almost complete loss of spatial phenomenality. Space shows and gives itself, but not enough to create phenomenological saturation. This impoverishing of anamorphosis works both on the diegetic and on the viewer response level: in the story it demarcates the extremely limited room for acting in which the protagonists must move, and on the surface of the screen it positions the viewer along clearly drawn axes whose vanishing points lead into the depths of filmic space with its highly constricted horizon of action. And, due to the mainly centred positioning of people and objects as well as the static, lengthy shots the film “freezes” into tableau-like scenes: it shows itself almost literally as resembling that “mediocre painting” used by Marion as a starting point in his discussion of the phenomenology of givenness (Marion: 2002a: 40). It would seem that this takes place in the film for a similar reason as outlined in Marion’s philosophical treatise: in this mediocrity the borderline between art and life is blurred. Moreover, within the fictive world of the film there is no escape from this mediocrity. This can be seen particularly well in the scene where Gabita is lying in bed smoking after the abortion: in the precisely centred shot there is a painting hanging over her bed depicting the two vases standing on each side of the bed – mediocre art and mediocre reality complement one another here perfectly (Fig. 3). The phenomenological reduction of course does not end here: in terms of viewer response the mediocre, linear mise en scène is perceived as artful, as an icon that disrupts and realigns us in a paradoxical way.

Cristian Mungiu, 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile, 2007.

This set towards impoverished space repeats itself in the poverty of the order of giving, which must be regarded as a direct perversion of what Marion describes in his discussion of paternity and givenness in “The Reason of the Gift.” The actual father, who is absent and anonymous, is replaced by a malevolent anti-father, the abortionist Dr. Bébé, who carries out a double perversion of the act of giving: he not only violently interrupts the gift of life, but also demands as payment an act of conception that is intended solely to satisfy his sexual desires. Dr. Bébé, who acts alternately in a fatherly and tyrannical way and who bears the infantile name of the beings he is destroying, is the sovereign master of a closed, totalised economy of abortion. In the place of a sublime experience of transcendence associated with the absent, but returning father we find the banal immanence of a mother who rejects the gift of the child in order to gain practical advantages in life and the malevolent immanence of the anti-father, who lets his destructive activity be reimbursed in money and sex.

Contingency, too, is reduced to an impoverished, predictable scheme, to a “yes-or-no” situation with little doubt about the answer. The possibility of not aborting (“what would you do if I were pregnant”) is played out by Otilia in her spat with Adi but is not given a satisfactory answer. The reason for this is that Adi, who has no idea of what Otilia had gone through in the hotel, has no adequate way of participating in the excessive nature of her experience. Otilia’s saturated experience of the abortion (in particular regarding the flesh) completely exceeds the scope of the discursive concepts unfolding in the self-satisfied bonhomie of the family gathering or in her face-to-face conversation with the unsuspecting Adi.

The film neither offers a moral judgment on the two women nor does it propose a fully deterministic, contingency-free horizon of action that would free the protagonists of all responsibility. Instead, we are positioned in such a way that we must focus on the figure of Otilia, who as someone helping the aborting mother and as an accomplice and victim of the abortionist bundles all paradoxes of the abortion procedure together in her own person and passes these onto us in excess and without the possibility of reciprocation.

The crucial feature of this positioning is the contrast between the passive, helpless Gabita and her active helper Otilia. In the case of Gabita, the productive receptivity vis-à-vis anamorphically unfolding phenomena that is privileged by Marion is not fulfilled. Gabita is not gifted. She is too egocentric and weak to constitute herself anew or differently through the saturated phenomenality of the abortion. On the contrary, she shows signs of being someone who randomly accepts and enjoys everything that comes near to her or is offered to her. While Otilia is undergoing a humiliating sex act with “Dr. Bébé” in the hotel room, Gabita borrows a cigarette from a man who by chance is standing in the foyer; after the bloody abortion she indulges in a hearty meal left over from a wedding that has itself ended in a bloody fracas. Otilia, by contrast, only smokes one brand of cigarette and accepts no substitute; instead of the festive meal at the end she drinks only water. Otilia is someone who allows herself to be positioned by givenness in a reductive, distinctive way; the problem here is that the contingency conditions of these phenomena allow her very little ethical leeway to begin with – not least because it is the weak-willed Gabita who is positioning her.

