Cinema of Greece


Birds (Or How to Be One) (Babis Makridis)

Makridis’ peculiar third feature is inspired by Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, but it exists between three narrative registers: a documentary about an ‘off’ production of the play by Nikos Karathanos and Onassis Stegi, a freewheeling screen adaptation of the play featuring the same actors in several exotic locales around the world and a poetic essay film about human beings’ relationship to their avian peers. Divided into nine thematic chapters answering the titular question, Birds teases out our eternal quest to emulate our feathered friends: the desire for flight, the yearning for lightness, the urge to escape gravity (literal and social), the impulse to rise to the skies through the construction skyscrapers, the fear of falling and the thrill we harness from it, the fantasy of crossing political borders, but also the need for community and for defending it against outsiders, manifesting ultimately through aerial warfare. Makridis does not emphasize or linger on these ideas, instead suggesting associations through fugitive but evocative images. It is the strength of his film that it does not attempt to ‘interpret’ or ‘modernize’ Aristophanes’ comedy. While it dips in and out of metaphor, Birds takes the outlandishness of the original premise at face value. As a result, the adaptation it offers is literal, one in which the human characters imitate bird cries and indeed audition to become birds, not unlike the two prospectors of Amit Dutta’s The Golden Bird (2011) who try to rise above the human form. In doing so, Birds offers another intriguing demonstration of the Greek taste for the absurd. (The equivalence between man and animal is, moreover, a significant motif in Lanthimos’ work.) This loose, opaque treatment produces results that are as funny as they are flummoxing.

This Is Paris Too (Lech Kowalski)

Kowalski’s freestyle documentary seeks to offer images of Paris not generally seen on screen: homeless immigrants on the outskirts of the city leading a nomadic, shadow existence under bridges, on abandoned sites and in urban interstices. It’s winter, and we watch them fight the cold with inadequate blankets and cheap anoraks, subsisting on community kitchen and standing huddled in the daytime without much to do. A few have built some form of shelter, but most just find a spot to sleep. We see them through the eyes of Ken Metoxen, a native American friend of the filmmaker’s, who wanders the breadth of the city on foot and in public transport. Sometimes Ken interacts with individuals such as Aman, an over-enthusiastic boxer from Afghanistan who cannot participate in ring fights because he lacks the necessary papers. The communication is awkward—Ken does not speak French; Aman doesn’t speak English—and is soon replaced by Aman fervently showing his boxing skills to a compliant Ken. The latter listens patiently as Aman pulls out his phone to show videos of Taliban bombings and tortures in Kabul. Ken empathizes with the suffering of the immigrants through a shared history of oppression. But Kowalski’s choice to refract these vignettes of Paris through a native American’s point of view has no theoretical underpinning. He simply wants to film Ken as a flaneur, experiencing (and revealing to us) a foreign city from an outsider perspective, which leads to an exceedingly long, final tracking shot on Ken spanning several blocks of Paris. Much of all this is impressionistic, and there’s very little that seems to have been thought through, the result coming across like outtakes from a larger project between Kowalski and Ken. In a surprising coda, the director discusses his experience as a child of immigrants to America and his relationship with Ken, who is revealed to be a cross-dresser—a gratuitous, inward-looking turn that hints at several unexplored possibilities.

The Last City (Heinz Emigholz)

Emigholz’s return to fiction opens with a reminiscence by the filmmaker about a dream city that keeps changing place and about people who keep changing shape. This personal statement gives way to five interconnected stories taking place in five different cities: a filmmaker and a weapons designer talk about war in the Israeli city of Beersheba; an elderly artist converses with his 30-year-old self in Athens, a mother finds contentment in her incestuous family in Berlin; in Hong Kong, a Chinese woman schools a Japanese woman on her country’s unspeakable war crimes; an art dealer and a cosmologist discuss the possibility of life outside earth in São Paulo. The Last City scans like a long pedagogical exercise demonstrating everything that shouldn’t be done in films: camera that is constantly canted and misaligned with the horizon, eyelines that never match, cuts that break the 180-degree rule, camera setups that keep changing, actors who play multiple roles of ethnicities different from their own, blatant discontinuities in makeup, costume and décor not just within scenes, but within a single line of dialogue. All this, of course, is part of the setup. Filming pieces of buildings through extreme angles, Emigholz is integrating the city space into the conversations. His ‘last city’ is an ever-changing, universal town that has been homogenized out of its history and identity, just like its people who seem to have no ethnic essence. A wild, entertaining speculative fiction, Emigholz’s film recalls Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) in the way its characters work on each other’s memory and history in fraught urban encounters. Only that there is neither Hiroshima nor any social taboo conditioning the encounters anymore. Edited in a brisk rhythm, The Last City is also a very funny work in the way it pokes fun at its own ridiculous, disparate premises, which are tied together in some sort of a logic-defying hyperreality.

