5 Films Reflecting the Tension Between Artistic Types and the ‘Bourgeoisie’

In his Reflections of A Unpolitical Man, Thomas Mann writes that he wants to restore the dignity of the term Bürger, (almost untranslatable in English, but ‘citizen’ is the closest translation), since “certain literary circles” have utterly degraded it. He writes that bourgeois is the favorite affront of the littérateurs, and quotes Wagner saying that is an element completely introduced from abroad, namely, France. Parisian bohemians started to use the term in 1830s, and Mann says that they were completely without talent for art, narrow-minded and directed toward personal gain. The term gave confidence to the vane “artistic libertines”.

Later in the book, Mann says that he is aware that at the beginning of the 20th century the transformation of the Bürger into the bourgeoisie has already taken place, but he is not interested in that phenomenon that much. In other words, although Mann despises the usage of the term bourgeois as a verbiage for degradation of the middle-class, he is aware that the same middle-class he respects and comes from, has degraded into bourgeoisie. From these thoughts, we can derive two things. The first is that the so-called “artists” use of the term is a shameful attempt to degrade the rest of the society as narrow-minded, materialist bourgeoisie, while they themselves share the same “qualities”. On the other hand, the change toward that very materialistic and narrow-minded worldview has happened along with the steady march of “progress”, mainly economic.

In cinema, a recurring theme is the conflict between sensitive, creative, “romantic” and sometimes rather odd individuals, and the mainstream society which is predominantly materialistic, “realist”, pragmatic and oriented toward personal gain. In this list, we are about to explore this very subject, with a grain of salt, since this opposition is more of a sketch of complex interactions and personality types in contemporary societies.

1. Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

Nocturnal Animals, made by a fashion designer Tom Ford, features first in this list since this conflict, or tension, is shown in an almost caricatural, but intense manner. Susan is a wealthy gallery owner, suffering an identity crisis, observing her marriage falling apart. Her ex-husband Edward sends her a copy of his novel, titled Nocturnal Animals, dedicated to her. As she reads the novel, we can see it on-screen. The characters in the film inside a film are played by the same actors who impersonate Susan and Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). While Tony Hastings is driving through the Texas desert in a car with his wife and daughter, they are forced off the road by three men who abduct Tony’s wife and child. Soon we find out that they are raped and murdered; we see their deceased naked bodies exposed in the sunlight, on a couch in the desert. The recurring motif is the murderers’ emphasis on Tony’s weakness, and the police officer who investigates the case, seems to imply the same as well.

As the story in the novel unfolds, we see flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s relationship while they were young, in college. What started as a loving relationship, evolves into a confrontation. Susan, at first supportive of Edward, and his aspirations to become a writer, says to her mother that he is not weak but sensitive. Her mother tells her that a few years later those ‘burgeoisie’ things she claims to despise will matter to her a lot, and Edward will not be able to provide for them, since he has no money. In the end, she claims to him that she is ‘pragmatic’, a ‘realist’ and needs a more structured life. She reprimands Edward for working in a bookstore and aiming to become a writer, but lacking the qualities of one. The motif of her becoming more like her mother as the time passes comes to realization, and she brutally leaves Edward after aborting their child.

There is a cynical brutality in the film, as one critic says, reprimanding the film for the fact, but it is also a cold dissection of the tension between the ‘romantic’ concept of love and the ‘real world’ which comes between the couple. As she reads the novel, Susan starts to believe that this is a form of revenge Edward is taking upon her, but desires to see him again. In Nocturnal Animals, we see a classic opposition between a sensitive, ‘romantic’ young man, with artistic proclivities and the harsh world outside, which is ‘materialistic’ and brutal toward the ‘weak’ – Susan feels compelled to belong to that very world. As the film unfolds, and we see the narrative of the novel before our eyes, we witness Susan becoming the victim of the life she has chosen, as well as being an actual victim in the novel Edward has written. Her desire to meet, and possibly reconcile with Edward may seem to be a comfortable solution, but both the viewer and Susan are denied of it.

2. L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is a sensitive young woman who, at the start of the film, breaks up with her boyfriend. We see her lying in a fetal position, implying that she is vulnerable. After she manages to end the affair in the least painful way possible, she encounters her mother at the stock market, where we witness “jungle scenes” of men shouting, mixed together in a collective struggle to gain money, and eventually lose it. Her mother is what the leftists usually describe as bourgeoise, a woman obsessed with profit to the edge of madness. As in Nocturnal Animals, we see a confrontation between a materialist mother and her daughter; in this case however, Vittoria stays who she is, understanding her mother’s craving for riches to be driven by a fear of poverty. She says that she does not think about poverty, or getting rich as well. At the stock market, a place Monica perceives no different than a boxing ring, Monica meets Piero (Alain Delon), a vital, and at times vulgar young man of materialistic nature.