As the director Cristian Mungiu himself emphasises, there is only one real story in the movie, and that is Otilia’s;16 she is undoubtedly the gifted. Otilia is condemned to move back and forth along an axis of possibilities in which there are only two directions: either she refuses to help perform the abortion and renounces her friend or she carries it out and becomes involved in its sordid details. Neither moving about in free space (making arrangements for the abortion) nor posing the contingency question (to Adi) can cause Otilia to depart from this axis. Otilia’s actions can certainly be evaluated using ethical or discursive criteria, but that does not correspond to the way the film presents her situation. The movie does not present abortion as a problem of ethics or of discourse, but rather as a problem of givenness: it is a problem of “how” and not “why.” This aesthetically defined “how” becomes especially important in an ethical lose-lose situation where the social, psychological and political givens make a satisfactory choice impossible from the very start.

Just how does the film give and show itself to us anamorphically and how are we made to fall in line with this “coming up” of a complex set of phenomena?

The answer can be seen most intensively in the last scene, in which Gabita and Otilia sit across from one another in the restaurant. Here as elsewhere in the movie the frame of the shot creates a neatly centred tableau, like a precisely composed, static painting with a banal motif. Gabita has just received a full plate with the leftover selection from the wedding celebration and is reading the menu; Otilia is drinking a glass of water. After a short pause, Otilia turns her face slowly in the direction of the viewer, into the space of the movie theatre, as it were. At the same time, we become aware through the mirroring of a passing car that we are looking at the two women through the glass window frame of the restaurant and that Otilia is merely looking through it too. At this point the film abruptly ends.

What has happened here in phenomenological terms in regard to the viewer? Otilia seems to have crossed the two-dimensional surface of the screen and turned towards us directly; with her gaze she seems transpose the entire unbearable situation into our frame of reference (Fig. 4).

Cristian Mungiu, 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile, 2007.

Otilia has become what Marion calls an icon: a face whose overwhelming gaze we cannot avoid: “it no longer offers any spectacle to the gaze and tolerates no gaze from any spectator, but rather exerts its own gaze over that which meets it” (2002a: 232). It is the gaze of the Other, which throws its entire weight upon us. This faces acts as an “unexpected landing,” as an occurrence that cannot be explained by discourse, concept, and calculation and that makes the viewer into a witness, someone constituted by the paradox of the saturated phenomenon: “[…] the witness: me, insofar as I receive myself from the very givenness of the irregardable phenomenon, me insofar as I learn of myself from what the gaze of the Other says to me in silence” (2002a: 233; italics in original; see also 2002a: 216-219). Furthermore, the icon bundles together all the saturated experience that has preceded it: in this case the event of the abortion itself, which exceeds any sort of neat causal explanation; the aesthetic experience of the idol (the painting-like tableaus in which the characters unknowingly move in the mise en scène); and finally the shocking experience of the flesh (the sight of the bloody fetus lying on the floor [Fig. 5]).

Cristian Mungiu, 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile, 2007.

Otilia shows herself as gifted not as the result of discursively negotiable occurrences, but rather as the saturated point where all experience in the movie comes together – experience from which we cannot simply turn away. We don’t evaluate this experience directly from the perspective of the main character (as subjects who grasp and object and judge it from a distance), but rather in the intuition and on the same axis as the person looking past the borders of her own horizon, so to speak face to face. This phenomenological attitude becomes clearer if compared with an alternative version of the same scene that was not used in the final version. There, Gabita and Otilia are sitting across from one another in the way already described. The camera slowly pulls back to show them framed in the milky glass of the restaurant window; falling snowflakes make clear that we are dealing with a three-dimensional space separating them from us. This scene for its part refers back to the opening sequence, in which two goldfish are shown swimming back and forth in an aquarium. In the final version used in the film Otilia, as it were, looks out at us from inside the aquarium; with her gaze she at one fell swoop transcends her spatial captivity and penetrates into our time and space unexpectedly and with uncontrollable results.


Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida deals superficially with a similar situation: an active woman helps a passive one come to terms with an unexpected, potentially life-changing situation. Here, however, the similarities end. The film’s heroine, Anna, is a novice preparing to be ordained in a cloister in Poland in 1962. Shortly before this is to take place, she is informed by the Mother Superior that she has an aunt whom she should visit – her only living relative. The aunt turns out to be a hard-drinking, sexually licentious judge and former Communist prosecutor bearing the nickname “Bloody Wanda.” The aunt informs Anna that she is Jewish, that she was placed in the cloister as a baby, and that her true name is Ida Lebenstein; her mother and family did not survive the war. On Wanda’s initiative they set out to find the Polish family that harboured the family and apparently also murdered them. The search leads first to the son of the family, then to the dying father, whom the aunt assumes to be the killer. In exchange for Wanda and Anna leaving the father in peace and giving up any claims to the family property, the son shows them the grave, exhumes the skeletons of Anna’s mother and Wanda’s son, and admits to having committed the murder. Wanda and Ida bury the remains in the family grave in Lublin. Shortly thereafter Wanda commits suicide. Anna, who returns for the funeral, sleeps with a jazz musician she had previously met along the way, but seems to decide against a life in the secular world: in the final scene we see her in a tracking shot walking forcefully towards the camera wearing her novice’s habit.

