The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) movie poster

director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 11/04/2017 at the Alamo Drafthouse – New Mission, SF, CA

A slow-burn blackly comic, surrealistic thriller. With the heaviest emphasis on “slow-burn”.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s second feature in English, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is on a continuum of his other awkward worlds, ruled by random logic, in which human connection is ultimately impossible.

Like his breakout film Dogtooth (2009), The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the study of a family and its patriarch. Though Colin Farrell’s heart surgeon here isn’t so much controlling the world of his nuclear clan but rather trying to somehow protect it from an ill that he has brought upon it.

The whole thing uncoils very slowly, impregnating the strangeness of the world and the characters with a sense not just of discomfort but of dread. Something is behind Farrell’s unusual relationship with sleepy-eyed teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan). His illegitimate son? His teenage lover?

Of course, it’s not anything remotely so straight-forward. When Farrell’s son and daughter fall ill with paralysis, lack of appetite, and eventually bleeding eyes, it takes the surgeon a long time to figure out that there isn’t anything medical but what? supernatural? uncontrollable?

Lanthimos continues to be one of the most interesting directors to me. Always a lot to ruminate on afterwards.


The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster (2015) movie poster

director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 06/12/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The Lobster is an absurdist take on middle age and the situation of being single.  In Yorgos Lanthimos’s world, neither truly futuristic nor totally fantastic, if adults are single for more than 45 days, they are turned into animals, animals of their choice, but animals nonetheless.  Colin Farrell is the schlubby David, caring for his brother, a dog, heading into a facility somewhere between spa and prison, where all men dress alike and all women dress alike and the spark that brings people together is something random and specific about them, like having a limp, or a lisp, or even something more severe.

While it’s Lanthimos’s first film in English, the tone is both dry and droll, as everyone speaks in overly practiced yet uncomfortable formality, negotiating the straits and narrows of society’s will.

But David eventually breaks out and hides in the forest, where renegades who shun society live out their lives of independence.  The loners are led by Léa Seydoux and have their own set of ruthless rules, which are in polar opposition to society’s, not allowing contact or relationships.  These people are hunted by the “normal” folks from the spa/prison and shot with knock-out darts.

Rachel Weisz shows up among these loners and Farrell and Weisz find themselves in some form of love that fits in neither situation available and are forced to hide their feelings.  The film turns on absurdity after absurdity and ends climatically with a dread decision not entirely spelled out to achieve love or to whatever.

I loved Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009)  and liked Alps (2011) and now have to say that I really like his films in general.  The Lobster is a slow burn, full of awkwardness and surrealism, plainspoken but mordant, strange and unusual.  Frankly, it’s probably the best film I’ve seen in the cinema so far this year (not that there’s been a lot of fierce competition.)

Heck, I even took my 12 year old daughter and 14 year old son to this, a film dealing with “adult situations” and oblique humor.  My daughter was disappointed Farrell didn’t turn into a lobster.

Alps (2011)

Alps (2011) movie poster

director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 04/24/2012 at Kabuki Sundance Cinemas, SF, CA

Alps is the latest film from Greek film maker/writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos.  It played as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, so even without knowing much about it, I was very interested in seeing it.  His previous film, Dogtooth (2009), was one of the two best films that I saw on DVD last year, and I’ve been reading about the rise of Greek cinema and its strangely surreal nature.

Alps is not unlike Dogtooth in that it also deals with people and reality and does so in a darkly comic, somewhat disturbing tone.  Whereas in Dogtooth, a father kept his adult children hemmed in on a property away from the rest of the world, a world that he portrayed with various falsities and lies to keep them at home, Alps is about people who strive to participate in the lives of others, playing roles of the recently departed.  As part of a very formal yet probably unofficial troupe of four, each of the people attempt to fill roles in lives in which people have died.  It’s part service and therapy, but it’s also a codependent fulfillment for the actors, particularly the woman played by Aggeliki Papoulia, who lose sight of themselves and their own worlds.

