‘An Otherworldly Presence’
Lanthimos’ 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer focuses on the Murphy family, whose ruling patriarch Stephen, a successful surgeon, has constructed a Symbolic discourse designed to limit flows of desire and thus maintain his Oedipal matrix. Where the Father in Dogtooth uses a phobic-phallic logic, Stephen uses the language of transaction and exchange to ensure that the status of his wealthy mid-western family is upheld. As in Alps, the Murphy’s Oedipal matrix encounters and is threatened by a spectral figure. However, where Monte Rosa’s power to haunt was limited by her own Oedipal desires that were reinforced at the institutional level, Martin – who disrupts Stephen’s transactional linguistic economy through his spectral demand –
represents a much more threatening and powerful kind of ghost. Understanding Martin’s effectiveness requires a reframing of the spectral figure. Like a Lacanian ghost, Martin comes to settle a Symbolic debt incurred in his Father’s death. However, Deleuze and Guattari’s internal reversal of psychoanalysis undertaken in Anti-Oedipus alters our understanding of the spectre and explains how Martin can settle the debt whilst simultaneously causing irreversible disruption to the Oedipal flows of desire that maintain Stephen’s authority. By undertaking a process of ‘becoming-ghost’, Martin embodies the injustices done to him by institutionalised capitalism with an unrelenting and undesiring ‘drive’ that Monte Rosa was lacking. This allows him, first, to break apart Stephen’s linguistic economy of transaction through a lexicon of unwavering imperatives that reject desirous exchange. Second, to act as a Deleuzoguattarian desiring-machine that seeks to forge new desirous connections wherever possible and, in doing so, direct them away from the ruling patriarch, shattering his Oedipal triangle.
From the film’s outset Lanthimos demonstrates Stephen’s total control over his family and the American medical establishment. The opening frame makes evident his godlike power: a brightly lit close-up of a beating heart undergoing surgery. The heart is exposed, vulnerable, and at this moment entirely at Stephen’s mercy; he is ‘modern divinity, holding mortality in his hands’. In a scene shortly afterwards, Stephen attends a medical dinner with his wife. Lanthimos emphasises the luxury: expensive black-tie, more expensive black dresses, and golden chandeliers abound. Stephen stands behind a lectern and delivers an after-dinner speech centring on ‘scientific breakthroughs’, ‘new treatments’, laced with polite jokes. The hall is silent as his audience, including his adoring wife, look on in admiration. Stephen is not just a patriarch at home, but a man who commands a great influence in his professional life too; he is a man with everything to lose. The control Stephen commands over the operating table and the medical profession is mirrored in his private life. The night before the ball, Stephen chats to his wife Anna as they prepare for bed. The small talk ends and the atmosphere changes; Anna looks at Stephen and whispers ‘general anaesthetic?’ He nods, she strips to her underwear, and lays diagonally across the bed before letting her body go limp as if totally anaesthetised. Her body is Stephen’s to do with as he pleases: he rearranges her, carefully posing her limbs to his liking, before roughly pulling off her underwear. In the final wide shot of the room Anna’s naked body lies totally still and totally exposed, arranged to Stephen’s taste as if she were a mannequin; his power is ubiquitous.
Stephen maintains and enforces this power linguistically. Developing an argument posed by Liz Baessler who suggests that ‘the conversations that define [the Murphys] are transactional in nature’, I argue Stephen oversees a Symbolic linguistic-economy of transaction and exchange that is designed to generate reciprocated, balanced flows of Oedipal desire. One evening the family sit around their dining table in a luxurious room befitting a family of their status. Kim, the daughter, has just asked her Father about going to a friend’s party. Bob, the son with luscious shoulder-length hair, asks ‘if Kim goes to the party, can I go with her?’ Stephen defers a firm answer, and instead instigates a transaction: ‘Bob, you promised me you’d get a haircut, and you still haven’t done it’; Bob looks at his plate dejected and the system of exchange is revealed: the children’s access to pleasure relies upon the transactional fulfilment of whatever Symbolic criteria he ordains. The darker resonances of this tactic emerge later in the film when both children are suffering from the debilitating disease with which Martin plagues the family. In vain, the children attempt to bargain their way out of this suffering using the same transactional language their Father thrust upon them when they were healthy. Kim promises to ‘never forget her chores’. Bob, his legs failing him and death imminent, drags himself along the hardwood floors to the family kitchen. Here, he finds a pair of scissors and begins cutting off his hair. He presents himself to his Father: ‘Dad, look, I cut my hair, just like you wanted me to’, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you and get a haircut right away’ he adds, before turning and dragging himself away, ‘I’m going to water the plants now’. Before he leaves, Bob plays his ace card: ‘I’ve decided I want to become a cardiologist, not an ophthalmologist’ – his Mother’s profession – ‘I think I prefer what you do’. Stephen’s control of Oedipal desire through transactional language is so ingrained that the children believe it can save them from mortal threat. However, this tactic only works when Stephen can meet his perceived godliness and reward a fulfilled transaction with Symbolic recognition. In this instance, where he is totally powerless, the failed transaction leads to an excess of desire that the children cannot meaningfully direct towards their Father; Martin later capitalises on these excesses.
