Greece has been in a perilous socio-economic situation for a number of years; which has seemingly all but solidified its position as the reckless, troubled European cousin, constantly being bailed out of jail and doomed to chastised rides home. While it begins a new chapter with a re-elected Prime Minister and new plan for its financial recovery, there is the uphill public relations battle as it rebuilds its image of a stable country with a hopeful future. With the greater context of Greece’s troubled reputation, it’s significant that Greek cinema has been seen by the international film world for years now as an outlet for fearless, exciting, and wholly original cinematic works. Two of the filmmakers who have gained the biggest profile in Greece’s recent cinematic revitalization both screened in the 2015 New York Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos with “The Lobster,” and Athina Rachel Tsangari with “Chevalier.” “The Lobster” is now in theaters in the U.K. (a U.S. release is slated for 2016), and “Chevalier” won best film at the London Film Festival this weekend.
The two directors are no strangers to comparisons, in part because they have collaborated often (Lanthimos produced and acted in Tsangari’s “Attenberg,” and Tsangari helped produce three of Lanthimos’ features), but also because each of them were introduced to the larger film world around the same time; Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” made a splash in 2009 and Tsangari’s “Attenberg” in 2010. “Dogtooth” earned an Oscar nomination and won awards at Cannes, while “Attenberg” won awards at AFI and Venice, which given the short period of time between the two debuts was enough to build a conversation around a new Greek film movement.
While Lanthimos and Tsangari garnered the most attention other Greek films were gaining traction on the festival circuit, including Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel’s “Wasted Youth” (2011), Ektoras Lygizos’ “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” (2012), and Babis Makridis’ “L” (2012) to name a few. Beyond nationality the films shared some similar conventions: shocking moments either sexually, violently (or both), somewhat surrealist or absurdist tones and elements of rebellion. Similarities aside many of the directors, Lanthimos included, are eager to comment mostly on the fact that the most significant commonality between them is that they are filmmakers who are making work without access to any substantial government funds. This is a blessing and a curse, the blessing is that it allowed them freedom to explore themes and stories that are unlikely to have passed a government or studio’s financial review. It’s hard to imagine Lanthimos describing the murder of a villainized house-cat in “Dogtooth,” to a government subsidiary and walking away with a large check. Because there was no system to work with, they operated truly independently and the results prove it.
Now, neither Lanthimos nor Tsangari are introducing themselves to the world, rather cementing their place within it. As they’ve evolved so has their relationship in regards to their place within contemporary Greek cinema. “The Lobster” is notably Lanithimos’ first foray into English-language work, and he’s working not with friends (the only actors previously in his price range) but with higher-profile stars, including Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in the starring roles. The film takes place in a world where being single is a sign of societal failure, and if you’re single long enough you’ll be turned into an animal of your choosing. The premise alone ensures that Lanthimos has not sobered his imagination despite access to greater means and studio budgets.
“The Lobster,” which revolves heavily around the rebellion against an imposed social structure, could be read as a political piece but the greater examination it does is more focused on the human elements and the politics of romance. Those who stay at the purgatorial hotel where single people are given a specific timeline to find a match, often find one by identifying a single personal attribute and trying to match up accordingly. The rules and rule-breaking as much inform the story as they do the dry, matter-of-fact humor. Lanthimos identifies the ridiculousness of trying to systematically find a suitable mate. The audience started laughing early when Farrell’s character, David, struggles to pick either Heterosexual or Homosexual upon entering the hotel. He questions the weight of a one-time gay experiment in college against the fact that they no longer have a Bisexual option. “I think it’s best I chose Heterosexual,” he states after some rushed internal reflection. It’s less a commentary on the current events than it is on the absurdity of something universal, dating.
Tsangari had been an artistic ex-pat of sorts, living and working in New York and Austin for years before returning to Greece. “Chevalier,” despite the title, is very much a Greek film, the Aegean Sea provides the beautiful backdrop for a story of a friendly game between a group men (all Greek actors) aboard a yacht that quickly turns into a heated machismo competition. While “Attenberg” took a nuanced look at a young woman, “Chevalier” is an engrossing, often delightfully searing, satire of the male ego at play.
Tsangari is currently the artist in residence at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which means she’s again actively working in the United States, and has said it will, in part, inform her next feature, “White Knuckles,” which once again returns to female protagonists as well. Meanwhile, Lanthimos has two English language films in the works. The Greek Film Center, which is a government sponsored organization designed to foster and promote Greek films, was involved in the production of both “The Lobster” and “Chevalier” and has just revamped their Financial Regulation Program. No matter the outlook of the country in general Greek cinema is preparing for a stable future. Despite the two director’s continued evolution beyond making films in Greece, they will forever be a part of the Greek film conversation. The limited financial means of their home country indirectly made it easier for these directors to express their unique points of view, but success has not dampened their artistic perspective, instead it brings new freedom to the ways in which they explore culture, family and human relationships on screen.