The Half of It: A Modern Symposium on Love

How Plato’s The Symposium encapsulates Alice Wu’s exploration of love

Theatrical poster for Alice Wu’s The Half of It
Alice Wu’s The Half of It

“Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole”

A foundational work of Western thought, The Symposium features six speeches from wisemen who proclaim their definitions of love at an Ancient Athenian cocktail party. The quote above—taken from Aristophanes’s speech—leads us to believe that the film defines love as looking for one’s other half.

Artist’s depiction of Plato’s The Symposium
Artist’s depiction of Plato’s The Symposium
Depiction of Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach
  1. Speech of Pausanias: there is common love of the body, and heavenly love of the mind
  2. Speech of Eryximachus: apply love with modesty, and it shall bring harmony to chaos
  3. Speech of Aristophanes: love is the pursuit of one’s lost, original half
  4. Speech of Agathon: love is that which is beautiful
  5. Speech of Socrates: love is the endless pursuit of all that is good and beautiful

Speech of Phaedrus

“Besides, it is only lovers who are willing to die for someone else”

In the story’s first speech, Phaedrus praises love’s ability to promote virtues in human beings. He focuses on effort, courage, and self-sacrifice, arguing that only lovers are willing to go as far as dying for someone else.

Paul cheers on Ellie at the talent show in The Half of It
Paul cheers on Ellie at the talent show in The Half of It
Cheered on by Paul, Ellie finds her courage | Screen capture from The Half of It

Speech of Pausanias

“Common Love is…the kind of love that inferior people feel. People like this are attracted to women as much as boys, and to bodies rather minds…The other love derives from the Heavenly…those inspired with this love are drawn towards the male, feeling affection for what is naturally more vigorous and intelligent”

Pausanias defines love by contrasting Common and Heavenly Love—the former being of the body while the latter is of the mind. He claims that Common Love is directed at immature boys (too young to possess virtue and wisdom) and women (whom he assumes to categorically possess less virtue and wisdom).

Aster sends poetic texts to Ellie in The Half of It
Aster sends poetic texts to Ellie in The Half of It
Poetic texting between two smart ladies | Screen capture from The Half of It

Speech of Eryximachus

“When this type of love is applied, it must be with caution, to ensure that the recipient enjoys the pleasure it provides without being made self-indulgent.”

The third speech features Eryximachus, a doctor, proclaiming that love must be applied with modesty and restraint in order to bring harmony to opposing forces. Ellie mirrors this philosophy in her attitude towards texting: practice restraint, wait for her to text back, build up anticipation, and take it slow.

Ellie dons a huge smile in The Half of It after kissing Aster
Ellie dons a huge smile in The Half of It after kissing Aster
I kissed a girl, and I liked it | Screen capture from The Half of It

Speech of Aristophanes

“Under present circumstances what comes closest to it must be the best: that is to find a loved one who naturally fits your own character”

Aristophanes, whose speech features the opening quote in The Half of It, describes humans as once having four legs, four arms, a single head with two faces, and two sets of genitalia. Those with two sets of female genitalia were completely female, those with two sets of male genitalia were completely male, and those with one set of each were androgynous. When Zeus split humans in two to weaken them, their split bodies longed to reunite with the halves they lost. Love, then, is the desire and pursuit of finding our long-lost halves—of becoming whole.

Aster and Ellie in The Half of It, eyes skyward and sharing a beautiful moment
Aster and Ellie in The Half of It, eyes skyward and sharing a beautiful moment
Two halves of a whole, but which ‘whole’? | Screen capture from The Half of It

Speech of Agathon

“Love is himself supreme in beauty and excellence”

Agathon proclaims that love is that which is beautiful, and the other wisemen note that he is a beautiful man whose words serve to subliminally praise himself. His speech is dripping with narcissism, as he is too preoccupied with his own beauty to contribute productively to the discourse.

Trig Carson performs acts of mundane masculinity while Aster looks on in The Half of It
Trig Carson performs acts of mundane masculinity while Aster looks on in The Half of It
Look, honey, at how mundane I am! | Screen capture from The Half of It

Speech of Socrates

“Like someone using a staircase, he should go from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning.

From forms of learning, he should end up at that form of learning which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is.”

Socrates presents the most abstract view of love: rather than being beauty, love is the never-ending pursuit to find beauty. This pursuit has multiple phases (beautiful body, then beautiful practices, then beautiful learning), and there is a generalization process that happens within each phase (i.e. seeing beauty in one body, then generalizing beauty to all bodies). Although this definition far transcends the practice of love between two individuals, it perhaps most fundamentally captures the nature of Ellie’s development.

“Love is messy, and horrible, and selfish, and bold. Love is being willing to ruin your good painting for a chance at a great one.”

- Ellie

Ellie looks at Aster’s painting in The Half of It
Ellie looks at Aster’s painting in The Half of It
The difference is just five bold strokes | Screen capture from The Half of It
Ellie and her father watch Casablanca in The Half of It
Ellie and her father watch Casablanca in The Half of It
Ellie and her father watch “Casablanca” | Screen capture from The Half of It

Film buff, management consultant, and artist—I dissect films with the interdisciplinary perspective they deserve. www.rocsu.com

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