Lanthimos and Language [1/4]



Civilisation has to protect itself against the spectre of a world which could be free.

Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation


‘A Good Little Dad, a Good Little Mum, a Good Little Son’


Yorgos Lanthimos came to prominence when his 2009 film Dogtooth won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. The proximity of this to the 2008 Financial Crisis has led to the emergence of a small but rapidly-growing field of Lanthimos Studies that defines him as leader of the ‘Greek Weird Wave’. Guardian journalist Steve Rose coined the term, asking whether it is ‘just coincidence that the world’s most messed-up country is making the world’s most messed-up cinema?’, and Mario Psaras authored the first book-length study on the subject: The Queer Greek Weird Wave: Ethics, Politics, and the Crisis of Meaning.[1] Psaras suggests the events of 2008 ‘led to the sudden exposure of all the deficiencies of the Greek economy’ and ‘the scandalously corrupt Greek economic-political structure’, resulting in an ‘extremely painful ideological breakdown’.[2] In response to this ‘crisis of meaning’, the weird-wave ‘emerges as the unexpected medium through which the aesthetic provides a paradoxical cognitive and affective access to this unprecedented encounter’.[3] Though I do not ultimately subscribe to this notion and as such will pursue my argument through a different methodological framework, Psaras and his allies identify characteristics in Greek culture that strongly inform the focus of this essay; Psaras suggests that ‘the nation’s most characteristic narrative has been the one framed around the problematic triptych “Fatherland, Religion, Family”’.[4] The ways in which Lanthimos presents the family, its powers of behavioural and imaginative modification as a stabilising structure of neoliberal capitalism, the possible aesthetic strategies identifiable within his work for dismantling such power, and the ways in which all of these are manifested through language, will become my subject.

Before affirming theoretical links between the family, neoliberal capital, and language, I want to justify my decision to explore Lanthimos’ three most family-centric films – Dogtooth, Alps, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer – through an alternative methodological framework. Lanthimos himself, alongside other directors who have been identified as part of the weird-wave – including Athena Rachel Tsangari, Panos H. Koutras, and Dennis Iliadis – deny the existence of any such wave: Lanthimos, in conversation with various critics, has said that ‘the filmmakers themselves cannot identify it’, that ‘there is no foundation for it’, ‘no common philosophy’, and that the only thing connecting these directors is that they ‘were able to access a lot of art cinema, more than previous generations’.[5] Lanthimos has also said that the filmmakers in question ‘just make the films we want to make and try to progress’; it is worth noting that ‘Greek audiences have not turned out to see these films’, and that Lanthimos’ desire to “progress” has taken him away from Greece, now working mostly in America whilst living in London.[6] In light of this, I will not be analysing Lanthimos’ work through Psaras’ lens. I argue that the family in Lanthimos’ work can be understood as a representation of what Slavoj Zizek has called the ‘systemic, anonymous’ violence of global neoliberal capitalism.[7]

However, I will not be disregarding all of the work done in support of the weird-wave; much of the close-analysis produced by these critics will become immensely useful. As a lone but poignant example, Stanos Metzidakis was the first critic to confirm my suspicion that Lanthimos’ use of language was meaningful and that a literary approach to these films could be beneficial; he suggests that much of Lanthimos’ brilliance lies ‘precisely in the imaginative, unstable gaps between […] objects, beings, words, and expressions’, and that a ‘linguistic-literary approach functions as a very useful supplement to more formalistic cinematic readings’.[8] I remain indebted to the work undertaken by all these critics and will reference them throughout, but special credit must go to Metzidakis for suggesting a linguistic approach to Lanthimos’ work that I believe is significantly lacking in the critical body surrounding his work.

