An Analytical Guide to Yorgos Lanthimos’ Early Films: Low on Intimacy, High on Violence

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However, there is a subtle proposition that many seem to disregard: The father is not just any father, whose function could be replicated in any and all social circumstances. The father is a factory boss, the most archetypal figure of capitalistic domination. His relationship of exploitation, abuse and violence is not limited to the members of his family, but extends to his employees (as represented in the figure of the security guard). Therefore, it would be wrong to perceive Lanthimos as regurgitating a regressive perspective on an abstract and “bad” human nature and the family as its primordial playground; he is much more interested in how relations of domination in contemporary society themselves take the shape of abstraction.

Dogtooth is the story of socialization in micro-scale, studied in a lab environment. Lanthimos analyzes the interactions between his characters as if he was observing an ant farm. Nevertheless, articulated in the tension between submission to “natural” laws (waiting for the dogtooth to fall out) and forging one’s own nature from scratch, the question of what it means to become human remains. The film suggests that in order to break our acceptance of violence as the only condition of acceptance, warmth, and connection and see the perversity of this organization, we need access to new words in order to re-articulate our experience of suffering.

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Know Your Lines & Know your Place: Alps

Alps (2011) differs from Lanthimos’ prior two features firstly in cinematography, as Christos Voudouris takes the seat previously occupied by Thimios Bakatakis, who will join the director again in his next two films. The result is a closer perspective, tighter frames and a steady camera, which aptly fits the subject and mood: Alps follows a group of characters – a paramedic, a nurse, a gymnast and her coach – who start a business to provide a specific service to those who have recently lost a loved one. They are actors, or rather, “substitutes” who take on the persona of the deceased, spend time with their close ones, in order to ease the process of grieving. 

Yet it’s not only the deceased who are “substituted.” The rituals of grief that provide space for getting over a loss are replaced with live action roleplay so that those who grieve can feel more in control over the conditions of their loss. So again, fiction takes over from reality. The external expressions of the lost person – their clothes, gestures, habits, and words – are learned, mimicked, rehearsed and performed in their stead. In their mannered delivery, one can doubt whether the substitute is ever going to be as good as the original. But the hope or promise is that if repeated enough over time and practiced adequately, the portrayal will gain naturalness and spontaneity. Just like a musician can play a piece, or a gymnast can perform a routine with their eyes closed, if they practiced it enough times.

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At Your Service

This new service in the care industry turns out to be also a source of comfort to at least one of its members – Mont Rosa. The nurse who is responsible to tell the group when a patient dies at the hospital, so that they can approach the family to offer their services, seems to find in these roles a way to make up for what she lacks in her own life. But this over-commitment will cause her both her job and her new role. In the end, Alps is a service for customers, which requires from its founder-employees loyalty and devotion to company values. Acts of violence are not far away when the performances fail evaluation. 

The most dangerous zone, though, is the ever-shifting, fine, quiet threshold between reality and make-believe where transgressions can occur inadvertently. The potentiality of violence culminates in this in-between space that Lanthimos obsessively reflects on, which is also the point of emanation of anything resembling subjective control. This is because creative directors – the ones like Mont Blanc – want to be the only ones to delineate fiction from non-fiction. 

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Mont Rosa’s over-identification with her role enables her to be more cognizant of what she desires, as well as giving her the courage to try to get it on her own terms. Emotions slowly start to reveal themselves on her face, first as surprise to an unexpected betrayal, then as frustration as she starts pushing the boundaries that deny her what she wants. What she doesn’t realize through her insistence is that her customers are less interested in her devotion, and more in the surface similarities between their dead daughter and her new replacement, the young gymnast, the most “natural” choice for the role and a “faithful” replication of reality.

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As a matter of fact, Rosa’s overcommitment shatters the fantasy they want to uphold for themselves, because it lays bare a desperation for affection. Rosa physically tries to break into a space of intimacy and connection (a forced entry), but surely this is a cause for alarm, and she will be violently evicted out of the family house. As she is being kicked out, Mont Rosa repeats her memorized lines over and over again, in agony, as if to say, “Look how well I know my role, look how ready I am for your affection.” She’s almost begging them with these lines, and at the same time resisting and revolting her present condition, challenging them with her insistence to stay as their daughter. Lanthimos seems to suggest that in the contemporary world, everyone is replaceable, but some are more replaceable than others. 

Against the Charges

Although not officially a trilogy, Lanthimos’ first three solo features – Kinetta, Dogtooth, and Alps – stand together as meditations on linguistic designations, the dynamics of power in various social institutions and how they shape and break individuals, and the tension between violence and affection or love as the motor behind both submission and resistance. As cinematic exercises in undoing and reconstructing processes of our socialization, these films break down wholes into their most minute parts to then put them back together again, thus showing the mechanisms hidden behind the veneer of “natural” functioning.

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In sum, they point less to personal motivations behind behaviors and choices, and more to how one learns to behave a certain way and make a choice for oneself in the first place. Their observations about competition, coldness and cruelty doesn’t speak for a staunch belief in corrupted human nature but indicate the conditions of becoming human in Western society. As such, the charge of false intellectualism and fake radicalism fails, because what Lanthimos does is not a guaranteed, standard and stale cultural critique. Those who find his cinema as simply weird, unnecessarily disturbing, or faultily nihilistic disregard that his critique of violence is multi-layered, historically specific and has socio-political relevance and valor. 

I approach Lanthimos’ cinema as re-interpretations and re-animations of what Nietzsche called “festivals of cruelty” and the creditor-debtor relationship in his On the Genealogy of Morals, taking place in different micro-universes. Through the stylistic lack of affect, we are able to trace the history of the formation of affects as products of power relations. And again in Nietzschean fashion, Lanthimos aims for a re-evaluation of all modern assumptions and sensibilities and opens to question the taken-for-grantedness of the substantiality of interiority. Just like Nietzsche, he is a poet of surfaces. 

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Kinetta, Dogtooth and Alps are streaming on the Criterion Channel. The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer are streaming on Netflix.



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