The Graduate is both one of the great coming of age stories (or young-development stories, since it’s not quite the same as a Catcher in the Rye or The Wackness) and Existentialist films of the Twentieth Century. Beginning as a comedy with somewhat of a Woody Allen vibe, it flows well into a film about choice, persistence and freedom.
Ben is a character who clearly is in the midst of an existential crisis. All of his endeavors and potential seem to add up to nothing for him, and though he is successful he has nothing in his life that seems attractive and worthwhile. He transitions in a sense from one form of Nihilism (despair in searching for meaning while not being able to secure it) to another (Hedonism) in sleeping with Mrs. Robinson. The back story of Mrs. Robinson is also of significance. She was once an art student (and assumingly passionate about art) but in a night of meaningless passion became pregnant and chose to settle down with a man she did not love. She forces Ben to swear not to date Elaine, I assumed because Mrs. Robinson expected she would fall in love with him, sleep with him and she would be – in her estimation – throwing her life away like she (Mrs. Robinson obviously) did.
Ben swears to not take Elaine out but does out of social convenience and expectation. She falls in love with her it seems because he felt obliged to show her his more tender side after humiliating and hurting her (by taking her to a strip joint) and because she too feels the Existential despair that he does. He can connect with her because they feel in some way the same pain and separation between themselves and others. At-least this is what I would make given such little material as to why they feel the way they do. One could give a far-more simple and in some ways accurate description of “they simply feel compelled to each other” using arguments of materialism (love not being based on existential kinship but more base neurochemical, psychological and evolutionary factors) and the subconscious mind to express the notion that love is not a cognitive or rational process to be explained in the realm of rational means. Love instead transcends normal rational means (things which are pursued out of self-interest out of for conscious fulfillment such as money, the things money buys, the social status money or power creates, high estimation in social relations, or in general the fulfillment of the Ego which comes via money and high regard in social relation whether through status, career or otherwise) by being both a fulfillment and an abnegation (or prevention of the functioning of) of the Ego. This is seen in both (particularly Ben, we don’t see the same in Elaine, but neither do we see her have any particular interest in any particular career or field) of them having no interest in anything they are going to school for, failing to find meaning in building a career and life the way that bourgeois society would instruct them to by receiving a career of either social utility or something they can profit off of.
Love then, is the complete lack of utility or desire (in the romantic form) to pursue anything useful and instead love a person for who they are rather than what they can do or how they can fulfill yourself. One could argue that love has its evolutionary purpose (which it does clearly) but the film argues otherwise and highlights how many marriages are done out of social obligation (both religious and utilitarian in-a-sense) rather than love and how child-rearing can happen more-or-less perfectly well in a home without passionate love between husband and wife. This is something that many marriages across America (and the now high rate of divorce now that religion doesn’t have nearly as much of a stranglehold on society as it once had) can attest to. This dichotomy is stressed when it is revealed that Mrs. Robinson (who turns out to be a complete bitch) doesn’t have any rational reason to wish to stop Ben from marrying Elaine. It appears to be done solely out of malevolence, and for Elaine’s spirit to be crushed as hers was, by marrying someone whom she does not love (and proposes by saying that he thinks they’d “make a good team”) and conforming to societies dictates by living a life out of expectation rather than individual happiness and meaning. Elaine’s parents’ malevolence shows itself both in Mrs. Robertson lying by saying that Ben raped her, her calling the police and saying Ben is a robber and in the look on their faces which Elaine sees when they see Ben coming in a desperate (desperation in this movie being an expiration of devotion and committing one’s self doggedly to something no matter what it is, which certainly has an existentialist quality to it) attempt to have Elaine not marrying someone whom she doesn’t love and instead be with him.
It is a bit dated you could argue in having Ben profess desires to marriage to Elaine after recently becoming reacquainted, and of course in-a-sense this is true; but it also could be argued that this still has purpose in expressing the nature of existential commitment and the totally consuming nature of romantic love from a phenomenogical standpoint. There are moments where we do wish to profess total commitment and devotion to someone who we barely know, this does happen, as is reflected in romantic art and stories. We can fall in love with someone whom we barely know, and though this is (at-least our rational mind tells us) not likely to result in a lasting and meaningful relationship, for unfortunately the passions for most are bound to simmer down and die out, there is still great happiness and meaning to be found and therefore a unique and lasting place for these spontaneous and often fleeting encounters of the soul.
A part of us holds that something cannot hold value if it is not lasting (this is seen in the Christian psychology of life being meaningless if there is not a God to grant eternal life) and has permanence. This of course however is absurd, for our lives and every moment in them cannot be eternal, and we must learn to live life in the moment and live everyday of our lives, which have occurred for no particular reason and has no higher purpose, to their fullest and try to live it with great passion, compassion and sense of purpose, whatever otherwise meaningless (though they often can have social utility, such as science for example, though this film creates a dichotomy between utility and passion reflecting the confliction there is in fact in bourgeois society; that is taking things that one can be passionate about, and do help a great deal of people, but are turned into something that’s done for social-esteem and profit in Capitalist and hierarchical society) endeavor it is sways our arbitrary (though materially and causally defined of course) fancies.
There is beauty in the message that love transcends social utility and is totally an act of irrational devotion – which it largely is, regardless of whether wishes to give a materialist or existentialist explanation of or for it. This is particularly unique and important considering how much idiotic, meaningless, contrived garbage our society is filled with concerning the notion of romantic love. That is the ad-hoc commercialized notion of what love is without any of its actual substance – therefore becoming all sentimentality but none of the actual sentiment. This is a film that like Bonnie and Clyde puts the rebellious quality back in love, expressing that any passion in a stuffed-shirt, utilitarian (in the sense of society being based on what’s “pragmatic” rather than happiness, so in some sense contradicting Utilitarianism), bourgeois, conservative society is an act of existential and individual-social revolution, if you’ll forgive the term.