Now to the methodologies I deploy as an alternative to the weird-wave. The family has long been recognised as a supporting unit of capitalism. Louis Althusser identified it as an ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ (ISA), a ‘distinct and specialised institution’ that enforces the ideology of the ruling class via private institutions.[9] Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women continues this line of thought, and its publication during the genesis of the Regan- and Thatcherite policies that formed the neoliberal model of capitalism that has become hegemonic suggests a continued relevance. Vogel recognises that the family should be situated ‘in the context of capitalist social reproduction’, that the family acts as a ‘kin-based site for the reproduction of labour-power’.[10] In their introduction, Susan Ferguson and David McNally add that in order to secure ‘current and future supplies of labour-power, capitalism requires institutional mechanisms through which it can exercise control over biological reproduction, family-forms, child-rearing, and maintenance of a gender order’.[11] Alain Badiou’s 2005 book The Century extends these ideas into the 21st century: it is ‘very striking to see that, as the [twentieth] century draws to a close, the family has once more become a consensual and practically unassailable value’. Today, he argues, life ‘amounts to being a good little dad, a good little mum, a good little son’.[12]

This is evident in contemporary politics: the family has, as Mark Fisher notes, ‘assumed a totally dominant ideological position’ and become ‘part of a massive restoration of power and authority’, a tool used by conservative governments to attain, retain, and utilise power to stabilise and extend neoliberal values.[13] The most striking example of this at time of writing are the recent presidential elections in Poland. Andrezj Duda, the re-elected leader of the Law and Justice Party, began his first term espousing anti-Islamic rhetoric, strong Catholic values and vehement support for big-business, and was able to win this year’s election by adding support for “traditional” families and opposing LGBTQIA+ rights. Since the election, he has referred to such rights as an ‘ideology’ more destructive than communism, and a third of Polish districts have declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’.[14] This is a global trend wherein so-called “traditional family values” are advocated by leaders to build popular support for policy platforms that are both socially and fiscally conservative and has also been deployed to varying degrees in the UK, US, Hungary, Brazil, India, Japan, and Australia. Vogel suggests these ‘capitalist dynamics establish definite limits on the possible range of institutions and practices of social reproduction’; it is the limits set by the family, and how these limits are linguistically defined and challenged, that I hope to explore in Lanthimos’ work.[15]

Lacanian psychoanalysis’ central concerns sit within the paradigmatic triangle of family, political power, and language; it thus provides a methodological starting point. Developing Freud, Lacan describes how language is deployed within the Oedipal matrix to subjectivise and interpellate subjects within the capitalist Family ISA. Lacan defines a Symbolic Order that comprises the social fabric of our world through language, that exists logically and chronologically before every Subject in a symbolic chain that ‘has been unfolding since the beginning of time’.[16] When a child is born, it must ‘choose to submit to the Other, to accept a language that is not “one’s own”’ to become subjectivised.[17] This becomes problematic when one considers the power of the Father to produce ‘phallic signification’ or meaningful discourse. The Name of the Father ‘is the essential mediating element of the Symbolic world and its structuration’, and is ‘essential to all articulation of human language’; the Father ‘has the function of signifying the whole signifying system, of authorising its existence’.[18] Through this power, the Father establishes fantasmatic coordinates for the child in accordance with which they come to understand the world; this grants the Father an unparalleled agency in establishing the imaginative limits of the world. The Lacanian father originates with, but is not limited, to the literal Father; the power of phallic signification also lies with “Fathers” of political systems. The fantasmatic limits enforced by the Political Father determine the diversity of political imagination, and therefore possibility of meaningful political change, in the minds of his “children”.

