The Soul of Film TheoryIn the first half of the twentieth century, film theorists developed competing concepts of soul in the cinema. According to Sarah Cooper, the concept of soul was employed to assess the psychological aspects of film and film spectatorship; to argue for cinematic specificity, film’s moral dimensions, its evocations of an inner life of persons and things, and its recourses to a spiritual beyond; and to establish the “vital force” of the medium. (p. 2) As post-structuralism became the dominant mode of theorizing in the late 1960s, any conception of soul was thought to be “regressive rather than progressive,” and the term was dropped. (p. 2) Recent scholars have also shifted away from concepts of soul, turning instead to the body or mind as the foundation for film theory. For Cooper, however, the concepts championed by earlier scholars still linger and resonate with many of today’s theories. Many of our most read, discussed, and cited film theorists were imbued with soul.

The history and legacy of the “‘dis-unified’ and multiple senses of ‘soul’” are carefully introduced and theorized by Cooper in The Soul of Film Theory (p. 20), from Hugo Münsterberg’s uses of the term in the early 1900s, up to Jennifer Barker’s and Torben Grodal’s latently ensouled film theories of the early twenty-first century. According to the author, this area of investigation has received “no sustained attention” in contemporary European and English scholarship. The chronicle Cooper catalogues is not to renew the concept of soul and bring it into contemporary debates; she stresses the need to “give soul its moment rather than be complicit in its loss.” (p. 22) Her volume therefore takes on a chronological structure, beginning with “Classical Souls,” turning to “Signifying Souls,” and ending with “Body and Soul.” The introduction briefly outlines the multiple and varied uses of soul in the philosophical canon – e.g., the Platonic soul, the Cartesian soul, and the unconscious – and, in broad strokes, the appropriation of these philosophical concepts by key scholars in Cooper’s three periods of film theory.

The Soul of Film Theory functions on two levels. First, the text operates as a critical introduction to oft-cited film theorists, as well as those that contemporary academia has forgotten. In this history of film theory, readers of all levels can benefit from Cooper’s accessible volume. I find this text to be a more valuable addition to introductory film theory than other recent books, e.g., Felicity Colman’s 2009 edited collection Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers (to which Cooper contributed an essay on Emmanuel Levinas), and in terms of scope and readability it rivals Dudley Andrew’s canonical The Major Film Theories (1976). Second, Cooper offers an original and consistent argument about the prominent place the multivalent concepts of soul have held in the 100+ years of film theory. The author completed extensive research on this history and she politicises her findings in the conclusions of each chapter.

The first chapter outlines the classical souls in film theory, the early formulations of the term, and its linear progression. In Cooper’s discussion of classical souls, the progression from Münsterberg to the French Impressionists (Marcel L’Herbier, Germain Dulac, Jean Epstein) to Weimar Film Theorists (Siegfried Kracauer, Walter S. Bloem, Béla Balázs), hinges upon the power of the close-up and its potential to access the inner dimensions of persons and things. She also situates each author in their geographical and historical period. This is an important move because each use of the word soul in this classical era had the tendency to purposely or accidentally slide into nationalist (Münsterberg and Bloem) or racist undertones (Balázs) – here we begin to see the ethical and political dimensions of Cooper’s project.

In the second chapter, Cooper investigates the work of André Bazin, Amédée Ayfre, and Henri Agel. These three are connected by their respective beliefs in Catholicism. Ayfre and Agel almost exclusively deal with the spiritual implications of the cinema rather than the material ones. Yet, with the latter two theorists, their poetic arguments that a realist aesthetic uncovers characters’ souls and a spiritual beyond should leave the secularized contemporary film scholar a bit perplexed. Cooper’s caveat to start the chapter, namely, that it is not her “intention to advocate an uncritical return to the work of Ayfre and Agel” (p. 71), is warranted once she has concluded with her exegesis and argument. This being said, Ayfre and Agel have received little attention and therefore Cooper’s work is an important contribution to available scholarship.

The Soul of Film Theory

André Bazin

Edgar Morin and Christian Metz also receive attention in the second chapter. The concept of soul slowly fades with the former and is absent with the latter. Cooper reveals that Morin’s film theory is likely the precursor to psychoanalytic approaches to cinema. Morin combines contemporaneous iterations of the psyche with prior iterations of soul. By beginning with the influence of Bazin et al., then providing the details of Morin’s work which slowly disintegrates the use of soul in his film theory, Cooper is able to convincingly locate the term’s residues in Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier (1977). Although soul has been replaced by “The invisible, the absent, the immaterial, unconscious” (p. 101), she discovers a new way of reading Metz’s imaginary realm and its “striking resemblance” to the past discussions of soul in film theory (p. 102).

In the conclusion of this chapter Cooper situates, critiques, and politicises Morin and Metz. The recourse to the imaginary in their respective works is “blind to differences between human beings, their bodies, and their psyches,” thus privileging the male, heterosexual identity (p. 105). Cooper’s final section turns to Frantz Fanon, the Black Power movement, and notions of an African-American soul to add leverage to this claim. Cooper demonstrates that it is worthwhile to situate European film theory within a more global cultural milieu, a milieu which includes non-academic evaluations of the concept of soul as well.