In order to understand Martin’s spectral effectiveness, what separates him and Monte Rosa require clarification. Monte Rosa was a failed ghost because of her underlying Oedipal desire; she wanted to return to an Oedipal matrix rather than disrupt it. Contrastingly, Martin exhibits spectral drive throughout the film. Zizek explains this dichotomy: ‘Drive’, in contrast to desire, ‘persists in a certain demand, it is “mechanical” insistence that cannot be caught up in dialectical [or transactional] trickery: I demand something and I persist in it to the end’. Effective spectres ‘address to us some unconditional demand’ and ‘incarnate pure drive without desire’. Martin engages in the ‘settling of accounts’ for his Father’s death, ‘persisting beyond physical exasperation’, ‘insisting on suffering’, ‘with no trace of compromise or hesitation’. This is reflected in a lexicon laden with imperatives and short definitive statements which, through its non-conditional and demanding nature, disrupts the carefully balanced and triangulated desires that Stephen’s transactional linguistic-economy maintains. It is almost halfway through the film before Martin reveals the rules and stakes of the game at play. After insisting on Stephen’s presence at the hospital cafeteria – ‘don’t stand me up like last time’ – Martin explains that they have reached:
‘…that critical moment we both knew would come someday. That time is now. Just as you killed a member of my family, now you gotta kill a member of your family to balance things out, understand? […] They will all get sick and die. Bob will die. Kim will die. Your wife will die. One: paralysis of the limbs. Two: refusal of food to the point of starvation. Three: bleeding from the eyes. Four: death. Don’t worry you won’t get sick. You’ve just gotta stay calm, that’s all.’
Though the demand may be transactional in nature the language of the demand is not. Martin speaks in short, sharp, imperatives, dictating when these ‘critical’ moments occur and what Stephen has ‘gotta’ do. He tells Stephen precisely what ‘is’ happening, what ‘will’ happen, and sets out an unnegotiable ‘critical’ demand. The terrifying list of symptoms only emphasise Martin’s authority and the demand’s inevitably. When Martin asks the patriarch if he ‘understands?’, it becomes clear that he is re-writing the laws by which the Murphys live and die, a power previously held exclusively by Stephen.
Martin’s drive short-circuits Stephen’s linguistic economy. As Bob’s condition worsens, Stephen attempts another transaction. Assuming that Bob’s symptoms are ‘psychosomatic’, Stephen shares a secret in the hope that Bob will confess to insincerity: ‘I’ll tell you a secret, one I’ve never told anyone before, and you tell me one’, ‘whoever tells the best secret wins’. Stephen confesses to masturbating his sleeping alcoholic father to climax and comparing the father’s semen with his own. Bob, stunned but genuinely suffering under Martin’s spectral curse, has nothing to offer in return; the patriarch humiliates himself and reveals his own Oedipal desires for negligible gain. Moreover, Stephen’s family begin to use his linguistic tactics against him; transaction being the only discourse Stephen has previously ordained meaningful, they deem it their only hope of bargaining themselves out of Martin’s demand. Anna visits Stephen’s anaesthesiologist whom she agrees to masturbate in return for information regarding the operation that killed Martin’s Father. Within this transaction another emerges: the anaesthesiologist tells Anna that ‘a surgeon can kill a patient, but an anaesthesiologist never can’, only minutes after Stephen has told her that ‘an anaesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can’. The integrity of Stephen’s marriage is forfeit for the sake of a transaction, but the self-cancelling transactional language Stephen deploys in the workplace means this forfeit is worthless. Anna later calls at Martin’s home in an attempt to save herself and her children: ‘if [Stephen] caused this tragic thing to happen, I don’t understand why I should have to pay the price, why my children should have to pay the price’. By attaching a ‘price’ to every interaction with his family and only granting Symbolic recognition through the fulfilment of a transaction, Stephen unwittingly teaches his family the linguistic logic with which they abandon him.
