“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov.
The above quote from Dostoevsky’s masterful work, The Brothers Karamazov (1878), is a an apt opening for the discussion of the films by Greek auteur, Yorgos Lanthimos. As a director, he presents emotionally complex and disturbing narratives but they follow relationships that are built specifically upon characters lying to themselves and to each other, elevated to astonishing and fantastical degrees. Lanthimos’ characters are not simply liars or telling small tales, but are often hiding an entire reality behind a farcical existence, whether it be the life of lies in Dogtooth (2009) or the industry built on a mourner’s desired self-deception in Alps (2012).
In Lanthimos’ films, people almost inexplicably benefit from lying to themselves, to the point where shattered illusions often lead to extreme violence. This Haneke-esque precariousness often lends his films an uncomfortable edge and makes them tense viewings. It seems strange to be discussing a director’s work in such a way when the actuality of his catalogue so far consists entirely of two films distributed in the west. While he is currently working on The Lobster (due in 2015), his two earlier and hard to find films, My Best Friend (2001) and Kinetta (2005) will sadly have to be missed from this analysis. Luckily, his later two films are as defined as they are idiosyncratic and an easy spot as the creation of a thematic auteur.
Dogtooth follows a family so gripped by its patriarchal system that the entire reality and perception of the unit is distorted to horrific proportions. The father (Christos Stergioglou) is lying to himself that, by bringing up his son and two daughter’s to be scared of leaving the house, is for their benefit rather than his. This idea is shown to be at its most extreme as all three of the “children” are in their early twenties and have clearly been brought up without a normal education; they believe that outside the house lies danger, that planes going over land in the garden and are in fact toys. They even believe that cats are deadly and end up killing one in fear with a set of hedge shearers.
The illusion, however, is being stretched by the natural instinct of their age, with the gradual questioning of the twisted father leading to some form of rebellion. The brother (Hristos Passalis), whose sexual demands are met by a paid guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) who visits on occasions, is not being brought up to replace his father’s patriarchal position (in spite of sleeping with his sister when the nurse is found out to be supplying them objects from the outside world), which suggests that this is more than simply the product of a male dominated family unit but the concluding product of a paranoid, power hungry father whose love has twisted into the most perverted kind of overprotection.
The father’s lies have completely deformed the emotional identities of his family, even that of his wife (Michele Valley) who has had to go along with the odd belief system as if entranced by some kind of quasi-religious deity. When the illusion finally begins to crumble, the violence spurts out of the characters; the father bludgeons his daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) with the videotape strapped to his hand while later she knocks out her “Dogtooth” with a small weight. This is the strange ceremony that allows the children to leave, though of course the rarity of losing a K-9 ultimately means that there is no intentional escape for the father’s offspring. Her pessimistic escape is therefore only possible through a lie of her own, as if the parents won’t catch on that her tooth didn’t come out by natural means. She runs and hides, lying through a physical rebellion before escaping in the boot of her father’s car.
Alps handles deception in a slightly different light. Whilst the entire narrative is again built upon it, it manifests as a form of comfort and of income for the characters. The “Alps” are a group of people who receive money for being stand-ins for loved ones of mourning relatives. They quite literally make a business of lying and of self-deception. The families pay several of the “Alps” to substitute recently lost family members, playing along with the deception in a most twisted form of grieving.
Whereas Dogtooth presented the disintegration caused by self-deception, Alps instead uses it to show an emotional stasis and purgatory; there’s no doubt that paying a substitute to act like your dead relative is going to help any emotional evolution in the long term. It reminds of a quote of Franz Kafka: “By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.” In other words, a falsity and an illusion is supposedly better than the reality of death. This ties again to Dogtooth but the participants in the lies of Alps tend to behave in a far less violent and different way.
The inner turmoil of being immersed in affection for being someone else turns several of the “Alps” to madness. One tries to hang herself while another becomes almost addicted to being a family’s dead daughter, to the point where she breaks into the house and disturbingly recites the lines the family have insisted on her speaking. The lies and self-deception that at first were meant to be cathartic and beneficial turn sour and unhealthy, resulting in the breakdown of the group and the scarring of the families.
Out of so many modern directors that deal with this sense of impossible self-deception, Yorgos Lanthimos addresses its moral quandaries most effectively. His characters deceive on such a level that his films enter an area of disturbia rarely seen outside of the work of Michael Haneke. The deceptions of Dogtooth and Alps are something that not only destroys the characters of the films, but one that makes the viewer grateful to be back in some form of truthful reality, even it is one with its own areas of distinct grey.