Vittoria is extremely attuned to her surroundings; she is fascinated by the fact that a man who lost millions of liras drew flowers on the napkin, while Piero simply brushes it off. At the beginning of the film, Vittoria says to her friend: “There are times when holding a needle and a thread, or a book, or a man – it’s all the same.“ In these words, we can observe her sensivity and creativity, and her understanding of romantic relationships as well. She links them to activities sometimes done to keep boredom away, although she does not want them to be as such, as it can be presumed. When Vittoria meets her friend’s neighbor who was born in Africa, we can see another thread Antonioni has woven into the film; he links the bourgeoisie with colonialism and outright racism. Marta says: “I’ll say just one thing. There are about ten leaders who’ve studied at Oxford. The others are all monkeys, six million monkeys.“ Vittoria dances as a black African woman for fun, and Marta, annoyed, interrupts her in the act. We also see Vittoria with one black and one white dog, asking if they have problems with each other. Colonial gaze and the burgeoisie are linked closely together, and Vittoria, who cannot see Africa in any other way, participates as well.

The tension between Vittoria and Piero is of erotic nature, but it is also a tension between the two worlds, the first, prone to daydreaming and striking imagination, sensitivity, attentivity and idiosyncratic ways of expression, while Piero is completely down-to-earth, materialistic, assertive, and sees romantic relationships as conquests. Piero says that he “had dinner with seven or eight billion lira“, and mostly talks about things he bought (a car for instance), while Vittoria rolls her eyes. When Vittoria says that she doesn’t “miss marriage”, Piero completely misunderstands her by observing that she was never married, so she cannot miss it. In one word, they speak different languages, the first is characterized by playfulness and imagination, while the other by sheer pragmatism. The meaning of Vittoria’s playfulness with words, as she is playful by nature, eludes him. She says that when she is with him, she feels like she is in a foreign country. Their relationship was doomed to fail, as doom hovers above a Cold War world in which peace is as fragile as human relationships.

3. Barton Fink (Coen Brothers, 1991)

Barton Fink is a successful playwright, who understands theatre to be “of the common people and for the common people”. After his play was praised by the critics, although he openly detests the “buorgeoisie“  understanding of art, his aim is to go beyond the theatre which portrays only the great and “noble“ people, and wants to “give it back“ to the common people, to reveal their sufferings and transcend their misery through art. He is summoned to Hollywood, and accepts the job, convinced that he will make enough money to finance the obsession of his life as an artist – the theatre. He rents a room in a cheap motel, wanting it to be “less Hollywood”. We can assume that he wants to be closer to the “common people”, but since he belongs to the upper class, this is problematic in many ways. There is a certain awkwardness in his behaviour, he is prone to long monologoues about his understanding of his role as an artist; he understands his devotion to be complete.

When he comes to Hollywood, he is assigned to write a script for a wrestling film by his new boss Jack Lipnick, who is a straightforward and vulgar businessman. Suffering from a writer’s block, without a clue how to write a script for the B movie, he asks help from an acclaimed writer W.P. Mayhew, a fictional representation of William Faulkner. Since Mayhew is drunk most of the time, he receives no help from him, but an interesting conversation insues when Mayhew says that he is at peace only when he writes. Barton reprimands him, saying that writing comes from inner pain, that its purpose is to ease the sufferings of others, and the main goal in life of a writer must be to devote himself to his art completely. As one can assume, this can be a problem if a writer who feels such devotion is asked to write a B movie about wrestling. After sleeping with Mayhew’s lover, he finds himself next to a dead body; shaken, he starts to suffer from delusions, seeing the first lines of his script written in the Bible, the Genesis.

When Lipnick asks him if he has written anything, Barton evades the answer by saying that revealing the story might hamper his creative process; Lipnick kisses his feet, in admiration of a great writer. More ominously, Lipnick’s associate says that the contents of Barton’s mind are a property of Capitol Pictures. Barton often comments how he “respects the common people”, and says the same to the detectives, and is at the verge of having delusions of grandeur; his obsession with his work culminates when he succedes in writing the script, claiming that it is the best work he has ever written. At the party, after the confrontation with sailors, he yells that he is a writer, a man who creates for a living. Barton is frequently visited by a man who claims to be an insurance agent, but is in fact a wanted man and a psychopathic killer, who burns the motel to the ground, yelling “I’ll show you the life of the mind” to the detectives he is about to murder; the shots of the burning motel seem to be a metaphor for the fact that Barton is now in hell.