This leads to the Symbolic collapse of Stephen’s world. Stephen goes to Martin’s house to demand an ultimatum. He screams and shouts at the doors and windows, but no reply comes. Roles are reversed; he who once ruled the familial Inside has been cast Outside by a child. After confessing the botched surgery to Anna, Stephen climbs into the shower to bawl, naked and alone; language fails him and the silent Real bursts in, the omnipotent Father is reduced to a childlike state of vulnerability. When Stephen finally accepts Martin’s mortal demand, he blindfolds his family in the living room before spinning around and taking pot-shots with a rifle until he hits someone; transactional balance has been reduced to helpless randomness. Camerawork mirrors Stephen’s fall from power. The camera in Dogtooth reflected the gaze of the patriarch, trapping his children and severing them into partial objects; here it is as if ‘the characters are being watched by omnipresent gods’, ‘an otherworldly presence’. The camera wanders high and low around characters, ‘stalking them through hospitals and luxury homes alike’ the camera becomes ‘revolutionary’ by being ‘torn from the Subject and freely thrown round’ because it allows viewers to ‘see ourselves “from Outside”’. Locations bolster this effect: Lanthimos asked that the hospital ‘looked state-of-the-art and new, that it wasn’t a Gothic-type old hospital’ because ‘it needed to feel like all the scientific resources were there’. As Stephen walks around his cutting-edge hospital repeatedly being told his children are ‘all fine’ according to scans, the eerie camera makes it increasingly evident that Stephen’s Symbolic kingdom has been invaded and usurped by an Outside presence.
Zizek provides a link between the Lacanian model of the spectre and the work of Deleuze and Guattari; this helps to overtly politicize Martin’s ghostly demand and makes possible a reading of The Killing of a Sacred Deer that goes beyond the settling of Symbolic debt to also consider the ways in which Martin redirects and disrupts Oedipal flows of desire. Zizek suggests that ‘the starting point of a Lacanian reading of Deleuze should be a brutal direct substitution: whenever Deleuze and Guattari talk about “desiring machines” one should substitute this term with drive’, with Lacan himself emphasising the ‘“machinic” character of drive’ in Seminar XI. Deleuze and Guattari define a desiring-machine as an entity which ‘is at work everywhere’, that ‘breathes, ‘eats’, ‘shits’, ‘fucks’, and most importantly is able to both ‘produce a flow’ of desire but also ‘interrupt’ one; ‘all the time, flows and interruptions’. Therefore, if one can simultaneously understand Martin as a Lacanian ghost riddled with drive and as a Deleuzoguattarian desiring machine, then I argue that Martin’s greatest act of revenge on Stephen is not the central eye-for-an-eye demand, but the way in which Martin subversively interrupts and redirects the closed Oedipal flows upon which Stephen relies for power and status.
This allows for a revolutionary reframing of Martin that recognises his demand as an act of ‘becoming-ghost’, a term recently coined by Richard Gilman-Opalsky that functions as a spectral update to Guattari’s anti-oedipal concept of becoming-woman. Rather than just a callous tit-for-tat attack on Stephen’s private life, Martin’s demand can be understood as a self-conscious and politically-motivated attack on the neoliberal system that the Murphy family represents and upholds. Gilman-Opalsky argues that capitalism, ‘a social system full of exploitation and human suffering’, ‘should be haunted by the miseries it proliferates and sanctions’. What is therefore required, he suggests, ‘is to become the ghost ourselves, to become the ones who haunt’. In particular, this is the task of those that have suffered the most under capitalism’s mechanisms: ‘the ghosts of those who have died from maltreatment, abandonment, egregious disregard’, and in doing so come to self-consciously represent ‘part of a reckoning with a history of institutional – and institutionalised – violence’. Martin and his mother have suffered in just this way, having seen Stephen, first, get away with the clinically negligent murder of his Father without punishment and, second, be rewarded for this negligence with increased wealth, security, and comfort. In this sense, Martin becomes a revolutionary figure because the capitalist world ‘cannot rid itself of its ghosts without becoming something else’; by inviting the ghost into his Oedipal castle, Stephen exposes his family’s carefully balanced and strictly maintained desirous flows to an anti-capitalist and pre-Oedipal Outside Real in the form of a spectral desiring machine that seeks to disrupt and redirect those flows by insistently establishing ‘new connections’ which transmute the family unit in the process.
