Twice now I have seen the 2022 Daniels film Everything Everywhere All at Once, and twice it has had a profound effect. Never have I seen a film that with one hand slapped me with its message, and with the other deftly tempered it. Watching the trailers, one gets the impression that Everything is a science-fiction action movie about saving the multiverse from great danger. In fact, the film can be read as one possible trajectory of an analysis, and in particular a trajectory through the straits of the Other.
Evelyn Wang, the main character, adopts several identities: Chinese immigrant, business owner, daughter, wife, and mother. These identifications are what establish Evelyn’s experience, her being. In other words, Evelyn’s experience is a fiction of being, intricately woven out of the thread that is her identification. The fiction comprises and guarantees her being, and is guaranteed in turn by the Other. That is to say, Evelyn does not choose these identifications, in the sense of an ethical choice; rather, they are chosen for her. This rundown of Evelyn’s identifications comprises the first act of the film.
The second act depicts a tearing away of all the identifications. Evelyn, via the science-fiction technology in which the film is couched, experiences variations of her life in which she made different choices. In one, she decides not to leave China and to study martial arts; in another, she becomes a famous singer. These choices have wide-reaching effects on (the “main”) Evelyn’s identifications. With some of them she is not an immigrant, nor a wife, nor a mother. The fictions in which she had been so strongly woven suddenly fall away, and Evelyn sees that they are not intrinsic or necessary or ontological givens. There is, she finds, no absolute reason that she must be any of these things.
Finally, in the third act (and if you’ve seen the film, note that I am not using the “parts” in the film to designate what I am calling “acts”), Evelyn makes a choice—a choice involving an ethic, and in particular, an ethic of desire. Up to this point in the film, Evelyn believes that the trajectory of her story ends with her fighting and defeating the villain. What she instead discovers during this act is that it is because her identifications are not ontological, because all the meaning built around her experience is not a necessity, that identifying and building meaning are important in the first place (and thus, that “fighting” the villain per se is not an adequate or sole resolution to the plot). Evelyn’s experience at the beginning of the film had meaning to her, but she took no part in its trajectory, whereas by the end she has discarded meaning and then taken it up again of her own volition. She has made a choice in the matter, and an ethical choice involving her desire, rather than being made a choice of.
Let’s take a look at one example of what the film depicts. At the beginning of the film, Evelyn’s husband Waymond is a hardly noticeable presence in her life, like a house plant. He has reached such a status because over the course of their relationship he becomes simply one thread of Evelyn’s identifications; that is, via Waymond, she takes up the identity “wife.” It is, as far as Evelyn is concerned at this point, an ontological identity. How do we know this? When Waymond shows her divorce paperwork that he has drawn up, Evelyn is absolutely baffled. Despite her obvious annoyance with her husband throughout this act of the film, she cannot fathom the idea of their marriage being dissolved—the idea of not being a wife.
In the second act, Evelyn sees different versions of her life that do not involve Waymond at all. Take the two instances above: her life as a martial artist, and her life as a professional singer, both of which were possible because Evelyn did not marry Waymond in these variations. By experiencing these alternative lives, Evelyn comes to realize that her marriage is not a given nor a necessity. In other words, the middle of the film disentangles her identity; Evelyn could, in fact, not be a wife, and she demonstrates this realization by saying to Waymond that she should not have married him.
The third act turns this scattering of identity into a constellation. In the “final showdown” scenes, different versions of Waymond take center stage. We will examine a few of them. Evelyn experiences another life in which, in the middle of a battle, Waymond stops to tell her to “be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” Evelyn has demonstrated annoyance at almost every instance of Waymond’s kindness, her own course of action typically being coldness or disengagement. In another instance, we see a scene from Evelyn’s life in which Waymond’s kindness ends up diffusing a situation where their property was going to be seized by the government. In our last example, Evelyn experiences one life in which she is an actress, again without Waymond as her husband. The two are at a screening of one of her films, and they meet afterwards in an alleyway behind the theater. In so many words, Waymond tells Evelyn that, while he would like to have been married to her when they were younger, and while he would be overjoyed to marry her now, he does not need to do so, and he did not need to do so then, either—he’s done quite well, in fact. (One who has not seen the film can see how the first two instances are related, but might have a difficult time seeing the relation of the third.)
All of this comes together to produce an effect: Evelyn comes to find that she never had to marry Waymond. Instead, she makes a choice to continue to be with him after the events of the film. There are two scenes that demonstrate this change: one in which she wordlessly embraces Waymond even as their lives seem on the verge of collapsing, and another, at the end, when we see them auditing their business receipts together. She buys in to the guarantee of “wife,” with the knowledge that the guarantee is a farce.
So, we see three moments that are possible in an analysis: a beginning where established identifications and other material come to light; a middle where those materials are questioned and broken down; and an end where the materials are, not quite discarded, but approached from a new stance. And it can be reduced further, beginning from an unquestioned guarantee of the Other, moving to a removal of the guarantee, and ending with a position that buys in to the guarantee, despite and, indeed, because of, its lack. As speaking beings, we cannot completely do away with the Other, but we can discover and invent new ways to live with and relate to it.