These tropes of the “life of the mind”, and the state of a tortured mind, are mentioned by Barton Fink as well, show the main antagonism in the film: the one between a tortured artist and a corporate machine which destroys him, claiming that the world doesn’t revolve around the things going in his head. In an important way, this is true, since the film’s narrative happens in 1941, and Lipnick is conscripted to the military; Barton does not seem to perceive that the war with the Japanese is going on. Lipnick says that nobody cares about the sufferings of a wrestler, they want to “see” action, physicality, and lots of it, and completely dismisses Barton’s life work. Things develop in the most horrid fashion, when Lipnick says to Barton that he will still be under contract, but everything he writes will be dismissed; the contents of his mind are now a property of Capitol Pictures.  

4. Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)

At a rigorously traditional Welton Academy high school, students get a new English teacher, John Keating, who follows the romantic principles and applies unorthodox teaching methods. He urges his students to question authority, advocates non-conformism, and encourages them to “make your lives extraordinary”. Most students at the school have their career-paths already laid-out for their sons as well, but as they are influenced by Keating’s teaching, they are emboldened, and organize meetings of the “Dead Poets Society” in the caves. When it comes to Keating’s teachings, he urges them to live according to the Latin proverb “carpe diem”, which he interpretes as “seize the day”, a reminder of one’s own mortality, and that one’s life should not be wasted. A quote by Henry David Thoreau is the opening line read at the meetings of Dead Poets Society: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”. Keating inspires many students, to do foolish acts, but also makes them more confident and emboldens them.

One of the students, Neil, discovers his love for acting, but his strict, authoritarian father doesn’t want to hear about it. As we can see in his father’s comments, he has “sacrificed a lot” so his son can get to a prestigious high school, and will stop at nothing to realize his plans for his son – he will become a doctor. He fakes his father’s signature and starts acting in a school play, an adaptation of Shakespare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his father comes to the play, but soon after, a fierce argument ensues. Neil wants to be an actor, but his father doesn’t want to hear about it; as we can see, he did not have opportunities in life Neil has.  We find out that his father’s middle-class status is newly achieved, and wants his son to excel in his career.  He says that he will send him to the military school, then he will study medicine. After a series of rituals, like putting a crown from the play on the window, Neil commits suicide.

The school blames Keating for this, and in a famous scene, the students, to the new teachers’ horror, stand on their tables saying “O Captain! My Captain!”, lines from Whitman’s poem on Abraham Lincoln. In this way, the free spirit is opposed to the authoritarian way of teaching, which struggles to maintain the ways of old. The German writer Ernst Jünger once wrote that a conservative is someone who is in a car which is going really fast, and strives to maintain everything in order, to no avail. For Nietzsche, he is akin to a crab who walks in reverse, implying that everything around is changing, rapidly. Nevertheless, in Dead Poets Society, the conflict is not only between traditionalism and ‘non-conformism’, it is a struggle between the newly emerged middle-class, and the generation which cherishes values Keating advocates: to express oneself freely, and art is one of the ways to do accomplish that goal.

5. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)

Frances dances for a dance company, but at the age of 27 she is still an apprentice. She is quirky and easy-going, and is creative with words as her lifestyle is original; she strives to accomplish her dreams. She is an artist living in New York, but her best friend Sophie decides to move to the other part of town, where Francis cannot afford to live. Frances moves in with two friends, one of them is a sculptor from a rich family. Sophie visits them and says: “The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are the rich” Frances replies that she is an artist and that she is not rich, and Sophie responds that she is rare. The leader of the dance company decides that Frances will not participate in a Christmas show, and when the money she was countoing on falls through Frances moves in with a colleague from the dance company she doesn’t really get along with. This scenario reminds of the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis, which features an aspiring artist who sleeps on the acquaintances’ couches and despite his talent, his career is going nowhere.

Frances’ colleague takes her to dinner with some of her ‘bourgeoisie’ friends, and at this moment, the film starts morphing into a satire of the bourgeoisie mentality. While joking, Frances asks a lawyer what he does when she gets a reply, he asks her the same question and she says: “Eh… It’s kinda hard to explain.” When asked if it is complicated she replies: “Eh… Because I don’t really do it”. A casual conversation is often accompanied by Frances’ dark humor and almost childlike honesty. Nevertheless, in Frances Ha we cannot speak of a tension between a person of artistic inclination and the bourgeois society, it’s more of coexistence, humorous at times, but also warm. The manager of the dance company asks Frances if she wants a day job in the office, but Frances refuses, lying that she will make it as a dancer in an another company. As a result, after a brief stay at her parents’ house, she moves to a students’ dormitory.

While staying there, she lands a student job and her colleague, a student, finds it to be rather odd. Frances pours drinks for a congresswoman/a senator who donated a lot of money to the college, and at this point things get even more satirical and surreal. A politician makes out with a young painter in public, and at this point we can see another satirical allusion to the artists’ social status. Frances Ha approaches these themes with a spontaneous humor, and as the things get more and more absurd, they stay lightheartedly casual as before. In a brief closure, we see Frances accepting the office job and finally realizing her dreams; the dance company manager compliments Frances’ choreography calling it a great success. Nevertheless, the film is not about success or failure, and in this respect it is unique, it simply about being oneself and finding one’s distinctive place in this world, and living that choice with a warm heart and good-natured spirit.

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Editor’s Note:

If you enjoyed this article, I would like to recommend some great books and movies associated with it. You can purchase them on Amazon:

Michelangelo Antonioni, L’Eclisse [Blu-ray]

David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There

The members of the new information age elite are bourgeois bohemians. Or, to take the first two letters of each word, they are Bobos. These Bobos define our age. They are the new establishment. Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe. Their status codes now govern social life. Their moral codes give structure to our personal lives. . . This book is a description of the ideology, manners, and morals of this elite.

Jerrold Siegel, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930

Seigel’s survey of 100 years of Parisian Bohemia (the word is derived from the French for “gypsy”) weaves together aesthetic, political, and countercultural strands to form a picture that is always clear and detailed, if not always equally compelling. For Seigel, the rise of Bohemianism is linked to the decline of classicism and aristocracy. Like romanticism (and like that other subculture produced by the decline of aristocracy, dandyism), Bohemianism was a “cult of the isolate individual.” It lasted, says Seigel, from the Romantic period through the 1920’s, when the avant-garde again became a group movement. Bohemia was a phenomenon of individuals, not groups, and its artistic pretensions faded after the 1920’s. 

Book review on Kirkus

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks

The saga as first published in two volumes picks up the tale of the Buddenbrooks in 1835 at the peak of their financial prosperity and family stability. Old Johann Buddenbrook, son of the founder of the family firm, has just moved the family and the business into one of the most handsome houses in town. . . In the course of hundreds of pages we have witnessed a succession of marriages, births, divorces and deaths punctuating the decline of the initially robust family — a decline brought about (in Mann’s Weltanschauung ) by the weakening of business acumen and ethics as the family succumbs to the enticements of wealth, with its inevitable concomitants of sickly religiosity, artistic inclinations and disease.

The New York Times: Book review by Theodore Ziolkowski

21 thoughts on “5 Films Reflecting the Tension Between Artistic Types and the ‘Bourgeoisie’

      1. Thanks! I did come up with a more personal list last week on Iridium Eye if you want to check it out. https://iridiumeye.wordpress.com/2020/12/01/top-7-reasons-why-writing-reviews-is-cathartic-for-me/

        The last one I wrote that was explicitly about films is a list involving films and series that got banned or sabotaged for stupid reasons: https://iridiumeye.wordpress.com/2020/09/01/top-7-movies-and-series-that-got-sabotaged-and-or-banned-for-stupid-reasons/

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I read both articles, really interesting. Thank you very much for taking the time and energy to share this with us. I am happy to hear that writing is liberating for you, for me, it’s really hard these days. Before the catastrophe it was rather easy, and for several months later as well, but now, when almost all my energy is spent, it is not. I am most certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress. You mentioned bullying due to the things you love. I have experienced some unpleasant commentary when it comes to things I love myself, but it is mostly a laughing matter for me. The more problematic thing is when you are given a stigma of being someone who “only watches movies” and is understood mainly in the terms connected to this art form (although most people don’t really see it as an art form). It is ludicrous, what about all the people who watch sports almost every evening, are they to be understood solely in connection to soccer? Here in Southeastern Europe even the educated are uneducated, mostly, and it is not easy to bypass those silly prejudices.

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      3. Thank you very much! I’m glad you enjoyed both of them.

