Since the birth of the motion picture camera, writers and directors have been pulling influences from philosophical teachings that date back centuries into BCE. This doesn’t limit philosophy to film, however, as practices can be seen expressed in theatrical plays, novels, and music as well.
One of the more interesting philosophies conveyed on the big screen is Hedonism. Allegedly founded by Aristippus of Cyrene (435-355 BCE), Hedonism is the practice of personal pleasure being the ultimate goal in life. This can include physical sensations, positive emotional revelations, or any sort of pleasure that brings positive energy to the mind, body, and spirit.
There is no shortcoming of Hedonistic cinema. They are often depicted as adventurous tales of the human spirit. Some may see the characters as free, unhinged, and happy, while others might view them as sadistic, selfish, and delirious. Sometimes Hedonism can be seen as a fun adventure, while other times it can cause characters to dive deep into the darkness of the human condition. Below are 10 of cinema’s best representations of Hedonism, ranked.
10 Spring Breakers (2012)
Spring Breakers (2012) was one of the first films that put American independent entertainment company A24 on the map. This film, written and directed by the polarizing filmmaker Harmony Korine, idolizes the hedonistic lifestyle of taking a break from the typical, mundane college experience and releasing your energies for a week on the Florida beaches during springtime. Four college girls rob a restaurant in order to pay for their break-from-reality vacation, only to be arrested and later released on bail by the criminal riffraff nicknamed “Alien,” portrayed by James Franco.
Spring Breakers is sick, twisted, and mildly comedic. For college students, it is not uncommon for them to desire a week to completely let loose and become an unhinged human spirit flowing freely throughout the world, and Spring Breakers is a sort of anthem for this ideology. College women Candy (Vanessa Hughens), Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Corine) take a tour of their hedonistic aspirations, which wind up spinning into a slippery slope of partying, binge-drinking, drugs, dancing, and regrets.
9 Infinity Pool (2023)
There seems to be a trend of polarizing directors attempting their take on hedonistic tendencies. Infinity Pool (2023), written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg (son of David Cronenberg), takes a more sadistic approach to the subject. Writer James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em Foster (Cleopatra Coleman) decide to take a (at least what they thought would be) peaceful and pleasant vacation at an all-inclusive beach on a fictional island. James is in a lengthy period of writer’s block and hopes to clear his head, while also seeking inspiration for a new novel. Together, the wedded couple runs into the illusive, mysterious, and psychotic Gabi Bauer (Mia Goth), who claims to be a massive fan of James’ work. During an excursion, James hits and kills a pedestrian with a vehicle, leading into a dark, spiraling journey into the island’s deeply disturbing hedonistic sub-culture.
Infinity Pool is Hollywood’s latest love-it-or-hate-it “vibe-based cinema” that includes cult-esque rituals, cloning, torture, and the abuse of power and manipulation. It will absolutely have some audiences turn the cold shoulder or have them plead for me.
8 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), based on the book of the same title written by Hunter S. Thompson, is a 118-minute hypnotic, drug-infused fantasy world that stands as a testament to modern-day hedonistic cinema. This film is a surreal trip that plays as a loose and fun take on the psychedelic drug epidemic of the time period it is based on, the 1970s.
Johnny Depp plays a kooky, eccentric journalist named Raoul Duke. Together, he and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) partake on a mesmerizing road trip to Las Vegas, where the only thing they need for survival other than water and gas is a fat load of drugs.
7 The Holy Mountain (1973)
Perhaps one of the strangest films you will ever come across, The Holy Mountain (1973) is an Alejandro Jodorowsky-directed dreamscape, hypnotic trance about spiritual rebellion, and a gang of greedy figures seeking immortality. In this film, Hedonism isn’t necessarily a goal set forth by any character. Instead, it is about characters who already have hedonistic qualities that are looking for a way to extend their stay on Earth, hence extending their practice and pursuit of pleasure.
6 Trainspotting (1996)
One common means of hedonist representation in pop culture and art is the use and abuse of drugs. In this case, the drug is heroin, a “downer” that comes from opium poppy plants. In Trainspotting (1996), director Danny Boyle confronts the British sub-culture of hedonistic drug use head-on through the narration of Renton, played by Ewan McGregor. Renton makes the conscious choice, experiencing the ultimate pleasure this drug brings him over practically every single productive aspect of his life. He even claims that it is “1000 times better than the best orgasm.”