In light of this it is Martin’s direct and self-conscious meddling with desire, rather than his insistence upon mortal revenge, that requires long-overdue analysis. In Janardhan’s review, she notes that Martin represents ‘an outsider who will infiltrate the apparent solidity of the family unit, working his way into their affections one by one’; the first characters who have the ‘affections’ meddled with in this way are the film’s mothers, both Anna and Martin’s Mother. In an early scene where Stephen is invited to Martin’s house for dinner with him and his Mother, Martin attempts to engineer a disruptive affair between the adult pair. When the two adults are left alone, Martin’s Mother compliments Stephen’s ‘white’, ‘soft’, ‘clean’ doctor’s hands before beginning to kiss them and suck his thumbs. When Stephen gets uncomfortable and pulls away, the Mother placates him by saying ‘it’s okay, he [Martin] wants this as much as I do’. Not only have Martin’s desires, taken primacy over Stephen’s, Martin has begun to test the strength and integrity of Stephen’s Oedipal triangle. This becomes even more explicit towards the end of the film. Stephen has secretly abducted Martin and trapped him in the Murphy basement, hoping to somehow intimidate or torture him into forfeiting his plan. When Anna secretly goes to Martin and kneels before the boy, kissing his feet one by one and showing him the deference of a deity, it becomes clear that all the desire Anna had once directed towards Stephen for security, safety, and stability has now been divested in Martin. As such, the Oedipal triangle is ruptured and desire begins to spill across the border from Inside to Outside.
However, by far the best case-study of Martin’s desirously-deterritorializing effect can be seen in his relationship with Kim. Almost as soon as she meets Martin, Kim begins redirecting once-Oedipal desire outwards, beyond the bounds of the family and towards the ghost. As Kim, Bob, and Martin all sit upstairs, Kim demands Martin show them his underarm hair, comparing it directly to her Father’s before adding ‘you have a great body’. Moreover, in a scene where her and Martin sit alone, Kim stands up, drops her dress for Martin, and then silently assumes the ‘general anaesthetic’ position that her mother had earlier performed for her Father. This uncanny repetition of bodily postures demonstrates that Kim’s desire for, and deference to, her father has been interrupted and rerouted by Martin who responds imperceptibly to Kim’s advances; she desires him completely, but the spectral drive desires nothing. This shift becomes increasingly evident as the children become ill. Both siblings lie in hospital, bed-ridden and unable to walk. Kim receives a phone call from Martin; he is stood in the car park and asks to see her. After days of scientific testing at the hands of her Father and his colleagues – all of which reveal nothing – Kim miraculously stands, walks to the window and stands there until Martin is content before immediately collapsing back into her bed. This moment in particular emphasises Martin’s spectral qualities. Initially, the viewer sees Martin’s figure at a distance in the car park, but does not hear his voice and is left to decipher his commands from Kim’s responses. Seconds after Kim has returned to bed, Anna goes to the window to see him: Martin has disappeared entirely. Not only is Martin able to continue redirecting Kim’s Oedipal desire towards himself, but he is able to do so using exclusively linguistic tactics in a mode totally indecipherable to either of the parents; Martin possesses a kind of power that operates Outside of the perceptual borders of the typical neoliberal family and its ruling parties.
In the final quarter of the film Kim’s obsession takes on a new intensity. As Bob’s condition worsens, Kim sits smoking out of an open window in just the manner Martin previously showed her. She then repeats a phrase of his in uncanny fashion: ‘[Stephen] won’t kill [Martin]’, ‘I just know’, ‘otherwise, it would be like killing four people with a single shot’. Having repeated the phrase and taken on his definitive lexicon of imperatives, Kim announces that she is going to live with Martin. The family home, the physical manifestation of the closed Oedipal triangle and its desirous borders, has been ruptured; Kim’s desire has been directed so far from Stephen that she refuses to live under his roof. The film’s final scene compounds this new set of anti-oedipal relations. Having fulfilled Martin’s demand, slaughtering Bob in the living-room, one wonders whether this scene is altogether necessary – in a typical horror film, the reel would doubtless end after the climactic shoot-out. However, once Martin’s revenge is reframed not as a mortal act but as a desirous one, the scene takes on new resonance. The remaining family members sit and eat in a diner. Martin arrives and silently acknowledges their sacrifice before sitting at the bar behind them. Anna and Stephen are rigid, pale, and mute – words are useless to Stephen now – unable to eat in light of what has passed. Kim, conversely, piles ketchup onto her fries in precisely the same way that Martin does, and explicitly acknowledges with Kim, earlier in the film. She looks directly at him and eats hungrily. As the parents stand to leave Kim follows, but turns back, holding eye contact with Martin as they walk out the door.