This essay begins with a Lacanian analysis of language in Lanthimos’ breakthrough feature Dogtooth. Dogtooth depicts the life of a middle-class Greek family living on a small and secluded estate. The wife and children’s access to the outside world is strictly controlled; only the Father is permitted to leave the bounds of the walls, and he rules with unwavering, unchallenged, authoritarian might. This control includes their access to language; any word that describes something from ‘the Outside’ is resignified to something ‘Inside’, something which exists within the domestic bounds of the Father’s rule. The Father exploits his power of phallic signification to construct a linguistically closed-system. As a result, his children are never fully subjectivised, existing as partial objects in his regime. The limits of the garden wall become the limits of the children’s imaginations and thus the limits of political possibility.  Following Ben Tryer, I argue this represents a Lacanian phobia; by applying a new signifier to signifieds the Father is able to define the Outside as a phobic element. However, any Outside element that finds its way into the house without his knowledge, such as movies or music, poses an existential threat to this carefully constructed order. Moreover, the children’s total belief in the Name of the Father almost backfires when, in a moment of Lacanian over-orthodoxy, the children take the Father’s word more literally than he does. This leads to an unprecedented, but ultimately failed, escape attempt. Not only does Dogtooth present ‘in an extreme form the ordinary gestures and habits, the storytelling and tricks of discipline, of so-called normal family life’, it also reminds one of social conservatism’s favourite slogan: ‘if you stay inside, you are protected’.[19] In Fisher’s words, ‘Lanthimos is demonstrating what the ideal conditions for such conservatism would actually need to be’, ‘the outside must be totally pathologized: the children have to become literally xenophobic, terrified of everything that lies beyond the limits of their “protected” enclave’.[20]

How can these regimes of linguistic and imaginative control be meaningfully challenged? For Lacan, the ghost’s place ‘between two deaths’ grants it a unique power to destabilise the Symbolic that strictly regulates what is alive and meaningful and what is not. The ghost threatens to expose subjects to the pre-Oedipal Real, all that exists Outside of the Symbolic’s domain. Before going further, I want to invoke a theoretical concept which links the Outside of the Oedipal-Symbolic to the possibility of political change, adding a revolutionary dimension to the spectre that helps situate later analysis as part of a wider struggle against capitalist constraint.

Hauntology – a neologism coined by Jacques Derrida in his 1994 book Spectres of Marx, and developed by Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life, is that concept. Like the Lacanian ghost, the hauntological ghost is the result of a ‘failed mourning’ that threatens the status quo through its presence; the ghost ‘has no being in itself, but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet’.[21] Importantly, Derrida’s ghost is also Marx and Engel’s spectre of communism: ‘a virtuality whose threatened coming was already playing a part in undermining the present state of things’.[22] Therefore, the ghost not only threatens to invoke a Lacanian pre-Oedipal Real, but this Real which exists beyond the bounds of the Oedipal-Symbolic can simultaneously be understood as a Real of alternative political possibility beyond the Symbolic bounds of capitalism; the haunting presence of such possibility threatens to destabilise the institutional structures upon which capitalist ideology stands. As Fisher states in Capitalist Realism, ‘one strategy against Capitalist Realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us’, because these Reals represent ‘the outside of that which is; of capitalism; of reality as we really know it’.[23] I ask my reader to understand that when I am talking about the Real Outside of the Oedipal matrix, I am simultaneously talking about a realm of alternative political possibility and the ways in which ghostly intrusions into the family also represent the intrusive threat of political change. My analysis of Alps and The Killing of a Sacred Deer tests the extent to which spectral figures therein function as agents of destabilising political possibility. Specifically, my close analysis of Alps – wherein the film’s protagonist Monte Rosa is hired by grieving families to act in place of their recently deceased relatives and aid the mourning process – will probe the limits of how useful a Lacanian understanding of the spectre and its power to induce the uncanny can be in challenging the capitalist Oedipal matrix.