Like 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile Ida depicts socialist reality using devices of anamorphic impoverishment: most of the individual shots have a static, tableau-like quality and emphasise simple geometric relations (in addition, the film is shot in black and white, which emphasises the bleakness of 1960’s rural Poland even more17). Here, though, there is a major difference. Whereas 4 luni uses linear geometric forms and centred horizon lines to underline the “either/or” positioning of the protagonists vis-à-vis the event of the abortion, Ida constantly places the heads of the two main protagonists off-centre in the mise en scène and gives them much too much head room. This is consonant with the film’s plot, which emphasises the exercise of individual free will over restrictions imposed by external conditions, conventional morality, or chance and underscores the obligation of Anna to a higher order of things. Although it is true that Anna is practically ordered to visit her aunt by the Mother Superior, almost everything else that transpires after that is a product of free choice and the exertion of free will. It is notable, for example, that the two protagonists deliberately repeat numerous actions in order to achieve a desired goal. After the first meeting, Wanda retrieves Anna from the bus station just as she is about to leave, and Anna goes back with her of her own free will. The two women need two attempts, respectively, to track down the son and the father; Anna leaves the cloister a second time to attend Wanda’s funeral, and Anna has two meetings with the young jazz musician before she decides to sleep with him. Neither state power nor patriarchal morality has much effect on the two. As a judge, Wanda can break laws with impunity (she drives drunk and breaks into the father’s apartment), and both Wanda and Anna sleep with men entirely of their own choice. Finally, Wanda’s suicide is an extreme expression of someone exercising her own free will and is not due to any outside pressure; this applies equally to Anna’s decision not to remain in the secular world.

Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida, 2013.
Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida, 2013.

The exchange transactions in the movie are comparatively simple. Anna and Wanda receive objects of symbolic value – the gravesite of the murdered family and their remains – by giving up economic value. The son, Feliks, shows the two women the gravesite in exchange for Anna ceding the property to him and for letting his father “die in peace” – an important ethical topic for Marion (see 2005: 120).18 His later confession that he murdered the family is a “gift” that he offers of his own free will, as the conditions of the deal have already been met. Regarding Anna, fatherhood has been bracketed in such a way that the father has been replaced by the Father (or, more properly, His Son, with whom Anna sees eye-to-eye). The gift of Jewishness passed on by matrilineage (which has also been bracketed by Anna’s being placed in the cloister) ultimately does not place Anna’s acquired religiosity in doubt. Wanda, who originally had refused to raise Anna, leaves her after her suicide not so much material things as the gift of worldliness, which Anna ultimately rejects. With the exception of the discovery of the gravesite and Wanda’s suicide, the movie lacks an event: Anna is confronted by the unpredictable, “unexpected landing” of her Jewishness and the “fait accompli” of Wanda’s death and her parents’ murder but perseveres nonetheless in her faith.

It might at first seem that Anna is close to an ideal embodiment of “the gifted” – in his theology Marion emphasises not just the receptivity of consciousness for all that is given in the world, but also openness to the doubly saturated mystery of Christian revelation. The depiction of Anna is however carefully modulated through anamorphic lines of positioning to suggest that she is not simple a passive recipient of vertically conveyed Christian dogma, but is also positioned along an active, horizontal axis in the secular world (in both contexts she is continually placed off-centre in the mise en scène). This can be seen, among other places, in the first scene of the movie, where Anna is shown off-centre and with disproportionate headroom painting the eyes on a statue of Christ; in doing so we first see her in an over-the-shoulder-shot staring at the face of Christ (Fig. 6), then looking at Him from the side, eye-to-eye (Fig. 7). A group of novices then carry the statue outside (Fig. 8), set it up in a small circular depression, and then form a circle around it (Fig. 9).

Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida, 2013.
Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida, 2013.

