October 23, 2023

If Culture Has Come to a Standstill, We Can Now Céline Sciamma It

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A recent New York Times article pointed out that our culture, something that had been moving in a forward direction, now seemed to be directionless and even at a standstill. I first found this statement absurd. The argument that culture had stopped while we — the whole world — were still alive seemed logically impossible. However, if this observation was true, and culture really had come to a degree of standstill, we should celebrate it.  

The progress of culture discussed in the Times article seems to suggest a culture contingent on a cycle of resistance and breakthrough. The article points out that many cultural works today seem to be either rehashes of past styles or exist in a state of timelessness, arguing that while there is still new content being produced, it often lacks the transformative and innovative qualities that were characteristic of 20th-century cultural movements. However, the idea that culture must take the shape of temporal linearity is questionable. Can’t culture be viable even when there is no great conflict ready to be reckoned with? Or, as Céline Sciamma puts it, what happens when the chicken gets what it wants? 

My response to the Times article came to me while reflecting upon Céline Sciamma’s approach to cinema. The acclaimed director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma is not interested in antagonists propelling the narrative. Rather, she explores what could happen if the narrative moved away from conflict and the characters found themselves in agreement. Because now, the story is allowed to take any shape it desires. 

The first film I ever watched of Sciamma was Ma Vie de Courgette, a claymation feature co-written with Claude Barras. In the film, a group of children struggle to find the possibility of love after their respective burdens of trauma, slowly rediscovering hope through their time together at the orphanage. Here, the focus isn’t on triumph or achievement but on internal wish and experience — desire. The children want love, belonging and hope, and this constructs the narrative, resulting in a story that doesn’t follow the received ideas of how things usually unfold. 

The ingenuity of Sciamma’s take on cinema is at full force during Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where the film explores what happens when obstacles and enemies are removed. Héloïse and Marianne construct the film by living moment by moment, putting forward what they want and could want. 

To me, the Times article’s description of culture is a lot like traditionally received ideas of narrative that are centered around conflict. I see culture as how the components of the world are perceived, and subjective experiences perhaps don’t have to be united by a distinct definition of an era. Like a Sciamma film, culture can be contingent on desire rather than a problem waiting to be triumphed over. 

I think the striking result of reframing culture as a reflection of desire is that humanity can be perceived through a universal lens. Like Sciamma’s films, the absence of an agon gives rise to human themes of love, togetherness, desire, loneliness, understanding and more. And, is this not what culture ultimately shapes itself upon? Essential themes of humanity are best illuminated during moments when we are free to choose, to consider the possibility of possibility. 

So the observation that culture is meandering is in a way an extraordinary sign. Because, when identifiable elements of temporal culture dwindles down, we have to reckon with an intoxicating question: What do you want and do you still want it? 

In North America, I find that there is an overlooked tendency to frame the happenings of the world as a conflict, something that demands a glittering solution. Even at Cornell, I find that there is a culture of framing each day as a conflict, constrained by the uncontrollable passing of time. But while there are places in the world that feel like you’re living with time (New York, namely), there are also places where it feels like all the time has passed, and you’re living in the after (Paris, to be exact). There, culture doesn’t seem wholly contingent on progress. 

Like Céline Sciamma’s redefinition of narrative, perhaps we should view culture as a reflection of desire rather than the fight against conflict. There are still billions of people waking up and falling asleep every single day. Cadence of life tends to have a difficult time resisting culture. 

Haera Shin is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected].