Existential Themes in the film My Life Without Me
The basic plot of the movie – that set on the last days of a dying young woman – hints at being a tear-jerking melodrama. But contrary to this threat My Life Without Me delivers a surprisingly novel representation of a life about to end. The announcement of death, instead of limiting the physical and mental possibilities of the young woman Ann, actually liberates her to explore them to the fullest. The film is rich in its philosophical content, particularly themes central to Existentialism. This essay will showcase how through the strength of her character and a preference for rationality over sentimentality Ann represents a true existential hero.
Hardly 23 years of age, Ann lives an arduous yet contented life. She lives with her young family in a caravan put out in the backyard of her mother’s house. Although the relationship with her mother is somewhat troubled, she has a loving husband and two adorable girls. Her father is largely absent from her life, struggling as he is with his habitual petty crimes. So though life is not hunky-dory, it hums along with some equilibrium. She works full time to support her family as her
Existentialism as a philosophical system is not very well defined and nor is the system currently in vogue. Existentialism loosely concerns with the purpose, nature and possibilities for human existence. It arose in the aftermath of the Second World War, as a reaction to the widespread death and destruction that the event accounted for. In this regard, it is fair to claim that death is as important a preoccupation in existentialism as is life and life-affirming actions. Or rather, it is about the inevitability of death and the possibilities such a terminal reality opens up. This is exactly the situation faced by Ann. Her impending death makes her think hard about what it is to live. She then makes it a goal to experience all the bounties of life during the dying of the light. Herein Ann takes ‘responsibility’ for her life and actions. A less resolute soul might have descended into self-sympathy and melancholy. But not Ann – a true existential hero, she doesn’t see the point in complaining about her situation. Instead she proactively and constructively engages with it.
Jean Paul Sartre attempts to understand why human beings do not have innate ‘essence’ or a programmed set of values, traits and aspirations. Ann’s words and actions were linked to the Absurd Universe, whereby her diagnosis created a journey for her towards understanding the meaning of human life. Ann’s decisions fit into the existential framework for she decides to give meaning to the reminder of her life the way she best sees fit. In Ann’s case the very fact of her existence empowers her to seek meaning. She taps into the resources of her existence and creates her own essence. The manner in which Ann handles her crises exemplifies an existential basis to confronting adversity. She refuses to be led astray by the absurdity surrounding her. In a truly heroic sense, she reassumes control of her life, instead of letting her illness dictate the terms. Ann’s unexpected encounter with approaching death is the sort of phenomenon that defines an Absurd Universe. The subjective/individualized reality confronting Ann is essentially absurd. Ann is right to feel that there is random and arbitrary dispensation of justice and fairness in the real world. Even though she has lived a respectable life devoid of immoral acts she was not rewarded in proportion to her benevolence. Such as her world is, it abounds in absurdity. This sense of the Absurd Universe is alluded to by Ann through her immediate thoughts upon diagnosis of ovarian cancer, “Now you feel like you want to take all the drugs in the world. But all the drugs in the world aren’t going to change the feeling that your whole life’s been a dream and it’s only now that you’re waking up.”
Ann displays a great degree of pragmatism too. Instead of brooding over her ill-fate, she squares up to the tasks at hand and goes about completing them in a cool yet spirited manner. This is consistent with the existential attitude of looking at the world as essentially chaotic and absurd and working one’s way backwards toward understanding it. This attitude, which is evident in Ann, goes against conventional philosophy, which tends to be abstract and theoretical. Ann can be said to live every moment of her existence. Her existential journey is defined by her focus on the here and now. It is best encapsulated in these words by her: “You pray that they will have moments of happiness so intense, that all of their problems will seem insignificant by comparison. You don’t know who or what you’re praying to, but you pray. You don’t even regret the life that you’re not gonna have, because by then you’ll be dead. And the dead don’t feel anything. Not even regret.” We should not equate Ann’s mention of ‘praying’ as a submission to religion or a belief in God. This is so because Ann is never shown to be religious anywhere in the film. The references to prayer should therefore be construed as metaphors for hope and good fortune. Existential philosophy does not acknowledge predetermination or divine intervention as propagated in major religions. It should be noted that Ann’s valor is congruent with this philosophical understanding.
Soren Kierkegaard, who is credited as a pioneer in existentialist thought, coined the notion of ‘authenticity’. By this he meant that of all social institutions such as religion, nationality, culture, etc it is the individual who is the most potent arbiter of giving meaning to his/her own life. Authenticity in this context means not accepting normative social and cultural understandings of the meaning of life. On the contrary it means to ascertain the meaning of life through one’s own intellectual efforts and accumulated experience. This is exactly how Ann goes about dealing with the remainder of her life. Her response to her potentially deranging situation can be said to be ‘authentic’. As Ann says, “Dying is not as easy as it looks, you know, but there’s no need for you to have to feel terrible all the time”. However, there are also moments of ‘inauthentic’ behavior in Ann’s life. The prime example of this is her short-lived extramarital affair with the unsuspecting Lee. While Ann’s love for her husband and her commitment to her marriage is authentic, this whimsical wish for an affair is inauthentic by contrast.