Going to a Party, Killing a Deer
November 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
I’ve been thinking of how we remember films over subsequent days and weeks. Sally Potter’s The Party outsmarts Woody Allen: the melodramatic foolishness, the ensemble acting from familiar faces and pleasingly unlikely pairings. But it’s no less evanescent. This black comedy has its darkness undercut by the knowing lightness of its satire, which rarely proves funny (little laughter from the audience I was in) precisely because it’s both strenuously engineered and scattershot. The source genre appears to be French farce – players rushing in and out of adjacent rooms or spaces, within a confined stagey set.
What lingers is style, the effectively glowering monochrome, the camera often lurking below the frame before it rears into sweaty close-up or scenes of frenzied movement.
Unlike The Party, The Killing of a Sacred Deer lingers as something to puzzle over. ‘Weird and disturbing’ was my initial impression. Online it’s summed up as a mystery thriller or, more widely, as psychological horror. Dogtooth, an earlier film, made in Greece by the same director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is judged ‘frighteningly funny’. Both are about families in which patriarchal control is wielded with obsessive rigidity.
The Killing immediately creates an uneasy sense of place, its generic city locations seeming fake, its hospital corridors noiseless. Flat stretches of dialogue poise on the deadpan edge of comic, until the ominous mood, made so present by the soundtrack and the movements of the camera, reminds us that doom is in the offing, its imminence rising and subsiding until it reaches a prolonged crescendo.
Colin Farrell plays Steven, a heart surgeon who is rule-bound in everything, including sex with his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, an ophthalmologist. Strict routines keep the lid on things: his children, his own alcoholism and the incipient violence only unleashed when Nemesis appears in the shape of Martin, a sinister teenager who threatens retribution for his father’s death under the knife in the operating theatre. Earlier, Martin has unsettled the protective facade of privilege he finds on a visit to the doctor’s home. Admiring it, he adds, almost neutrally: ‘I live in a not so nice house in a not so nice neighbourhood’.
With Martin’s threat events appear to turn supernatural. In the horror genre this tends to involve demons and nightmares. The Killing has a director who works with fellow Greeks (co-writing, cinematography, music) and its title evokes those ancient gods who terrified with their powers of life and death in Mediterranean daylight. The sacred deer refers to the animal killed by Agamemnon, incurring the wrath of the goddess Artemis. By becalming the sea, she prevents the Greek fleet he commands from setting sail to make war on Troy, and demands appeasement by the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia.
Parental power is rendered angrily impotent in Steven’s household when his children sicken. Both will die according to Martin’s decree unless Steven chooses one to kill. With the matter-of-factness of his dilemma, the film becomes increasingly surreal in tone. The tight coils of family loosen and rampant addiction replaces control – there’s so much smoking it made me want to cough, and simultaneously to laugh as release from the film’s severity.
Here the bourgeoisie is under siege, as it is in the films of Buñuel, where the social is ripped apart by the panics of the psyche in the face of discomfort and ridicule, the humiliation of a pattern from which there is no escape. Lanthimos’s focus is more ferociously on the family, his invoking of Greek myth more brutal than Buñuel in his ironic, and often very funny demolitions of Catholic culture.
I’d happily see every one of Buñuel’s films again. I’m less sure about returning to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but only because it is so weird and disturbing.
Not long after seeing it I went to a screening of Medea, made by Lars von Trier in 1988, one of several versions inspired by Euripides’ play. Medea’s story is that of a woman betrayed, a stranger far from her native land, who kills her children, not from lack of love, but perhaps for revenge, from the need to reassert her own power, or also, as this visually beautiful and strange film imagines, out of desperation.
The Greek myths are Ur-stories that show us people doing terrible as well as heroic things. They offer the spectacle of human suffering at history’s beginnings – war, exile, enslavement, parricide, fratricide and all the variants of family murder – and they also probe the emotions and impulses that can underlie these still-present tragedies: love, lust, fear, greed and the rest. There is nothing stranger than Greek myth, with its transformations and mysteries, its gods, monsters and decrees of fate. Yet in our cultural resources there is nothing more relevant to our understanding of human behaviour, because the myths, in their many ancient versions, retold across the centuries, speak of its roots, and, in the modern world, have become a kind of guide to the human unconscious.