However, the whole procedure is shown very elliptically and eccentrically: it jumps from an odd close up of off-centred feet shuffling out a door to an off-centre long shot of the nuns carrying the statue through a courtyard to a very high-angle medium shot of them carrying the statue diagonally upwards across the screen; finally, we see another off-centre long shot showing them setting up the statue. In superficial thematic terms, the film shows us devotional acts demonstrating the piety of the novices. In its phenomenality, the film shows us Anna reversing the anamorphic axis towards the Icon (Christ) by gazing at Him on a horizontal, rather than on a vertical, plane and by painting in His eyes; here one can observe a deliberate blurring of the distinction between the ethically defined icon and the aesthetically motivated idol. Furthermore, by depicting acts of devotion (as well as many other things in the plot) radically off centre the film forces us as viewers to position ourselves anew in regard to this visual ex-centricity, which in fact has no thematic common denominator (it applies both to the secular and religious worlds, and it is also used in regard to Wanda). By reversing and destabilising the conventional Christian axis of iconicity (where Christ would be looking down at us or at Anna) the film positions both us and the main character in an unsettling way that goes well beyond highlighting the thematic paradox of Anna being a “Jewish nun.” In particular, it establishes Anna as a person who is not active in the conventional sense of the word (this part is played by Wanda) and who does not provide us with a flood of discursive references (she says little or nothing in most of the film) but who positions herself dynamically along the anamorphic axis vis-à-vis both others in the film and us as viewers. Anna does not develop any kind of discursively definable position in the course of the film, except perhaps for being a novice with Jewish ancestry. However, her state of mind gives itself and shows itself to us anamorphically and auditively in the last tracking shot (Fig. 10), which lasts over a minute and a half and shows her the entire time in a medium close-up.

Paweł Pawlikowski, Ida, 2013.

The shot, which is taken with a hand-held camera, bobs in front of her as she walks toward us – now centred – down a country road; after ca. 20 seconds we hear Bach’s haunting “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” / “I call to thee, Lord Jesus Christ” that both connotes and denotes her sacral calling. Here there is no goal-oriented intentionality (we cannot tell or see directly where she is going) but what we do see and hear is her response to a call (if we take the title of Bach’s chorale literally, then she is also calling back). Her spirituality is neither one of authentic interiority (her interior life remains entirely opaque) nor of discursively determined exteriority (being a Jewish-Catholic hybrid), but of someone who is capable of positioning herself dynamically along a horizontal axis of givenness towards a call that is determined by life as much as it is by dogma. The worldly, cynical Wanda, by contrast, is unable to endure the revelation of her family’s murder and chooses the vertical axis of death (she dies by jumping out of a window).

My brief summary of Marion’s phenomenology as well as the thumbnail analyses of two important films suggest that his philosophy could be of considerable value in film analysis. Marion’s focus on visuality and his carefully calibrated criteria for assessing contingency and eventness make it well suited for analysing the medium of narrative film. His concept of gifted or prismatically broken consciousness offers a cogent postmetaphysical alternative to Lacan’s concept of semiotically imposed castration or to Deleuze’s notion of the brain as a machine processing cinematic images. Marion’s four saturated categories (the event, the idol, the flesh, the icon) allow for a broad range of thematic applications (respectively relating to history and event, aesthetics, eroticism and sensuality, and ethical engagement with an Other). Furthermore, Marion’s thought allows a positive, life-affirming filmic interpretation of anamorphosis (which in Lacan’s and Žižek’s thinking leads us inexorably back into the Real and death), and his phenomenological bracketing of giving allows an analysis of relations of exchange below the threshold of economy and discourse as well as a critical attitude towards economic behaviour as such. Finally, the implicit and explicit theological elements of Marion’s phenomenology make it especially well-suited to dealing with contemporary art cinema, which no longer readily corresponds to the time-image/action-image dichotomy set up by Deleuze and which is generally marked by a striving to transcend discursively mediated postmodern irony.19 This striving for transcendence (whether structural or thematic) is a further aspect of contemporary film that is ideally suited to treatment by Marion’s phenomenology and theology. It is my hope that this article will contribute to expanding the scope of contemporary film theory as well as to focus more attention on applications for Marion’s postmetaphysical phenomenology.


Raoul Eshelman

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Raoul Eshelman is Professor of Slavic Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He received his dissertation from Konstanz University in 1988 and his habilitation from the University of Hamburg in 1996. He is the author of Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (2008) as well as numerous articles dealing with the development of literature, film, and culture after postmodernism. His most recent work is Die Rückkehr des Glaubens. Zur performatistischen Wende in der Kultur (Hamburg 2016).


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Suggested Citation

Eshelman, Raoul. 2017. “Jean-Luc Marion’s Postmetaphysical Phenomenology and Film. An Analysis of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Ida.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 4. DOI:


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