Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017 | 2015
The first thing one recognises about the films of Yorgos Lanthimos is that they are influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd, a term coined by critic Martin Esslin in the early 60s to represent literary and theatrical works that attempt to shock audiences out of complacency and attack established orthodoxies: the controlling mechanisms and purposes behind hierarchal constructs of power and dependence – family, religion, authoritarian institutions, and the comforting certainties of political and social constructs.
Cinema is a powerful vehicle for shaping societal attitudes and thinking, but it’s also an ideal medium to examine the frameworks and strategies of social control. Lanthimos’s exaggerated dystopian scenarios are allegories designed to provoke viewers to reflect on the implicit ‘rules of engagement’ of human society and the interests that support the social contracts we live by – or more accurately, acquiesce to. Characters are largely absurdist archetypes, ciphers for his thematic and critical intentions. They move and speak like automatons, a device that signals Lanthimos’s absurdist roots, but that also reflects the spiritual condition of these beacons of socialised normality: a well-adjusted citizenry; obedient servants; the living dead.
As absurd allegories, Lanthimos’s scenarios aren’t supposed to be taken literally, nor are they mere diversions about wackos and nut-jobs designed solely to entertain. The use of exaggerated and jarring devices are intended to get the viewer to at least wonder what the filmmaker is up to. In Dogtooth (2009) for example, why are we shown a close up of the father’s cock? Why are the children only allowed to watch home movies, and why are they being taught the wrong meanings to words? What’s the point of a ridiculous scenario about an unrealistic family who do and say absurd things?
The reviews for Dogtooth were largely favourable, and most recognised themes of control, manipulation, and submission though fear and confusion, but I didn’t read one that drew parallels with the world we live in, the world of ‘known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’, the world Orwell saw coming – one large compliant Guantanamo.
The success of THE LOBSTER marked a turning point for Lanthimos. It had its detractors, but audiences and critics were largely impressed. However, some felt that the film fell apart in the second half, from the point when David (Colin Farrell) becomes a ‘Loner’ (outcasts who live in the woods) and falls in love (forbidden according to Loner rules) with ‘short-sighted woman’ (Rachel Wiesz). The film didn’t fall apart for me, so such comments lead me to wonder if people parted company when things got “too” absurd.
Personally, I found The Lobster hard to warm to, partly because satire of the first half was too emphatic, as if Lanthimos had parcelled his thematic concerns into a crowd-pleasing farce about self-important wannabes, social misfits, and the often-absurd (sometimes oppressive) conventions of coupledom. This was the half that everyone seemed to like. One of the strengths of the first half was that it drew attention to the latent narcissism within socialisation, which of course extends to societal constructs, but the film moves towards a darker and more personal perspective in the second half, where love (the concept as well as the consequences) is regarded as dangerous. This will lead David and ‘short-sighted woman’ to escape the woods for the surveillance-heavy oppression of 'normal' society, and towards an expression of commitment that is as horrifying as it is desperately courageous.
The Lobster was ostensibly about coupledom, and the absurdities that often accompany our compulsion to pair off, but it was also about the courage required to protect and maintain it, as the last scene potently implies. But Lanthimos has never been shy of heavy-handed metaphor, and in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER he takes a leaf from Michael Haneke’s book to concoct a lacerating portrait of bourgeois privilege and indifference. Indeed, it’s not difficult to draw thematic and even structural parallels with Haneke’s 1997 provocation Funny Games, except that in Sacred Deer it’s from within the family unit that all hell breaks loose, namely in the form of 16-year-old spawn of the devil, Martin, excellently played by Barry Keoghan.
Colin Farrell delivers a similarly buttoned-down performance to the one he gave in The Lobster, this time playing respected and successful cardiac surgeon Dr Steven Murphy, who, it transpires, was the doctor in charge when Martin’s father died on the operating table. The film’s opening shot of open-heart surgery, with the camera slowly zooming in on the heart, is less a contextualising image backgrounding Dr Murphy’s job and the death of Martin’s father than a clear signal of intent from Yorgos Lanthimos and his long-term writing partner, Efthymis Filippou. They plan to "go in", and they’re going in deep, so the opening shot serves as a little warning that this isn’t going to be a film for the faint of heart. With the audience duly put on notice, the first incision begins.
Nicole Kidman plays Dr Steven’s wife, Anna, who is an equally brilliant ophthalmologist. Kidman plays her with just the right amount of reserved self-possession, a privileged professional woman willing to do whatever is necessary to protect her family. In fact, she and Dr Steven are both willing to go to great lengths to preserve the privileged lifestyle that they and their children are accustomed to, and who among us would deny hardworking upper middle-class professionals the right to enjoy their privileges. Lanthimos and Filippou bring Martin into the mix to test how far the Murphy’s will go, setting the scene for a full-blown dose of the Hanekes framed by an homage to the surface pleasures of Stanely Kubrick.
It’s a risky strategy, in part because those who don’t twig to the allegorical parallel between this visceral fiction and the reality of sending young soldiers (children) to kill and be killed in the service of privilege and power may find the horror visited upon the Murphy’s as nothing more than an extremely distasteful misanthropic punch in the gut. Even those who twig to the film's subtext might feel that the extremes are largely provocative for the sake of it, but I don't share that view myself—not yet. I may come to regard all of Lanthimos’s work as excessive and calculated, but for the moment I defend his determination to poke our eyes out in order to make us see more clearly.
As Anne Murphy says. "I don't understand why I should pay the price, or why my children should pay the price." This, dear Anne, is exactly what Mr Lanthimos and Mr Filippou would like you to ponder ...