Dogtooth

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Steven Murphy is a successful heart surgeon, admired by his peers and loved by his family, but all that is about come apart when demons from the past come back to haunt him. Not literally, well who knows.

Murphy has been meeting a young boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) to give occasional gifts and fatherly advice but his wife and kids are unaware of this relationship. Murphy feels indebted to Martin for some reason, things getting substantially more serious when it seems a hex has been placed on his family that will end in a lot of people dying if nothing is done about it.

It sounds absurd but stranger things have happened in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films – like turning people into animals in The Lobster. The style is unmistakable, the flat matter-of-fact dialogue and delivery that can find humour in the darkest ideas. It has a wonky realism that makes you think the hex could be real and so the stakes are as high as they can be. Murphy has to confront superstition and contemplate an unthinkable sacrifice*.

Colin Farrell, having starred in strange success The Lobster, looks at home with this mechanical direction, and Nicole Kidman dovetails in with a bit more soul as wife Anna but is enough Stepford Wife to keep things off kilter, especially in the bedroom. The young actors are excellent, making the blunt and sometimes bizarre dialogue sound natural.

Once again Lanthimos has created a beautifully strange piece of work that is uniquely his own. It is a horror revenge film that has a tone that flits between tragic and slapstick. It uses real drama but in such a false way that it’s hard to connect to anyone, but this feels beside the point. What is clear is that it knows how to challenge expectations, create suspense and get a laugh – even if it is a nervous one.

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The Lobster (2015)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film offers more of the same darkly surreal dead pan comedy, except this time there’s an all star ensemble cast who speak English for the most part.

This has a number of effects on the film. Firstly, a new audience has opened up to this testing black humour – curiosity irked and sensibilities challenged. This made for a very tense atmosphere in the cinema where I saw the film, confused at what was supposed to be funny, at what was allowed to be funny. There were a few walk outs halfway into the film, claiming that it was the most disgusting film they had ever seen, and that this was surely not the romantic-comedy they were promised on Graham Norton

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The other major effect the English casting had on the film, for me at least, was on the tone of the dialogue. It seemed inconsistent. Some were putting more into their lines than others – more sense of comedy, irony or emotion.

Colin Farrell is impressively uncharismatic as David, damaged to the point of losing his humanness. But his performance seems to be a pastiche of those in Lanthimos’ previous films Dogtooth and Alps. The Greek cast remain defiantly more dead-pan and robotic. This difference is seized upon when David’s passivity is tested by Lanthimos staple Angeliki Papoulia as Heartless Woman – and clearly he possesses more emotion than he is letting on. He, like the audience, is being pushed at what he can stomach.

The use of familiar actors in a familiar language draws more attention to the flat delivery of stilted dialogue, and has a different effect to reading the plainly worded sentences in the subtitles. It feels similar to the black comedies of Scandinavia: obviously staged and void of emotion. Like a children’s play, badly translated from another language, written with an alien understanding of how humans interact. It has a childlike naiveté but is self-aware and hilarious with it (as in the game: Touch Feel Think Win) .

The closest English-speaking counterpart to this style of delivery that I can think of is Wes Anderson, whose characters often speak with a dry melancholic tone; depressed and detached. They are withdrawn emotionally which is usually explained in the narrative as part of a dysfunctional family or childhood. Stylised and self-aware, many of Anderson’s characters adopt this tone, captured perfectly by the blank Buster Keatonlike expression of Bill Murray. The Lobster offers us no such context, instead blanketing the world with people who speak plainly and frankly to the point of extreme discomfort – “This is Robert. He lives in the room next to mine and has a lisp” or “I swallow every time I give fellatio and don’t mind anal sex”.

Although everyone speaks bluntly, there is still dishonesty and within this world deception is grounds for punishment. Masturbating in the hotel means your fingers will be jammed in a toaster at breakfast in front of the other guests. Lying about how little you care about anything will mean your brother-turned-dog will be kicked to death. The lack of explanation forces you to confront the style and relate it to reality, making you realise the farcical nature of human interaction.

This was the subject of Attenberg, a film which Lanthimos both starred in and produced, warping communication between people into something very surreal, especially when dealing with sex. Although this is still confined to strange individuals in our shared reality. In doing this we can choose to draw comparison to our own personal lives or just write it off as fringe behaviour, or an act of surrealism. The Lobster changes the rules of the world and forces us to rethink the rules we have in our own world. The protocol of normalised behaviour, the gameplay of relationships. How people tend to pair together due to a shared interest, experience or flaw. The hilariously frank dialogue is so funny because it defies our social rules – it tells us that we are not always honest. Behind someone’s back we might define a person by their limp or maybe we would suggest flirtingly how promiscuous we are, but we adhere to a code of decency that appears arbitrary and hypocritical in light of The Lobster.

The final moments of the film tease and toy with you. The room tightens up collectively and there are a few audible gasps. It’s almost identical to Dogtooth. Those new to Lanthimos already don’t trust him, and those who are familiar know not to.