by Carl Pierer
Who the noble prize achieveth,
Good friend of a friend to be;
Who a lovely wife attaineth,
Join us in his jubilee!
Yes—he too who but one being
On this earth can call his own!
He who ne'er was able, weeping
Stealeth from this league alone!
—Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”
In “The Pervert's Guide to Ideology”, Slavoj Žižek draws the viewer's attention to the hollow, empty shell of the famous musical adaption of the ode to joy in Beethoven's Ninth. Commonly perceived to be a celebration of universal brotherhood, it has been used by various, starkly opposed political movements. While in Nazi Germany it was played at great public event, it was perceived as an almost communist song in the USSR and has now become the unofficial anthem of the European Union. He continuous to suggest that whenever a text claims to be rejoicing in the universal fraternity of humanity, it should be questioned who is meant by this. Is it really all of humanity or is there someone excluded? What are the conditions to shape the all-embracing league?
The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has an affinity for the presence of philosophical abysses in contemporary society. His films, absurd and highly satirical, yet at the same time deeply serious, are tremendously haunting. With great naturalness, he lets the familiar collide with the outlandish, thereby creating absurd frameworks. Such a background allows him to explore problems of identity, care and closeness and all the while caricature present society in elaborate metaphors. To take an example, “Alps” may illustrate this idea.
In “Alps”, a haphazard group of four people in Athens offer their services under the motto: “The end can be a new and often better beginning”. They are hired by bereaved family members as “substitutes” for their recently deceased. Be it the dead spouse or the adolescent daughter killed in a car crash, they slip into their roles to allow the family members to live through certain moments in their life with the beloved one again. Collecting as many details about the deceased person as they can, they try to replace them as accurately as they possibly can. With this innovative take on the “living dead”, Lanthimos artfully portrays the emptiness of purely formal relationships.
For this terrifying, yet powerful attempt at making a human life replaceable is undermined by the extraordinarily flat acting of the “Alps”. The Greek actress Aggeliki Papoulia, as the main character, delivers a particularly disturbing performance. As she adopts the different roles, it becomes very apparent that they are nothing more than that. Whether as the long gone lover or the young daughter, the vitality inherent to a living human being is absent from her acting. The people she plays are dead, yet they are back to haunt us because their close ones cannot let them rest. It is the most horrible fantasy of living through one's cherished memories, only to discover that they are nothing but memories. In one scene, she is asked by a husband to replay an evening he remembers. She complies, strips down and recites her lines. Monotonously, she delivers: “Please, don't stop. This feels like paradise”. “Heaven”, the husband corrects her.
But the lacking vitality does not remain confined to the professional sphere. As the film unravels, the viewer learns that none of the four “Alps” exists without the masks. Even in their private relationships, they miss the depth of a self. Their dispassionate, insipid act as “substitutes” carries over to what the viewer would expect to be their real personalities.
The actual story of the film, then, is of minor relevance, as it is mainly its premise situation that renders this film forceful. By taking the consumerist approaches to relationships that place an undue focus on the formal aspects and carrying them to their logical conclusion, Lanthimos demonstrates the insufficiency of any such account of human closeness.
In his most recent film, “The Lobster”, Lanthimos variates the same theme. He explores what remains if the paradigm of consumption informs all our relationships. In a society where only couples are allowed to live in the City, the film follows the middle-aged character of Collin Farrell as he moves to a hotel to find a new partner. The residents are granted 45 days to find a new partner or else they will be turned into their favourite animal. They can prolong their stay if, during the daily hunt, they manage to shoot “loners”, people who have abandoned society to live their solitary lives in the woods.
Should they manage to find a partner, they will first be upgraded to a double room, for two weeks, and then allowed to live on the yachts for another two weeks. Only after this trial month are they allowed back to the City. The code of behaviour is very strict. Masturbation, for example, is strongly prohibited and is to be punished by toasting the delinquent's hand. There is something mechanical, inhumane about the completely rationalised procedures. Parallels to familiar dating techniques, ranging from old-fashioned speed-dating to Tinder, are easily discerned. It is not too exaggerated an illustration of what Polina Aronson described as the Regime of Choice. The paradox lies in the superficial, sexual freedom, whilst the restrictions of economic rationality prevent any more profound liberties.
The film's first few moments permeate the awkwardly-amusing atmosphere of the desperately animal search for a partner. It soon becomes evident that in this space there is no room for “love”, instead a suitable partner is one with a matching characteristic, such as a limp or a constant nosebleed. Again, Lanthimos parodies the emphasis on the form of a relationship, to the detriment of anything more abstract and intangible. Of course, such an algorithmic procedure is liable to abuse, and in fact the only pair that is seen to be upgraded to the yachts has their relationship based on a deception.
After some plot twists, Farrell's character flees from the hotel to join the “loners”. This group constitutes the rebellious movement against their society's imperative notion of civil union. Little surprising, their antithetic insistence on the paramount importance of having no partner perpetuates the self-same tyrannical regime. Divergence is punished just as harshly as in the established society. Two people found to be flirting have their lips slashed with razor blades and are forced to kiss. The group, led by a disillusioned and calculating Léa Seydoux (who, ironically, is to star as the next Bond girl in Spectre), is dominated by the same individualistic, economic paradigm as the society they are opposing.
Both groups manifest the othering apparent in the Ode to Joy. There is a celebration of joy and confraternity, yet this only serves to disguise a much more sinister division. For the rationale governing the established group does not allow for the development of close ties. The sense of belonging is a hollow, empty shell. Similarly, for the “loners”, they form a group out of pure necessity. This is again underlined by the cold, flat acting of all characters. The empty container of a restrictive concept of humanity finds another application in this context, as the film satirically takes up the conditions of belonging. These, the film nicely shows, undermine the very sense of society they try to establish for they stand antagonistically to any idea of solidarity.
Here is the film's most haunting aspect: the explicit portrayal of the fundamental incompatibility of individualistically motivated, economic reason and human closeness. Lanthimos strikingly caricatures the vain clinging to the emptiness of relationships that are motivated by pure self-interest. And it is perhaps only through a readiness for self-sacrifice, or at the very least the acceptance of suffering for the sake of the other that the alienation inherent in a purely self-interested concept of relationships can be overcome. It may be illuminating to study further the Ode to Joy. For a later verse seems to suggest precisely this deeper, more meaningful relation as the foundation of universal fraternity:
Rescue from the tyrant's fetters,
Mercy to the villain e'en,
Hope within the dying hours,
Pardon at the guillotine!
E'en the dead shall live in heaven!
Brothers, drink and all agree,
Every sin shall be forgiven,
Hell forever cease to be.
Schiller, F.: “Ode to Joy” (transl. by William F. Wertz)