The Death Instinct vs. the Libidinal Instinct

Katherine Marshall Woods, Psy.D.
4 min readDec 22, 2022

By: Matilda Koroma & Katherine Marshall Woods, Psy.D.

Malcolm & Marie Poster

In response to his traumatic experience of World War I, Freud created the concept of the death instinct (Laub & Lee, 2003). This concept was his attempt to understand why people often repeated painful or traumatic experiences, as he thought such behavior was the direct opposite of what people truly desired. As Freud described, the death instinct acted as an inner dynamic in which its ultimate goal was “to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world” (p. 62, as cited in Laub & Lee, 2002). Essentially, the death instinct has little to do with death, but rather our drives towards it (Razinsky, 2010). Based on this knowledge, for individuals who seemingly repeat painful or traumatic experiences, it is when the “earlier state of things” is chaotic that the urge to restore seems to function as a force of traumatic repetition. Consequently, the death instinct becomes a compulsion to reproduce that very experience of chaos. Both libidinal and the death instincts drives us to create connections, attachments to others and achieve emotional health. These two instincts, according to Freud, are possessed within each of us and manifested in idiosyncratic ways. When engaging with others, might these instincts also be present and experienced within the dynamics of an intimate relationship? We explore the films Malcom & Marie, directed by (Levinson, 2021), and Sylvie’s Love, directed by (Ashe, 2020), two cinematic works that share the narrative of an African American couple faced with finding ways to navigate romantic love and demonstrate how libidinal and death instinct’s presence can intermingle within the intimacies of relationships.

Malcolm and Marie begins with a couple entering their home after the successful premiere of Malcolm’s film. Marie presents as displeased and Malcolm is elated. The audience learns that Marie’s upset is due to Malcolm neglecting to acknowledge her in his speech at the premiere which is driven by her thought that the main character of his film was based upon her life’s story. The couple engages in an enduring argument which enables heated discussions causing fractures in their dynamic. The one incident in which the couple is not arguing is during the reading of the first critic review Malcolm receives. Rather than continue to be upset with Marie, he…

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Katherine Marshall Woods, Psy.D.

Psychologist/Film Consultant; building scripts to create rich characters and themes; Author of Best Psychology in Film https://www.psychmindedmedia.com