The third chapter tackles contemporary film theory with a wide reach. First, Cooper addresses the phenomenological tradition after Maurice Merleau-Ponty, particularly Vivian Sobchack and Barker. While Sobchack and Barker turn their attention to the human body and do not acknowledge soul as a concept, Cooper dispels the idea that it has disappeared from their work. What Sobchack accomplishes, through her Merleau-Pontian infused film theory, is a translation of soul “into something more palpable for the secular age.” (p. 117) In Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy we have done away with the mind as the seat of thinking; instead, according to the phenomenologist, we turn to the body as a locus for thought and “the manifestation of the soul.” Thus we may have lost sight of soul in recent film theory, but with every citation and quotation of Merleau-Ponty, argues Cooper, the soul still peeks through. However, the author posits the limits of phenomenological theories of the body and spectatorship. She takes issue with Barker’s phenomenological discussion of Andrei Tarkovsky in The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (2009), for Tarkovsky is a director whose cinema was imbued with the idea of soul.

The Soul of Film Theory

Still from Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)

Cooper turns to Raymond Bellour, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Levinas to fill in the gaps left by Sobchack and Barker. Bellour’s emphasis on the “virtual space” between film and spectator, conceptualizing what he terms “corporeal-psychic […] vision” (p. 121), rescues phenomenological film theory from a one-sided position (on the side of the body). Bellour’s emphasis on the intangible aspects of the film experience ties him to prior accounts of the soul in film theory. Nancy furthers the type of viewing Bellour posits, arguing that “the body is the extension of the soul.” (p. 124) Cooper explicates and extends Nancy’s analysis of Claire Denis’s films to articulate this point. To conclude this segment, Cooper expands Levinas’s insights on intersubjectivity, the soul, and death to reveal an affinity between the philosopher and the Dardenne brothers’ films.1

The Soul of Film Theory

Gilles Deleuze

The move from Henri Bergson to Gilles Deleuze in the next few sections is exemplary. It suffices to say that Cooper’s careful treatment of Deleuze’s philosophy, in his Cinema books as well as his philosophical writings, turns on the notion of affect. For Deleuze, soul is not “reflective or expressive of an inner essence” (p. 143), but is felt in the movement of life, through the affects, and cinema can play with these movements in differing types of shots and montage. Yet, in Cooper’s historical survey, Deleuze’s philosophy is surprisingly not the last remnant of the soul of film theory. Her final section of the chapter discusses Grodal’s fascinating work in cognitive science and its distance from the concept of soul. Again Tarkovsky’s spectre appears to thwart a film theory – Grodal acknowledges that his complex cognitive mapping schema does not so easily apply to the transcendental filmmaker. Cooper concludes that Grodal and Agel are not so far removed from one another despite their respective atheism and Catholicism. It is this traced lineage, from Agel to Grodal, and further back still, that grants Cooper’s volume its highest achievement.

Aside from the above names, more or less all the major theorists receive a mention in Cooper’s study. Keith Reader notices the absence of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972), an apparently obvious choice to discuss in a book about soul.2 Cooper does address the films of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer in a few places, so perhaps Schrader would have been redundant for her purposes. More importantly, perhaps, Cooper does not include Stanley Cavell, even though brief mentions and extended discussions of soul appear throughout The World Viewed (1971/1979) in familiar and unfamiliar ways.

In the conclusion, returning briefly to her focus in Selfless Cinema?: Ethics and French Documentary (2006), Cooper poses the question of where the competing accounts of soul stand in relation to ethics. The answer is left up to the reader. Perhaps after her study about the history of film theory, she seems to suggest, we read soul and ethics in the films themselves. While the future of soul(s) in film theory is uncertain, Cooper has nevertheless provided a detailed and extended account of its prior conceptualisations, its uses and abuses, and its latent iterations in contemporary theory. Her work is a valuable contribution to film theory.

Sarah Cooper, The Soul of Film Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


  1. For Cooper’s other treatments of Levinas, see “Emmanuel Levinas,” in Film, Theory and Philosophy, ed. Felicity Colman (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), 91-99; “The Occluded Relation: Levinas and Cinema,” Film-Philosophy 11, no. 2 (2007): 66-87; Selfless Cinema?: Ethics and French Documentary (Oxford: Legenda, 2006).
  2. Keith Reader, “Review: The Soul of Film Theory”, French Studies 68, no. 2 (2014), p. 293.

About The Author

Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. His Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema: Film Theory at the Fringes of Contemporary Art Cinema (Palgrave MacMillan) was published in 2017, and his recent publications can be found on the sex and culture website Slutever, and in Off-screen and Porn Studies (forthcoming in June). Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. His Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema: Film Theory at the Fringes of Contemporary Art Cinema (Palgrave MacMillan) was published in 2017, and his recent publications can be found on the sex and culture website Slutever, and in Off-screen and Porn Studies (forthcoming in June).

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