There is a plethora of absurdity and flatly delivered interactions.   At one point the young gymnast of the group attempts to mimic Prince, but does so very shabbily, not being recognizable by her peers.   The men tell her that Prince is not dead.  She then argues that he is dead (you’re only supposed to imitate the dead.)  Another sliver of a break from an understanding of reality.

The best scene, perhaps, is after Paloulia plays through a dialogue with a man in a lighting store, going over an argument, reeling lines as if from a script in flat, unemotional specificity.  When the argument ends, they retreat to the basement and engage in a similarly stilted scene of sex.  The man tells her, as he administers oral sex to her, to say something like “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like heaven.”  But she gets it wrong and says, “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like paradise.”  And he stops and corrects her.  Even for the people who are reliving moments with a stand-in for a lost loved one, the scenes are denuded of emotionality.  They are much more like going through the motions, but needing things to be a specific way.

My friend who I saw it with didn’t care for the film, finding it disturbing.  The film has a subtle undertone of violence, from an early threat from the coach to the gymnast, the brutally bloodied body of the tennis-player teenager after her car crash, and a brutal smack in the face with a club towards the end.  More than physical violence, though, the film plays in the area of discomfort and unease, with characters whose motivations seem to emanate from a different psychology.  Would a family who’ve just lost a young daughter accept the offer of her nurse to play her role for a while?  There is definitely a perverse quality in those who hunt like ambulance-chasing lawyers for opportunities to craft their art.

As the leader of the team anoints the group “Alps” because the Alps could stand in for any mountain, but no other mountain to stand in for the Alps.  He of course takes Mont Blanc, the largest of the Alps for himself.  I was brought to mind oddly of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) wherein a group of renegade young people pretend to be mentally retarded in some strange sociological or performance piece.  While The Idiots never discuss what they do, there is this weird parallel of a troupe of people operating on society’s fringe in an ambiguous manner for equally ambiguous reasons.

Me, I actually liked the film.  Maybe not quite as much as Dogtooth, but then again maybe so.


Dogtooth (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 03/15/11

Dogtooth is a strange, affecting Greek film about a family that takes isolationism to bizarre extremes.  The father and mother have kept their three children locked inside their remote compound their entire lives.  They are now adults, but have been taught that leaving the compound (before having lost one’s dogtooth, “canine”) will result in sudden death.  And that cats are the killers.  And that airplanes are actually toys that occasionally fall in the yard.

They have isolated their children through the fears that they have taught them, the depiction of the world that they have painted, a mixture of lies and fabrications, including telling them that the names of some objects are different from normal usage.  They are utterly controlled by their understanding of the world.  And the father perpetuates this to keep them close and under control, much like the dog that he is having trained.  The trainer tells him, “Do you want a dog or do you want a friend?”

There is great absurdity in the world of Dogtooth, but its critique of paternalism is keen.  While most people do not teach their children such blatant lies, each parent does teach their children about the world in their own terms.  It also struck me regarding the Saussure-ian idea of how culture and ideology begin to be taught at the moment that language is learned.  The control of the mind is a structure of society, and so the father in Dogtooth uses language as well as lies to exact control over his adult children.

The director has suggested that the idea burgeoned from a thought of a future society where protecting one’s family required taking things to extreme.  This seems to indicate that the mother and father’s bizarre control over their children arises from a desire to protect and keep them together.  Perhaps that is what gives the film its odd sensibility that doesn’t utterly condemn their actions, but rather exposes the impossibility of controlling the minds and lives of other people, no matter how “out there” their world is.

The film has a outré quality, not like any one director or film that I can think of.  The visual style is very clean and straightforward, almost bland and banal, in contrast to the strange ways that the characters act.  It’s also not without discomfort, distress and displeasure, as it focuses on this strange psychological abuse, incest, and occasional violence.  It’s hardly a laugh riot, though much of the contrasts of the characters’ odd behavior make for some pretty funny scenes.

Really, I have to say that this is one of the best films that I’ve seen this year.  Unique in vision and surprising and weird, this is a truly interesting film.