Like the undulating rhythms of our seas and oceans, film waves have been a regular occurrence in cinema since the 1950s. They have appeared in India, the UK, Poland, France, Latin America, Hungary, the US, Germany, France again (in the early 1980s), Scandinavia and Romania. But nowhere is the definition of the word ‘wave’ – ‘the propagation of disturbances from place to place in a regular and organised way’ – more appropriate than with the group of films termed the Greek Weird Wave. With Poor Things coming soon to cinemas, we’re revisiting the movement that brought its director Yorgos Lanthimos to international attention.
As with most film waves, the Greek Weird Wave was not defined by the filmmakers themselves, but by critics. It saw in a group of films by the directors Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, Chevalier), Panos H Koutras (Strella), Yannis Economides (Knifer) and Argyris Papadimitropoulos (Suntan) work that drew on unsettling times – a country profoundly affected by the 2008 global economic upheaval and social unrest that impacted all areas of society. Christos Nikou’s Apples, too, sees a Greek filmmaker whose work chimes perfectly with the times. So, what are the elements that comprise this unique film wave?
a Cool Gaze
Dogtooth (2009) was the international breakthrough for this loose movement. A family of five – parents, and a grown-up son and daughters – live in an enclosed compound. The siblings have never left it. Instead, they play out life within this limited environment. Evincing a tone similar to the work of the great Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Lanthimos’ drama evinces a cool, distanced gaze, which has not only come to represent the Weird Wave’s style, but also much of the director’s subsequent work, from Alps (2011) to The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017).
It’s not that the characters in these films are odd. Everything they do appears to be normal within the worlds they exist. But there’s something just a little off about their behaviour. Take Ariane Labed, the star of both Attenberg (2010) and Alps. Her characters are reservoirs of compassion and empathy. But the way she exhibits those qualities seems off-kilter. It forces us not only to question her characters’ motives, but also our own when it comes to friendship, charity and altruism.
If the family in Dogtooth looked strange, just take a look at the Murphys in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. They appear to live the perfect, domestic life as outlined by the American Dream: success, material riches, emotional contentment… But the very fact that Barry Keoghan’s seemingly sociopathic Martin can so easily ensconce himself within their lives suggests something is very wrong. Each of these films questions the surface appearance of lives that may, beneath their brittle veneer, be less than desirable
Lanthimos and Tsangari in particular have developed a style of humour that is uniquely their own. It might not be for everyone, but films like Alps and Attenberg become richer with repeat viewings. And like the best satires, the humour can be a bitter pill. The same can be said for Nikou’s use of humour in Apples.
Look like a human. Speaks like an alien. It’s as though Lanthimos watched The Stepford Wives far too much when he was young. Language with emotion stripped away can suddenly seem so different. (A topic that Oliver Sachs explored with relish, and an equal amount of amusement, in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.) In Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster, and particularly The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos has his actors speak lines in a neutral tone. The effect is funny at first and highlights the banality of most daily conversations. But as the drama becomes darker, the effect of this approach adds significantly to the way the filmmaker deconstructs the American Dream.
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