Both Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2005 debut Kinetta and his 2009 film Dogtooth open with cassette tapes. In the former, a man in a disheveled black and white suit stands in front of a sun-bathed stone wall, a pair of old headphones straight out of the mid-1980s hanging around his neck. A woman sings jazzy blues in the background as he stares out at something, which we learn in the next shot is a demolished, overturned car. From the rubble, he retrieves a cassette tape, and the music stops; he then walks away with as much unexplained determination as he had when recovering the tape seconds before.
The latter, Dogtooth, opens with a close-up of an old Panasonic tape recorder. A hand inserts a tape, presses play, and we listen to something akin to a language instructional: “Today the new words are the following … sea … motorway.” The female voice reads the beginning of what could be a dictation exercise or book one of “how-to-speak-Greek-for-travelers.” But no sooner does she begin than we hear the odd descriptions, “a sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms”; “a motorway is a very strong wind.”
In Lanthimos’s six films, which are screening this weekend and into early next week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, humans always appear to be learning how to be human for the first time. We see them trying to figure out how to act, how to carry themselves, how to touch, what to say, and performing roles forced upon them either by society (Kinetta), themselves (Dogtooth), or some deeply problematic utopian bubble designed by a maniacal desire to control behavior (Dogtooth and The Lobster, 2015).
When I first saw Dogtooth I wondered for a split second if something was wrong with the subtitles. But it’s here, only moments into Lanthimos’s second feature, that we learn just how radically reconfigured Lanthimos’s world is, which we are about to enter: one full of an entire set of linguistic signs and symbols fabricated to meet the needs of a couple obsessed with barring its grown children from the outside world (save the woman they hire to have sex with their man-son). During scene after scene in Yorgos Lanthismos’s films, we endure a masterful portrayal of the terrible awkwardness — at times unbearably clunky, at others, hauntingly fragile and tender — of humans who seem to be putting on their bodies and native tongues for the very first time.
Or maybe they’re trying to find a tongue that is native. So many of Lanthimos’s characters are caught in an endless loop or rehearsals for habits. Some rehearse words, plot lines, or scenes for films they’ll never shoot (Kinetta). Others rehearse the depraved experiences of being without a life partner (The Lobster); or exercise routines inside a family compound involving zero contact with the outside world (Dogtooth). Still, others rehearse the role of bereaved family members (Alps, 2011) or physical wellness (The Killing of Sacred Deer, 2017).
In almost every instance, Lanthimos’s characters are being scripted, forced to practice a custom or narrative. There’s a scene in Alps in which a nurse (played by Aggeliki Papoulia) is sitting with the family of a recently deceased female tennis player. The girl, only 16, died as a result of a horrible car accident, and the nurse has volunteered herself to the grieving parents as a stand-in for the daughter to help them recover. While sitting with them, wearing the dead girl’s shoes on her feet and sweatband on her wrist, she speaks vehemently about beating an opponent, all the while with the inelegant look of someone reading lines off of a screen. When asked by the father if she would like water, the nurse (still in her role as the deceased daughter) declines. “You usually drink lots of water after a match,” he corrects. “Okay, thanks then,” she says, gulping down a large glass of water.
What’s so remarkable about Lanthimos’s films is that inevitably there’s a breakdown, a slippage when the elements being rehearsed take on a greater dimension of reality, often in an act of unavoidable violence — sometimes bodily, other times in the form of a tear in reality.
How will we re-learn everything after it’s all collapsed? Will we invent new rituals, resurrect the old, or completely redefine ourselves and our language, (i.e., “a motorway is a very strong wind”)? I can’t help but feel that Kinetta, five years before the Greek economic crisis, was a prescient imagining of a society faced with the boredom of its own existence post-capitalism. After we’ve stopped being sold all of our gestures, facial expressions, mannerisms, and etiquettes, where will we go to relearn them? As we drift along in a global economy where one of the biggest players is led by a reality TV star, on a planet whose climate is shifting such that our lives will be unsustainable in the next 50 years, Lanthimos’s cinema seems more important than ever.
“I don’t mean to pressure you or to ruin the mood now that we’re celebrating,” says Léa Seydoux’s character to Colin Farrell’s in The Lobster, “but don’t expect anyone else to dig your grave for you or to carry your corpse.”