Undine (Christian Petzold)

If, in Transit (2018), Petzold drew on American film noir to create fruitful frictions with his basic realist style, in Undine, reportedly the first of a new trilogy based on elemental beings, he leans on the legend of the eponymous water nymph whose curse it is that her human lover will meet his death if he is ever unfaithful to her. In Petzold’s version though, it is Undine (Paula Beer) who appears to be cursed, unable to break the tragic mould of the legend. Jilted by her boyfriend, Undine finds an ideal love almost immediately in Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who seems to be as ethereal a creature as her, but fate plays a nasty hand. The film harks back to Yella (2007), firstly in its forked narrative in which the protagonist enters a new life just when everything closes in on her. More notably, like Yella, Undine transposes a supernatural reality onto the banal, hyperrealist surface of reunified Germany. Petzold offsets stretches of dead time showing characters doing everyday activities with evocative images of heightened intensity that signal the coexistence of a fantastic realm. Both Undine and Christoph experience each other as quasi-spectral beings, and because they take turns leading the narrative, we are never sure whose fantasy we are in. Petzold, moreover, imposes another layer of signification onto this composite: Undine is an urban historian dealing with the many narratives that impose themselves on Berlin. Professionally and personally, the past for her, as for Yella, is never dead and buried, but something to be always reckoned with. So the film offers a three-fold narrative, with the romantic story, the Undine legend and a political allegory finding echo in each other. If this layering allows Petzold a way to animate his clinical style with mystery, at times it also gives the impression that he is hedging his bets.

Glauber, Claro (César Meneghetti)

In 1975, Brazilian auteur Glauber Rocha made a film in Italy titled Claro in which he reimagined Rome as the historical centre of imperialism. Meneghetti’s documentary about the film—and about Rocha’s sojourn in Italy—assembles archival footage and interviews with surviving cast and crew members, film critics and the director’s Italian friends. The interviewees watch clips from Rocha’s film and recall how such and such scene was shot. The discussion blossoms outward to include the general social situation of the time: the cultural permissiveness that allowed Rocha and co. to live in apartments without paying rent, cohabit while blurring the boundary between friendship and love, and spike each other’s drinks before shoot. With interesting anecdotes about the Brazilian’s bluster and idiosyncrasy, the testimonies help locate Rocha within the intellectual landscape of Italy at the time. Throughout, Meneghetti cuts outdoor scenes from Rocha’s film with shots of the same places in current-day Rome, suggesting the demise of radical political dreams, but evoking certain continuities as well. Interestingly scored, these interludes also serve as spaces of reflection for the viewer, a respite from all the talking heads. In all, we get a sense of Rocha’s complex relationship to the European country: even as he was criticizing it as a ‘colonizing’ empire, the filmmaker saw in Italy a channel for distributing Cinema Novo works and, indirectly, a rampart against the growing authoritarianism back home. But there is hardly any rough edge to Rocha himself. His Latin American background gets little notice and he comes across as a mad prophet conjured into existence in Rome. Most collaborators describe him as an eccentric visionary who saw beyond his time, some others speak of their great love for him. But one piece of priceless archival clip at the end alone makes up for any deficiency: Rocha having a glorious public meltdown after the 1980 Venice Film Festival, where he destroys Louis Malle (‘second-rate filmmaker’), Cassavetes (‘commercial director under avant-garde garb’), Michel Ciment (‘takes American money’), Andrew Sarris (‘CIA-backed imperialist’) and other ‘Hitchcock lovers’.

Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs)

At first glance, Lynne Sachs’ latest documentary comes across as another iteration on the now all-too-common work of ‘personal archaeology’ in which filmmakers trace their roots through public and private archives, at times rending open the specific ways their unhappy families have been dysfunctional. Sachs, for one, employs home movies shot over half a century in half a dozen formats—8mm, 16mm, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV and digital—by herself, her father and her siblings, filmmakers Dana and Ira Sachs. The material turns around their father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ who sowed his wild oats across the world and virtually birthed a baseball team. Senior’s constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades, but also upon his mother, with whom he nevertheless shares a close but complicated relationship. Sachs weaves through years’ worth of footage and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. As she says, the film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs and her siblings sit with their father, now infirm with age, and ask him to recollect episodes from the past. What do they expect? Confession? Reckoning? Simple testimony wrought from a gradually vanishing consciousness? Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Senior’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Two living room discussions are intercut as though they are unfolding in the same space, the only way the filmmaker is able to bridge these invisible branches of the family tree. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I’m one of those who think Lanthimos has something to say as an artist, even though The Killing of a Sacred Deer makes that opinion somewhat hard to defend. The film goes back to the universe of Dogtooth, with its isolated family governed by arbitrary internal regulations. Steven (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children are the prototypical, white middle-class family with a posh suburban house and successful careers as doctors – unremarkable traits in all respects. When crisis strikes in the form of supernatural happenings controlled by Martin (Barry Keoghan), son of one of Steven’s unsuccessful patients, the family devolves into a primitive formation, with every member sucking up to the patriarch to stay alive. There are certainly echoes of Pasolini’s Teorema here and I do think Sacred Deer takes forward The Lobster’s reflection on the demands modern life makes of individuals as members in a social contract.

