Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir

By Butterfield, Elizabeth | Sartre Studies International, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir

Butterfield, Elizabeth, Sartre Studies International

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir

A Film Directed by Max Cacopardo

Cinematography by Michel Brauh

Interviews by Madeleine Gobeil and Claude Lanzmann

Original 1967

New release 2006, from First Run / Icarus Films

60 minutes long, black and white

Available on VHS or DVD, to purchase $390, to rent $100

In the last scene of this documentary film from 1967, Simone de Beauvoir presciently refers to the footage of herself and Sartre collected in the film as a "time capsule." And her description could not have been more accurate--nearly 40 years after its production, the film has only just now been released on video for the first time. Watching the documentary today, one has the sense of rediscovering a precious artifact that has long been hidden away.

This documentary also marks the first occasion in which Sartre and Beauvoir allowed themselves to be filmed in this way. Having always refused to appear on French television, little footage of them existed at the time. When asked why they agreed to the project, Beauvoir gives two reasons. First, they agreed out of friendship for the interviewers who proposed the film, Canadian journalist Madeleine Gobeil and Les Temps Modernes colleague Claude Lanzmann. Second, she adds that since she and Sartre would have liked to be able to watch footage of their favorite authors from the past too, "we're doing this out of friendship for our readers, for our future readers. Our gift to them." (1) Readers are thus explicitly welcomed to witness what Sartre and Beauvoir have to share with us, and this warm sense of personal invitation continues through much of the film.

Devoting equal time to Sartre and Beauvoir, the documentary covers an amazing range of topics in its 60 minutes. We see Sartre and Beauvoir in their roles as public intellectuals, discussing their work and political concerns. The tone shifts, and we listen in as they intimately reflect upon their lives and the process of aging. The conversation then seamlessly finds its way to a philosophical discussion of human experience, freedom, and identity formation. Perhaps most interesting for scholars who return to the film today, we also get to listen as Sartre and Beauvoir personally respond to some of the harshest criticisms made of them.

In fact, at first viewing, the confrontational candor of some of the questions posed by the interviewers takes one by surprise. For example, Sartre is asked, what gives you the authority to judge war crimes (in the Russell Tribunal)--isn't the idea of Sartre as judge comical? And why do you think you have so much more work to do--isn't your oeuvre really complete at this point? In the same direct tone Beauvoir is asked, how can you be taken seriously as an authority on women when you have never been a mother? Without children, aren't you "mutilated and incomplete" as a woman yourself? And are your works growing increasingly pessimistic because as you age you realize that your life has been a failure? But when the film is understood as a collection of interviews conducted among friends, it becomes clear that when Gobeil and Lanzmann confront their subjects with the claims of their harshest critics, they are also providing them with an opportunity to respond to these accusations on their own terms.

At certain points in the film, Sartre and Beauvoir themselves appear to be warm, kind, perhaps even nurturing, and this side of their personalities may be a pleasant surprise for those of us more familiar with their fierce public personas. The film moves with finesse between depicting their assertive roles as public intellectuals and providing a more intimate insight into the reflections and routines of their private lives.

For those of us who must admit to being not just Sartre and Beauvoir scholars but also fans, it is exciting simply to be granted a glimpse into the physical spaces they inhabited.

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