5 stars for Yorgos Lanthimos’s best film so far
As we left the cinema my companion asked me what I thought of the film. ‘Brilliant,’ I said. She stared at me with incomprehension. ‘How anyone can say that film is brilliant I do not know.’ Explaining, arguing or justifying was pointless on either side and we walked to our bus in virtual silence.
Lanthimos divides people, he’s a Marmite director; there’s no middle way, you either think he is a genius or that he is an art-house poseur.
I thought this his best film to date. He has attracted a bigger budget, he has secured the loyalty and admiration of two distinguished actors, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. The narrative here is fluid, confident and, as ever with a Lanthimos film, mystifying, with much left intriguingly unexplained.
To enjoy the full horror of apprehension, you need to know the meaning of the title. In Greek myth, the king Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer. To placate Artemis, the goddess of hunting, and to spare his fleet from destruction, she demands that he sacrifice his daughter Iphegenia. When you know this tale you understand that you are going to be tortured by waiting to find out if the same story will play out here.
The film starts naturalistically with Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) living in a handsome house with palatial rooms, each one pristine. He is a successful cardiac surgeon, she is a successful ophthalmologist. They have two beautiful children. What could possibly be wrong? The first sign that all is not well is that they play a sex game called General Anaesthetic. Next, Steven has an oddly intimate relationship with the teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan). Martin has a gormless, unhealthy look to him but Steven is buying him expensive presents, meeting him often and inviting him back to the family home for no discernible reason. Then there is Colin Farrell’s appearance, much of his face, including his mouth, thickly hidden behind a dishevelled black beard and moustache.
Slowly we realize that Martin’s father has died on Dr Steven’s operating table. The infallible king of surgery, the ultra-successful man, has made a mistake but it is not one he can admit to. In fact his stated opinion is that if something goes wrong, it is always the anaesthetist’s fault. Later, his anaesthetist, in the grip of another kind of corruption, insists that it is always the other way around.
Soon we are into the surreal territory of earlier Lanthimos films. Buildings become prisons where there is no escape as horror, magic and warped logic descend. The man of science, the man in control, tries all the known remedies, desperately bullying colleagues for an answer to the bizarre sickness that strikes and could kill both his children and then his wife. But science can’t help because the family has been cursed and he is being punished for his sense of entitlement, his arrogance and lack of remorse, for being a heart surgeon who lacks heart. I was reminded here of George Bernard Shaw’s opinion in the preface to his play The Doctor’s Dilemma, that all professions are ‘conspiracies against the laity’, just as true now as it was in 1906.
Lanthimos has his own unique style but he seems to have been influenced by the work of two other directors: the icy command of Michael Haneke and the blending of gothic dream and mundane reality in the films of David Lynch. His subject matter, like theirs, is the deeply irrational nature of human thinking. He composes with geometric precision, often very long shots or using an extremely wide angle lens from a static or swooping camera, dwarfing the people. His camera is often slightly above or slightly below the actors’ eyelines, giving the film a voyeuristic quality and a feeling of unease about how far you can trust anything you are seeing.
Fine performances all round, clever use of classical music in the score, immaculate cinematography from Thimios Bakatakis, a mythical and brutal horror story deftly told that lives on in your mind: what’s not to like?