The question that I kept before me as I was reading this book and preparing to write this review is whether philosophers can learn anything valuable from it. After all, it is a book written by someone who has published extensively on film, it treats various Hollywood and European films that are classics and certainly worthy of attention, and it purports to engage with the work of an important twentieth-century philosopher as part of its project. To be sure, one can learn something even from a book that has significant deficiencies, but what I have been asking myself is something different. It is whether a philosopher could learn anything positive from the book. Does the book say helpful and interesting things about Emmanuel Levinas? Does it show us how to explore films in the light of Levinas’s philosophical work? Does it read films in a way that is philosophically novel and interesting, about film itself or about these particular films? I wish that I could answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, but I cannot. The most I can say is that in the course of reading what Girgus has to say about Levinas and the nine or so films he discusses, one is provoked to reflect upon a number of problems and issues concerning Levinas and film, and although Girgus has nothing particularly helpful to say about most of them, it is worthwhile to have them called to our attention.
Not too promising. Here are the closing paragraphs of the review:
For me, the chapters on the three European films, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, La Dolce Vita, and L’avventura, were the most interesting and rewarding in the book. Basically, Girgus gives us straightforward readings of these films, and they are very helpful readings at that. His treatment of sexuality, femininity, love, and ethics in these films combines close reading of the films with observations from other readers, historical context, and more. The best use of Levinas comes, I think, in the last chapter, but it is not so much a use of Levinas as it is a use of the controversy over Levinas’s treatment of the feminine in his early work and the criticisms of it. Girgus tries to show that Antonioni is concerned in L’avventura with women, love, sexuality, and fulfillment, and it is helpful to turn to the criticisms of Levinas’s subordination of women in Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity to expose the dialectic and the development in the story of Anna and Claudia, forL’avventura is really their story together and about the growing sense of what love and fulfillment mean for Claudia.
Early in his career, in his famous essay “Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas is very critical of art; later his appreciation for literature and art seems to have become increasingly positive. Film, then, is one province in which Levinas’s puzzling relation to art can be assessed. Recently, there has been an effort on the part of a few philosophers and film theorists to draw Levinas and film together for mutual illumination. Most notably, there is a special issue of the journal Film-Philosophy edited by Sarah Cooper and a fascinating book on the Dardenne Brothers by Joseph Mai. Within the context of such developments, Girgus’s book promised to be a watershed. He does address central themes in Levinas — transcendence, responsibility, the face, the role of time, and Levinas and feminism; he is a prominent author on film; and he has read Levinas and much commentary on him. But Girgus’s execution of his task is insufficiently deep and helpful about Levinas and inadequate when it comes to applying Levinas to the reading of film. We still await a thoughtful, sensitive, and serious book on Levinas and film.
The question of “Levinas and film,” in my opinion, needs to be approached internally rather than externally. That is, I’m simply not sure how helpful it would be to try to apply Levinas’s thought to the interpretation of film, nor am I convinced it’s actually possible.