Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

All the animals

At the screening of Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the audience was divided, writes Soha Hesham 

All the animals
All the animals

Yorgos Lanthimos’s distinctive yet peculiar fusion of comedy, tragedy and science fiction in The Lobster (2015) won him the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, also starring Colin Farrell, the Greek filmmaker tries to do the same thing again. And it works — or seems to. The film was screened twice to a full house at the Panorama of European Film this year — unprecedented popularity — which drove Panorama director Marianne Khoury to organise two weeks of screening after the event closed.

Born in 1973, Lanthimos studied directing at Stavrakos Film School in Athens, and he directed dance theatre and advertising videos as well as short films and experimental plays; he was on the creative team behind the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. His debut feature was My Best Friend (2001), made together with director Lakis Lazopoulos. 

His next project, Kinetta, which he directed on his own, was nominated for the Golden Alexander Award at Thessaloniki Film Festival and made its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005. His third film Dogtooth received the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2009 and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. In 2011 his film Alps won the Osella Award for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival. All have been more or less in the style of The Lobster; but the response to them has varied.

In the city where The Lobster is set, by law single people are forced to spend 45 days at a hotel, at the end of which if they haven’t found a partner they can live with they must be transformed into an animal of their choice. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer the same absurdist philosophy prefers, but a mythological dimension is added, with references to the story of King Agamemnon offending the goddess Artemis, who curses him so that he is forced to kill his daughter Iphigenia. 

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a wealthy and famous surgeon who lives in a spacious house with a large garden with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), his daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and his younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Murphy’s gloved hands dripping blood as they rise over a beating heart open the film. 

But Murphy has a strange friend in Martin (Barry Keoghan), an immature teenager who, though emotionally unstable, is apparently to visit him at home and — finally — meet his wife. At the same time it is shown how Anna controls Steven’s life when at a party she refuses a drink of alcohol on his behalf. Dialogue is brief and repetitive, behaviour is emotionless (Anna pleasuring Steven by lying still while he begins to touch himself seems almost robotic) and characterisation is two-dimensional. 

The action begins with Martin’s apparently successful visit. Bob asks to see the hair on his armpits, seemingly fascinated by the machismo of hairy men, while Martin impresses Kim. On Martin’s insistence, in a strangely eerie scene, Steven returns the favour and meets Martin’s mother — a strange woman who keeps telling Steven he has beautiful hands and asking him to try her tart. Only then is it revealed that Steven is the surgeon responsible for the death of Martin’s father.

In one of the most intense scenes, while Steven claims he’s in a hurry and so forces Martin to finish what he has to say in seconds, Martin reveals the curse on Steven’s family. First they will lose the ability to walk, then they will refuse to eat, then their eyes will bleed before they die. If Steven sacrifices one family member, Martin says, he can save the others. When Bob loses the ability to walk and the doctors find nothing wrong with him, Steven is in such denial he drags him along the hospital corridor. But soon Kim follows suit… 

Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis brilliantly communicates the menace of the curse with his camera — through the corridors of the hospital, in the basement where Martin was confined for a while, and in the sight of children crawling like snakes. Barry Keoghan playing Martin is one of the strongest elements in the film: a curse in human form, which is brilliantly communicated. Nicole Kidman too is perfectly cast. But what does this strange combination of lifeless human beings and gory imagery leave us with?

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