The Symbolic that constitutes the Inside of the family and of capitalism functions as a means of avoiding the Real Outside by continually reproducing desire; ‘desire is always a desire for itself to be continued’.[24] However, if language is the primary route away from the Real, then it must also represent a possible route back to it; language is ‘the only instrument we have which can keep us in touch with the “uncanny”, what Freud called “das Unheimliche”’, because it ‘directs us to that horrible void’.[25] Fisher summarises the uncanny’s most prevalent characteristic: ‘repetition and doubling, themselves an uncanny pair which double and repeat each other, seem to be at the heart of every “uncanny” phenomena’.[26] Therefore where Psaras’ analysis considers the haunting doubling of bodies in Alps, my analysis will primarily focus on the uncanny linguistic repetitions that pervade the film. Whether these repetitions emanate from Monte Rosa acting in the space of a dead relative or from the overwrought clichés that dominate much of the remaining dialogue, the film has an uncanny effect by suggesting that the desires represented through the Symbolic are not the desires of the person that speaks them; their desires are not their own, they originate elsewhere and are destined to endlessly repeat. The stabilising but insidious power of language is exposed. Though Monte Rosa’s spectral qualities do successfully invoke the uncanny, she is ultimately a failed ghost. This is because her desire to repeat is not driven by a desire to destabilise Oedipal matrices. Rather, her desire is opposite: to return to an Oedipal matrix. It becomes clear that due to her Mother’s death and her Father’s romantic involvement with a new woman, Monte Rosa feels exiled from her own family and her spectral repetitions, though uncanny, do not represent an authentic and sustained threat to the family or capital, but rather a protracted and thoroughly Oedipal route back to the womb.

Contrastingly, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos presents an effective and fatal ghost. At time of writing, very little serious criticism has been written on this film. However, this provides a rare opportunity to extend and modify my spectral reading of Alps into hitherto unexplored terrain. To understand why Martin, the film’s antagonist, is such a powerful entity requires a theoretical development of the Lacanian spectre. The limitations embodied by Monte Rosa are, to some extent, also the limits of traditional psychoanalysis: desire, always-already caught up in the Symbolic and therefore always-already caught up in the family, can only be directed within, or in relation to, Oedipal structures. Though, as I will later describe, the Lacanian notion of ‘drive’ goes someway to explaining this limitation, a Deleuzoguattarian reframing of the spectre based on the pair’s 1972 volume Anti-Oedipus accommodates far more subversive potentials for the spectral figure to meaningfully break the flows of desire and language that are otherwise constrained to the confines of the Oedipal matrix and, in the process, pose a meaningful threat to the capitalistic ideology they underpin.

Anti-Oedipus posed a revolutionary intervention into psychoanalysis, and identified the family as one of those ‘totalities which produce a blinkered consciousness’ and ‘sustain these totalities in our subdued unconscious’.[27] It suggests that psychoanalysis’ obsession with and desire to “cure” the family make it complicit in capitalistic ideology: ‘Freud’, Deleuze and Guattari declare, ‘is the Luther and the Adam Smith of psychiatry’.[28] Just as Marx brought political economy to a point of ‘autocritique’, they see their own ‘material psychiatry’ as bringing ‘Oedipus to the point of its own autocritique’.[29] However, Anti-Oedipus should be understood as an ‘internal reversal’, rather than an outright rejection, of psychoanalysis; major concepts like repression and the unconscious remain, but they are transformed to ‘give support to their revolutionary paradigm’, ‘to overturn the ideological apparatus of capitalism and liberate desire’.[30] As such, at no point do I ever discard Lacan; I simply invoke Deleuze and Guattari to expand and complicate the ways in which spectral hauntings can be usefully understood.

How exactly do Deleuze and Guattari suggest desire should be liberated, and how does this impact my reading of The Killing of a Sacred Deer? Deleuze and Guattari’s most important polemical target is the way in which traditional psychoanalysis defines desire in terms of lack, of what is ‘missing’; in contrast, they argue that ‘desire is productive, it can be productive only in the real world and can produce only reality’.[31] This endows ‘every unfolding of desire’, whether it occurs in ‘a family or a school in the neighbourhood’, with a revolutionary potential in the way it ‘tests the established order and sends shockwaves through the social field’; ‘desire is revolutionary because it is always seeking more connections’.[32] I argue that Martin represents a ghostly desiring-machine; by enacting a process of ‘becoming-ghost’ – a term recently coined by Richard Gilman-Opalsky that plays on Guattari’s anti-Oedipal concept of ‘becoming-woman’ – Martin is able to become a tool of familial deterritorialisation. He infiltrates the Murphy family – a typical upper-middle class Midwestern household whose idyllic existence is built upon linguistic structures of transaction, exchange, and cliché – and whose patriarch, Stephen, a surgeon, oversaw the death of Martin’s own father on the operating table. Martin’s linguistic tactics that shatter Steven’s linguistic economy through his use of a concise, determined syntax that demands rather than exchanges or transacts achieves two things. First, he gets mortal revenge for his Father’s death by facilitating the murder of Stephen’s son and thus settles the Symbolic debt that gives rise to his ghostliness. Second and more importantly, by tricking Stephen’s daughter, Kim, into falling in love with him, Martin undermines Stephen’s godlike power of phallic signification and creates new desirous connections that break the flows holding the Murphy’s Oedipal matrix together. He then disappears leaving the Murphy family, as well as the language and desires that held it together, fractured beyond repair.