        Sorry to hear about your desire to write diminishing after that catastrophe. I hope it can be revived again. Totally agree when it comes to being bullied for liking something. Cinema is more than just the typical Hollywood stuff, but people don’t realize it. Very good observation with sports fans because I NEVER see them get made fun of for liking something (In America, it’s usually American football, basketball, and baseball more often than not). I swear some sports fans talk about players or teams in excruciating detail than when I talk about movies or anime for example. Double standard, much? That’s a good quote with educated people being uneducated, too.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. No, you misunderstood me. My desire for writing is strong as ever, it’s just that at these times the writing process is much more difficult. But not impossible. It requires more effort, that’s all. I wouldn’t call it being bullied that much, it’s just one or two people who completely misunderstand the meaning and value of art; we speak different languages. Usually, I am surrounded with people who support my work and cherish film and literature. But there are some rather base people who find it unusually odd. They cannot understand that being a writer presupposes a certain degree of loneliness, reading and watching films, if you are writing about cinema. I usually ignore such comments, but I cannot say that they do not annoy me.

        Liked by 3 people

      5. Sorry about that. Good on you for that will to write still being there. Okay, thanks for clearing that up for me. It’s awesome you’re surrounded by people with similar interests.

        Liked by 2 people

      6. No problem. 🙂 There are a few of them, some come and go, some don’t have the similar interests, but it is important to have people around you who respect the things you love, even if they don’t share the same interests. I am grateful that these kind of communities like WordPress and Facebook groups exist, where like minded people can engage in discussions about the things they love!

        Liked by 3 people

      7. Sure thing. I definitely agree and there are times where I feel like some other bloggers have been more encouraging to me than people I know offline. WordPress has certainly been helpful and I felt like things are better here than other platforms from my experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Please keep writing, and keep engaging in the “life of the mind”! Whatever others think or understand/misunderstand, art and film and knowledge is part of the webs we spin for ourselves to have meaning in our lives. Beautiful, complex and intricate webs, as your present list demonstrates by connecting so many different ideas and texts. These webs we create have meaning to us and we should never let others and their differences (or maybe even their lacks in some cases) affect this! In many cases, these people are essentially just jealous that their lives do not have the same sense of meaning — though this is not something I can blame them for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interestingly, at the moment when I was reading your comment the day before yesterday, I was writing an essay about Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” named “Melancholy of Endless Empire”, a Spenglerian analysis of the concept of space as presented in the film. It is in Croatian, written for a Serbian magazine. So, I write, and will continue writing for the blog. It is more difficult than it was before, as I mentioned, due to pain and a lack of concentration, but when I write for some time, the pain vanishes! Your comment is beautifully put, I agree with you. Some people tend to mask their lacks by criticising others, a defense mechanism of sorts. Although I understand that psychologically, it used to bother me, but it has never affected my work. My will to do the things I love and give meaning to my life is much stronger than sorrow due to lack of understanding between some people and myself. You are right, one cannot judge them for that, it is irrational to be angry at such things, but pity them, in a way.

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      1. Yes, I think that’s it, we are lucky to have these passions, which many others are unfortunate to not have! Think how sad a life without cinema, art or music as anything more than disposable commodities to consume and then immediately forget would be…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A very insightful article! I really enjoyed it. You demonstrated so well this contrast between idealists, romantics, and pragmatists, which is sometimes so powerfully presented in film. It reminds me of a classic book The Sorrows of Young Werther also, this disillusionment with the reality felt by certain creative and artistic people. I cannot believe I still haven’t seen Barton Fink. I need to remedy that as soon as possible. I am also interested in this action of reaching for the artistic dream and freedom on screen, but being set back by the harsh reality and circumstances (as also in Betty Blue); or this desire to reinvent oneself completely along the romantic and creative ideas, and finding out that the society not only fails to appreciate the new “you”, but does everything to bring that person down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! That’s a great comparison, with Werther. Romantics, decadents (Huysmans, Wilde…), avant-garde movements, all of them cherished the cult of an isolated individual, so it is of course relevant to this list. But now since the avant-garde movements are dead for about a 100 years, it terrifies me that we live in liberal societies supposedly oriented on the individual, but all I see is a mass society, or “crowd” as Le Bon would say, but we have no alternatives. Hippies in the 60s and after them punk were counter-cultures, but group-oriented and one might say, so uniformed that they negate that very personal freedom they advocate (all punk rockers essentially dress the same etc.) Unless you are David Lynch, you will most likely be found odd, to say the least, for living an isolated life (from the mainstream society’s dogmas), with no organized movement or counter-culture to give meaning to your lifestyle (on the societal level). It is ironic that Lynch precisely advocated in favor of that stigma in the way he portrayed an isolated guy in Twin Peaks (1990). You ought to see Barton Fink, brilliant film! One of my Coen brothers’ favorites!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad you like the mag. You can send it anytime. Less than 2000 words is preferred. Not sure when the next issue will be out. We’re hoping Spring, but it all depends on how quickly we get what we like.

        Liked by 1 person

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