Thoughts On: Kinetta/Dogtooth/Alps/The Lobster/The Killing Of A Sacred Deer - Chaos As The Norm


Kinetta/Dogtooth/Alps/The Lobster/The Killing Of A Sacred Deer - Chaos As The Norm

Thoughts On: The Cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos

A brief look at all of Yorgos Lanthimos' films under the guise of chaos in social paradigms.


One of the most central struggles that any society must confront is one of stratifying and fractalising functional human groups, determining the role of the individual in regards to the couple, the couple in regards to the trio, the trio in regards to the quintuplet, etc. This struggle has, one could argue, manifested four basic levels of functional human groupings; there is the individual, the family, the community and then the larger society. There are a myriad of other conceptions including, but not limited to, the couple, the trio, partners, friendship groups, corporations, classes or castes, international communities, global societies and more. Nonetheless, it is the individual unit, the family unit (those who are closely related by blood, marriage or an equally formal and deep bond), the community (a collective bound by common purpose, such as those living on a street, going to a school or working in a company) and the society (a collective under a national flag and/or an international emblem) that are most obvious and present in everyday living. One is then considered a functional person when they, to a reasonable degree, live in a manner that sustains themselves, that supports their family, aids their community and positively contributes to a wider society.

Yorgos Lanthimos is a director who is consistently and explicitly confronting this concept, so often showing how easily chaos can be injected into human relationships on the micro and macrocosmic level. He begun his feature-length filmmaking career with Kinetta, a film that deals with individuals attempting to establish a community. His focus is a trio at a hotel who are trying to shoot a scene, possibly for a movie, that depicts an argument between a man and a woman. This trio are obviously attempting to establish a small filmmaking community in which they each play the role of a filmmaker (actor, actress, director, cameraman, etc). However, individually, each seems lost in the world with no one around them to enjoy their hobbies, to talk about their interests or to support them at work. Lanthimos' camera invades their individual spaces and their small community in a way that reveals the disconnect between the two. And such a disconnect, it seems, is based upon the fact that the individuals that make up this community exist functionally at an individual level, but do not really have a family around them. The community is pressurised by this with the individuals wanting to, but not knowing how to, break their professional facades; to share their music, their hobbies, interests and more. Purposelessly floating in between the sphere of the individual and of the community, the trio lack a sense of direction and meaning that would make natural and smooth their social interactions. This is then a simple story of loneliness, but an affecting one that Lanthimos picks up on and expands in Alps.

Alps is Lanthimos' third feature-length film and, very much so like his first, Kinetta, it deals with individuals who are lost in between the sphere of individuality and of the community. The company we focus on gives the title its name: Alps. Alps provides a service to mourning families and individuals who have just lost a loved one with actors who will stand in their place, pretending to be the recently deceased, as to aid in the mourning process. Conflict emerges from this narrative, however, when an individual becomes dependent on the families she pretends to be apart of, hence breaking the company's rules of conduct. The core of this conflict, we are shown, is explicitly the fact that our main character does not have a family that is functional and that she feels at home in. Thus, again, conflict is shown to emerge out of a disalignment of the individual-family-community-society paradigm; without family, one is show to be incapable of properly integrating into a wider community, and such emphasises their loneliness and alienating inability to form close relationships and build a family.

With both Alps and Kinetta, Lanthimos is ultimately depicting the ways in which family is the most important element of society, and he does so by not depicting one. However, it is with his other films (Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) that Lanthimos deals with tyranny in the family and community, again presenting an argument for family being the most important - and in turn complex and difficult - element of society.

Dogtooth, Lanthimos' second feature-length film is, at heart, a reaction to the predicaments that rest at the core of Kinetta. Thus, it is about a couple who secure a family, but, by virtue of their individual faults, formalise it to a tyrannical degree, fabricating a haze of lies around their children as to have them grow up in a world of their own design that will ultimately keep them children forever, idols like pets, not individuals nurtured into adulthood. The ways in which this is a reaction to Kinetta is plain, but key to understanding Lanthimos' cinema more generally: where Kinetta is more about loneliness and alienation emerging from within, Dogtooth is more about loneliness and alienation pressing upon a person. In all of Lanthimos' films, this dichotomy remains present; individuals find themselves lonesome, but, in their attempts to confront this, they only become further alienated. If one were to imagine Lanthimos' films as sculptures in time, I believe they would form fractured and troubled mandalas that spiral inwards towards a central light - the core debilitating fault of the individual.

Alas, whilst each of Lanthimos' films have this central dichotomy, it is The Lobster that I see to have alienation and loneliness emerge from a conception of family most affluently. Where one may then diagnose each of his films' core conflicts as being symptomatic of a crisis in the individual-family-community-society paradigm, The Lobster diagnoses itself, explicitly detailing how the dissolution of a family debilitates an individual who goes on to struggle in a new community and attempts to establish a new family. This then follows David, a middle-aged man who is dumped by his wife and sent to a hotel where he must find someone to form a family with before he is turned into an animal by the state services. This narrative set up is highly similar to Dogtooth in that it depicts a confined setting of tyranny; it would be an expansion upon Dogtooth in that it shows how, not just individuals and a family can be tyrannous, but how a community and society can also be with focus on social customs and state laws. Alas, The Lobster doesn't only consist of David's venture into the hotel. Mid-way through the film he escapes and integrates into a community of renegade loners. It is with the juxtapositional half of the film that the pressures of alienation and loneliness pressed upon David start to emerge from within him, as it is here where he not only faces the new rules of the loners, but tries to establish rules of his own with someone he may be falling in love with. What emerges from David here is what rises to the surface at the end of the first half; it is that which forced him to run away: he tried to invent a new self and be someone he wasn't. In the second half, he has convinced himself that he is a loner defined by his shortsightedness - an identity given to him by, and assumed from, his community. In finding another shortsighted person like himself, he starts to believe that they can transform into something new, something outside of the rules of their community: a happy couple.

In the end, David's community attempts not to force him to be something he is not, to transform him into an animal because he could not be like everyone else, but to let him wallow in what he believes he is: they blind his love interest, they take away what brought them together, their shortsightedness, and essentially dare them to try and make the relationship work. The question that emerges from this is one of conformity: does he have to conform to the established rules that regulate the individual, family, community and individual and blind himself as to make the relationship work?

The idea of choice is emphasised by Lanthimos in the end of The Lobster, but it becomes the focus of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In his latest film tyranny in the family becomes centralised again with outside forces and inner forces of alienation conflicting thunderously. The Killing of a Sacred Deer then follows a doctor who is harassed by the son of a patient he may have accidentally killed. The son, however, does far more than stalk the doctor and make demands; he seemingly catalyses a mythological affliction in the doctor's family: if the father does not kill one of his family members, all will die. This force of tyranny means to, and succeeds in, bringing out the worst in the family with the son's ploy being highly akin in logic to the loners' ploy in The Lobster. And so what manifests in the end of this narrative is a tragedy entirely based upon the breaking of rules. Again, as in The Lobster, Lanthimos shows how stepping outside of social norms not only invites chaos, but breeds a new kind of chaos that emerges from the individual and makes every step they make towards re-aligning with the rules of order increasingly more difficult.

Seen in such a light, Lanthimos' cinema is a highly treacherous one, one that collectively builds a commentary on what it means to be alienated and alone. In such a cinema, 'norm' represents a sacred order that is constantly sought after by tragic heroes and made tyrannous by agents of chaos. In fact, bearing witness to the struggles that permeate through Lanthimos' films, one comes to recognise that, to Lanthimos, the norm is chaos.

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