As is standard in Lanthimos’s cinema, the dialogue is wooden and delivered by the poker-faced actors as though reading out of a page. The subject matter is either meaningless everyday talk, whose painful banality and falsity are brought out more strongly by the toneless diction, or quaint remarks reminiscent of Wes Anderson. Even when the characters breakdown in rage or grief, there is a studied quality to the expression: the voice changes pitch, but still remains colourless and removed from the vacillations of real human speech. This, at times, produces hysterical exchanges such as the one about a lemon cake. The anxiogenic score, made of high-pitched oscillations, doubles the threat implied by the fluorescent-lit, antiseptic halls of the hospital or the yellow-tinted interiors of the house.

Lanthimos’ is an art first and foremost of framing. He thinks like a graphic novelist, taking as his challenge to find a point of view that is arresting in its obliqueness. He takes the least intuitive angle possible for a shot. A woman knocks at the door of a house with someone inside. While another filmmaker would put the camera behind the woman who is knocking the door or behind the closed door, Lanthimos plants it at right angles to her, showing no interest in the opening of the door. Shots are constantly saying something other than what the scene is about. A shot at the hospital with a bare-chested doctor and patient is scandalous without there being a scandal. The discerning viewer is always invited to study the framing of every shot, to reflect on why something is being presented this way. This, on the other hand, is also an invitation to be put off by the affectedness of it all.

Even when there are camera movements – and there are many – the primary interest is in the angle along which the camera glides. In wide-angle tracking shots at the hospital, the camera hovers just above the head of actors, who walk onward like characters in a first-person shooter. Other camera movements involve starting with close-ups of actors or objects and craning back to a wider view. This amplifies even banal gestures and words, such as when the camera tracks back from Kidman flossing her teeth talking about how wonderful their dinner guest was. But Lanthimos is not solely behind optical bait. There are several shots in Sacred Deer that are tender and beautiful too: like the close-up of Steven’s daughter on a bike with city lights reflected in her pupils, the Oliveira-like shot of feet in a three-character conversation scene, or the soaring rehearsal of a Christmas carol.

The Favourite

Based on a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite, presents a character study of three historical figures: Anne (Olivia Colman), the queen of England, her confidante and second-in-command, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, and Sarah’s cousin and maid Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Anne is a broken woman, buried in grief over her dead children and cottoning on to whatever love she can get. The iron-willed Sarah is in love with the queen, but the political interest of the country is primordial to her. Abigail is a social climber, trying to rise up the strict hierarchy of feudal England and navigate its coded spaces by whatever means necessary. Abigail and Sarah’s vying for the queen’s attention and love has a direct influence on the country’s efforts in the ongoing war against France.

Handling such an elaborately-detailed material brings a new dimension to Lanthimos’ work, which has so far been built on strings of events pinned on an extraordinary, sparely-sketched premise. On the other hand, the filmmaker’s peculiar choices impart a rough texture, a modernist edge to the costume drama: fish eye lenses that suggest a cavernous, collapsing world, a workshop-like two-note musical score complementing the classical repertoire, the emphasis on the bawdier aspects of the script, the tongue-in-cheek division of the film into chapters, the caricatural, slow-motion inserts of palatial amusements resembling advertisements.

The Favourite is, however, atypical of Lanthimos’ style in several respects. Firstly, he’s working off a script not written by himself for the first time since his debut. Davis’ and McNamara’s writing is suffused with sharp lines that are a world away from Lanthimos’ dry sense of humour. Characters have clearly-defined ambitions and traits with hardly any gratuitous behaviour. The movement of the camera is more motivated than ever by that of the actors. Lanthimos and his regular editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis use dissolves, superpositions and sound bridges – not common sights in the director’s work. The edits are also less jarring and more conventionally meaningful, as when a shot of the queen lying laughing on the floor is followed by a shot of Sarah looking at her and then at Abigail, then by a shot of Abigail smiling at Sarah and finally by a shot of a bird being gunned down.

The most obvious deviation is, of course, in the manner of acting. In contrast to the poker-faced monoliths in Lanthimos’ earlier films, Coleman, Stone and Weisz portray their characters like open books, laying their complexes out in the open and giving them a tangible presence. A look at Sarah’s surprise when she finds Abigail in bed with the queen or the queen’s compassion as she sees Abigail melt down for her or Abigail’s piercing gaze after she’s gotten rid of Sarah is all one needs to understand their entire being. Leaning on these three stellar performances, Lanthimos brings to surface the tenderness latent but only sporadically visible in his previous films. In The Favourite, he creates a film with genuine affect that doesn’t undercut the love, jealously and heartbreak the characters feel towards each other. A Barry Lyndon comparison is valid in more ways than one.