[1] Marios Psaras, The Queer Greek Weird Wave: Ethics, Politics, and the Crisis of Meaning, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] Peter Strickland, ‘Yorgos Lanthimos’, BOMB, 135, (Spring 2016), p. 159; Steve Rose, ‘Attenberg, Dogtooth, and the weird wave of Greek cinema’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <theguardian.com>; Jonathan Romney, ‘Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Lobster, on his wild, star-studded life of Queen Anne’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <theguardian.com>.

[6] Strickland, ‘Lanthimos’, p. 159; Jimmy DeMetro, qtd. in: Eric Kohn, ‘The Favourite Director Yorgos Lanthimos Reveals the Method to His Madness’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <indiewire.com>.

[7] Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, (New York: Picador, 2008), p. 13.

[8] Stamos Metzidakis, ‘No Bones to Pick with Lanthimos’s Film Dogtooth’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 32.2, (October 2014), p. 367-8.

[9] Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <marxists.org>.

[10] Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), p. 176.

[11] Ibid., pp. xxv and xxvi.

[12] Ibid. 

[13] Mark Fisher, ‘Dogtooth: The Family Syndrome’, Film Quarterly, 64.4, (Summer 2011), p. 25.

[14] [Unsigned Article] ‘Polish election: Andrzej Duda says LGBT “ideology” worse than communism’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <bbc.co.uk>; Ana Oppenheim, ‘Why is Poland So Conservative?’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <novaramedia.com>.

[15] Vogel, Women, p. xxxii.

[16] Jacques Lacan qtd. in: Ben Tryer, ‘This Tongue Is Not My Own: Dogtooth, Phobia and the Paternal Metaphor’, Uncorrected Manuscript, last accessed 19 August 2020, <academia.edu>, p. 18.

[17] Tryer, Tongue, p. 18.

[18] Jacques Lacan, Seminaire IV, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, (Paris: Seuil, 1994), p. 364; Jacques Lacan, Le Seminaire livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1998), p. 240.

[19] Fisher, ‘Family Syndrome’, pp. 27 and 22.

[20] Ibid., pp. 25-6.

[21] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, (London: Zero Books, 2014), p. 49; Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 82.

[22] Fisher, Ghosts, p. 44.

[23] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009), p. 18; Matt Colquhoun, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy, and the Fisher-Function, (London: Repeater Books, 2020), p. 65.

[24] Slavoj Zizek qtd. in: Sophie Fiennes, dir., The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, (UK: P Guide Productions/Zeitgeist Films, 2012), [on DVD: Channel 4, 2012].

[25] Slavoj Zizek qtd. in: Hedwig Schwall, ‘Lacan, Or an Introduction to The Realms of Unknowing’, Literature and Theology, 11.2, (1997), p. 142; Jacques Lacan qtd. in: Stanizai, Ehsan Azari, ‘The Uncanny: Between Freud and Lacan’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <nida.edu.au>.

[26] Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie, (London: Repeater Books, 2016), p. 9.

[27] Colquhoun, Egress, p. 155.

[28] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 323.

[29] Ibid., p. 130.

[30] Luke Caldwell, ‘Schizophrenizing Lacan: Deleuze, [Guattari], and Anti-Oedipus’, Intersections, 10.3, (2009), p. 21.

[31] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 34.

[32] Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari qtd. in: Colquhoun, Egress, p. 230.

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