No words pass between them because the Real is unbearably silent; Martin, a spectral figure from the Outside, has ruptured the Inside of Stephen’s triangle of Oedipal desire beyond repair: a son has been killed, the affections of a daughter and two Mothers have been directed away from the ruling patriarch, the integrity of Stephen and Anna’s marriage has been sacrificed, and the parents have been transformed into mute shells of their former selves. As Gilman-Opalsky foretold, they are no longer a family, they have ‘become something else’.
‘Settling of Accounts’
These three films make Yorgos Lanthimos an anti-capitalistic and revolutionary director. The language of these films, in combination with their formal elements, demonstrates how the family functions as a supporting unit of the hegemonic neoliberal project before providing several possible aesthetic and linguistic possibilities for disrupting and dismantling this hegemony. Dogtooth depicts the patriarch’s phobic-phallic process of constructing Symbolic and imaginative borders between Inside and Outside that ensure the subservience of his children to his individual autocratic regime and to the broader neoliberal ideology that symbiotically support one another. Alps poses a possible path of resistance, with Monte Rosa exemplifying the power of a spectral figure to induce the linguistic uncanny that exposes the artificiality of the Symbolic structures that uphold Oedipal matrices, challenging the naturalised supremacy of the family even if her own underlying desires are complicit in the very structures she seeks to destabilise.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, however, marks the total fulfilment of the project Lanthimos and Monte Rosa began in Alps. Martin’s abilities are twofold. First, he disrupts the Oedipal Symbolic, founded upon a language of transaction that reflects its purpose to regulate and contain desire, with an undesiring and authentically spectral drive which allows him to pursue settlement of the Symbolic debt to its conclusion. Second, and of greater importance, is that Martin enacts a process of becoming-ghost. By acknowledging and then embodying the injustices done to this family by institutionalised capitalist violence and using this knowledge to act as a spectral desiring-machine that directs desire away from the ruling patriarch and destroys the closed Oedipal triangle in the process, Martin demonstrates how the ghost can use language to become a self-consciously revolutionary figure. Whereas the ghost of traditional psychoanalysis only returns to settle the Symbolic debt out of a subconscious and undesiring drive, a Deleuzoguattarian ghost recognises the power of productive, Real desire, and directs this power to radically anti-oedipal ends.
However, these are not the only revolutionary aspects to Lanthimos’ oeuvre; this piece has forfeited exploration of many others due to the thematic and dimensional limitations of this piece. Working chronologically, I will now gesture towards possible avenues for further criticism I provisionally identified during research for this project. Kinetta, Lanthimos’ directorial debut, depicts a group of strangers that recreate homicides on film during the off-season at a Greek resort; his developing interest in uncanny repetitions and quasi-spectrality appears here in nascent form. His first English language release, 2015’s The Lobster, provides a searing critique of romantic relationships and the hollow Symbolic posturing they rely upon. Its greater emphasis on the romantic couple rather than the family saw it excluded from this piece, but my reference to Sarah Cooper’s article on the film demonstrates that much good critical work has already been done and could be usefully revisited in light of the framework I have deployed here. 2018’s The Favourite is ripe for anti-oedipal analysis, focusing as it does on queer relationships that circumvent and disrupt normative desirous relations with implications that effect the entire British state. Its protagonist, Abigail, functions similarly to Martin as a queer desiring-machine, forging subversive desirous connections. Adequately explaining the potential of this subversive ability here would have required invoking the complex critical framework of queer studies, for which the word-limit of this piece did not allow.
Looking to future projects, Lanthimos’ upcoming adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation could also provide new critical possibilities. Focusing on a wealthy young woman living in New York who opts for a life of quasi-spectrality and isolation after losing her parents, the contents of the novel fit neatly within the paradigms I have discussed. However, upon which aspects of the plot Lanthimos choses to focus, and the ways in which he presents those chosen elements, remains to be seen. Regardless, I hope this short concluding section makes clear that there is much work yet to be done on Lanthimos’ films, particularly work that makes language a centrepiece of its designs.
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 Zizek, Looking Awry, p. 21.
 Zizek, Looking Awry, p. 21.
 Ibid., pp. 23 and 21.
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 Zizek, Organs Without Bodies, p. xi.
 Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp 1-2.
 Richard Gilman-Opalsky, ‘Becoming-Ghost, Spectres of Revolt: The Ghost of Geist and Capital’, Solidarité: Journal of the Radical Left, 1.1, (August 2013), 16-41.
 Ibid., p. 18.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 23.
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