Mimetic Dream Scenario

Dec 3, 2023

We just got back from watching Dream Scenario , and I’ve got a lot of thoughts. In the interest of writing more, I’m writing a few of those down - while trying to be as spoiler-free as possible (but not guaranteed! highly recommend leaving here and watching it first).

Zoe and I noodled on what the movie was about on our way home, and all credit for the inception of this idea goes to her. I haven’t been watching enough movies to make a measured enough comment on the cinematography, but I’ve been reading a decent amount of Rene Girard this year and I haven’t read anything online yet connecting some aspects of his works and this movie.

Loosely, the plot follows a man that starts appearing in people’s dreams, which initially starts off as a funny collective phenomena and quickly slides into chaos. He’s tarred and feathered as a result for a scenario that is no fault of his own, and the movie ends with his ostracization from society.

At first it reminded me a lot of Tar , with a surface level reading of the movie screaming that it’s a statement on cancel culture. Just like with Tar though, I think it’s a read that does the movie a disservice. Paul Matthews’ (played by Nicholas Cage) (mis)treatment made us think a lot of scapegoat theory, which was a fun lens to see the movie through.

Mimetic Theory

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” - Rene Girard

At the start of the movie, Paul’s desire for fame and recognition is highlighted. It’s made aware to us that it comes from imitation - his academic colleagues are all published and renowned as public intellectuals in his field. At a point in the movie, a character tries to assuage (or negatively mediate) his desires by mentioning that there’s nothing wrong with just teaching - which upsets him even more. Rene Girard’s fundamental concept is the idea of mimetic desire; that we imitate the wants of others without fully understanding its consequences. Mimetic desire becomes a contagion, and rivalries are formed based on competition.

Paul barely understands his desire, lending further credence to the theory that he acquired it through imitiation. He craves attention, but has made no moves towards it (he doesn’t do research, and he frequently mentions writing a book, but hasn’t written anything yet).


Girard theorizes that communities tend towards disorder as imitiation spreads and people desire the same things. When rivalries accumulate, a mechanism unlocks, where communal violence is directed towards a single person - or a scapegoat. Girard points to examples in the Bible to shore up the claim, where sins are imposed on a goat and abandoned in the desert, or sacrificed.

Going further, scapegoating is described as a mechanism that laid the foundations of human culture, repeating in cycles of peace broken up by the scapegoating of an individual that led again to more peace. The big caveat here though is that the selection of the scapegoat has to be unconscious to the community.

Scapegoating solves everything so well, that the goatee eventually takes on religious overtones and is consecrated.

I can’t and won’t summarize all of Rene Girard, but there’s a lot going on here, covering bits on theology, culture, ritual and history (not all I necessarily agree with). I’d recommend picking up one of Girard’s books if you’re inteterested in learning more (see bottom for recs).

Anyway, appearing in everyone’s dreams is as good as it gets, if your ultimate desire is to be “known”. Therefore, Paul becomes an easy choice for scapegoating. Dream Scenario is set in the modern day, where cultural capital is generally influence and notoriety. If you believe that we’ve reached the crescendo of competition for notoriety (or that society’s ills are a result of said competition) - that we’re at the very apex of what it means to collectively as a culture desire prestige, recognition and influence - then the scapegoating of Paul is the logical next step in Girard’s theory of desire.

He is duly and violently expelled from society after enjoying his presence in the collective consciousness, and order is restored. He takes on a somewhat mythological figure by the end of the movie, which unfortunately isn’t shown much.

I’ll say that there isn’t any social strife going on in the background, so this read might be subtle. However it’s pretty compelling if you believe that some of the disorder around is us are second-order effects of social media and the hijacking of our attentions.

I’ll also say that there’s a lot more to this movie than just mimetic desire! It touches on a surprising number of interesting topics that I’ll leave for you to write about.