5 Thelma & Louise (1991)
Just two friends and a gun. A staple for female empowerment and freedom in modern cinema, Thelma & Louise (1991) doesn’t shy away from their heroine characters’ practice of Hedonism. In this instance, their departure from the real world and into the philosophy is triggered by a specific event. Thelma (Geena Davis), a housewife, and Louise (Susan Sarandon), a waitress, join each other on what was intended to be a short fishing trip. Quickly, their little vacation turns into a flee from the law after Louise kills a man who was trying to rape Thelma in a parking lot of a bar.
Thelma and Louise are opposite in character. Thelma is the wild card of the duo, not afraid to strike up a conversation with anyone or to dance with a stranger as if no one is looking. Louise is more preserved, careful, and quite frankly, dull. The murder to protect her friends sparks an adventurous muscle in the brain of Louise, one that has likely, if ever, been opened.
Thelma & Louise is a loose, fun adventure about friendship more than anything, as well as the subtle art of not giving a crap.
4 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
If drug abuse is a popular form of hedonistic practice, then it goes without saying that erotica is as well. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is Stanley Kubrick’s final film and definitely did not enter the world without controversy. In short, Eyes Wide Shut is centered around Dr. William (Bill) Harford (Tom Cruise) who enters an ethereal, nighttime odyssey after finding out his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) has been longing for another man.
This film’s particular example of Hedonism revolves around the world the characters are thrust in, rather than the characters’ individual ideologies. One scene specifically that is now regarded as one of the more iconic, yet divisive, scenes in Kubrick’s catalog is the culty, ritual-like orgy scene. With the infidelity of his wife lingering in his mind, Bill roams the night seeking sexual pleasure as his own way of coming to terms with his and his wife’s revealing conversation. It starts with Marion, the daughter of one of his deceased patients, who tries to seduce Bill. He denies her. Then, he meets a prostitute named Domino. Afterward, Bill’s friend Nick tells him about a masked sex party. Bill then infiltrates the party, but is immediately put in danger as he is not recognized by the other participants.
Eyes Wide Shut, in summary, is an example of seeking personal pleasure to escape from your problems instead of facing them straight on.
3 Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Sometimes, hedonism can lead to a very dark path, and at some point, one must realize that there are things in life much more important and much more desirable than personal pleasure. Many people use drugs to enhance the experience of the world around them, while others use it as a replacement for the world around them. Requiem for a Dream (2000) explores the latter.
Written for the screen and directed by Darren Aronofsky, Requiem for a Dreamtells the story of four different Coney Island citizens (Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans) and their drug-addicted utopias. Over the course of the story, all of their utopias turn dystopian and prove more harm than good.
2 Harold and Maude (1971)
Who would have ever thought that a young man obsessed with death and an elderly, female, free spirit could share such a beautiful connection? Harold and Maude (1971) shows that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that a glorious, happy life can be obtained throughout the entire spectrum of age. One of the all-time gems of the dark comedy subgenre, this film, directed by the late Hal Ashby, tells a taboo-breaking take on hedonism and the preserving of the human spirit.
Harold (Bud Cort) is a rich teenager who stages elaborate suicidal pranks to scare away girls his parents set him up to date and potentially marry. While attending a funeral of a stranger (which can be assumed that he regularly does), he meets the enigmatic Maude (Ruth Gordon) and begins to form an unrealistic romantic attraction towards the septuagenarian woman. Together, they roam the streets of the country seeking pure enjoyment, laughs, and memories, with a couple of stolen shovels along the way.
1 Y tu mamá también (2001)
It should not surprise anyone that the peak of hedonistic cinema doesn’t come from a place of tragedy, but rather a lucid and happy road trip participated by three individuals who embody the true meaning of being a hedonist: to preserve the moment in front of you. Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 masterpiece Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too) showcases the story of two teenage boy best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) who convince a beautiful, alluring older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdu) to accompany them on a road trip.
Together, the triangle of personalities learns some lessons about life, themselves, sex, love, and each other. As bitter-sweet as it is, Y tu mamá también will leave an audience longing for a road trip devoid of worry with the people they love most.