Derrida the Movie

Reviewed by Thomas Seay

This weekend I attended a showing of Derrida, a biographical documentary on the French philosopher, Jaques Derrida, who is famous for "deconstructionism". A californian film crew follows Derrida as he gives lectures, answers interviewers' questions and discusses aspects of his life and philosophy. It's not often that we get to see documentaries of famous living philosophers in America, so I was quite enthusiastic about viewing this film.

Derrida observes towards the end of his film that this documentary will have more to say about the film crew than about him, Jacques Derrida, because it will be the film crew to edit the shootings and decide "which Jacques Derrida" is to be presented. If that is indeed the case, then the movie tells us its creators were young, inexperienced, not well-versed in philosophy; they missed a golden opportunity to meaningfully explore the life and philosophy of the last great post-structuralist.

At regular intervals, difficult passages from Derrida's writings flash on the screen, leaving us little time to ponder them. Sound bytes dont work well for Derrida! The interviewers questions are haltingly broad, "What do you have to say on the subject of love?", haltingly personal, "Tell us about how you fell in love with your wife?", or haltingly stupid, "which philosopher would you have liked as a mother?". To his credit, Derrida either refuses to answer such questions, or reformulates them into intelligent ones. At one point Derrida begins to make interesting comments on the myth of "Narcissus" and "Echo", obviously alluding to the relationship between "source" and "simulacra", but the interviewer fails to ask penetrating questions to draw him out on the matter.

After a family lunch, Derrida himself, turning the tables, asks an overly broad question of the interviewer: "What did you think of my family?". "Il sont tres gentils, tres chaleureux" is the response. I wonder if the irony of this was lost on Derrida and the film crew.

We see Derrida eat, get a haircut and meet friends...a warm fuzzy to remind us that Gallic philosophers are, after all, just like us. In short, if Americans suddenly took more interest in the lives of French philosophers than Britney Spears, this film would be on "People" magazine's recommended list. Tant pis.


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