Sixteen Square Metres of Utopia


A review on “The Square”, directed by Ruben Östlund, 2017

By: Masood Sabet

“How much suffering can one impose upon those now living for the sake of those who will follow? And can we be sure that those who follow will be any better off?”


Where do we draw the line between personal responsibility and self-sacrifice? In the time of the triumph of pleasure over contentment and prosperity over happiness, making this distinction is harder than ever, if you bother to bear the concern. It is true that all these abstract concepts are merely figments of our imagination, but no one could argue with the fact that a distinct line would resonate with one’s cognitive characteristics and respond to their psychological needs. The needs which, if not satisfied, could lead to a destructive split of personality and the distress it consequently brings about. Christian takes his daughters to the X-Royal museum for a private excursion and some quality time. At the entrance of one of the new exhibitions, Östlund presents us with the main theme of his work. The children have to choose between the two passageways; the arrow to the left says: “I mistrust people.” and on the arrow to the right we read: “I trust people.” “The Square” is a journey for Christian from the former to the latter.

The story of The Square revolves around Christian, the eminent curator of the X-Royal museum of Stockholm. He is preparing to host a new exhibition when a bunch of con artists on the street manage to put up a show and rob him of his mobile and his wallet. Through the film, we come to observe that Christian has a very reserved personality, like a wild deer, easily startled and born to run, not to fight. It is after one and a half hours into the movie that we realize he has two daughters, most probably an indicative of a broken marriage, about which we don’t get any further information whatsoever. The robbery breaks Christian’s equilibrium in favour of “I mistrust people.” The Square is a quest for Christian to restore the equilibrium. Meanwhile, he’s fighting on three fronts: hosting a controversial exhibition at the museum, the aftermath of his bland and awkward fling with the American reporter, Anne, and his clumsy affair to retrieve his stolen belongings. The occurrences in these three sub-narratives hand in hand bring the protagonist to the point of growth.

“The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” This sounds like a sanctuary for Christian, for it encompasses the very issues he’s struggling with; overcoming his trust issues and defining the extent of one’s personal responsibility towards the society. After Christian records his apologetic message to the boy, who he had wrongfully accused for stealing and caused him trouble with his parents, he goes on: “…these problems (social inequality) can’t be solved by individuals alone. Society needs to lend a hand too. It’s not enough that I admit I was wrong and apologize to you in a video. There are bigger, structural problems involved that society needs to deal with.” Personal responsibility, as an inborn duty of every individual as building blocks of a modern society, as opposed to self-sacrifice, which is always commendable due to going beyond what’s expected from one, and trust versus mistrust are not the only dualities contemplated in the deeper layers of The Square. The director also tries his chance on the thin ice of classic and modern art, and briefly dwells on freedom of speech versus political correctness.

zen garden
Piles of gravel and its resemblance to Zen gardens in Buddhism

Many have seen the square as a satire on the modern art. However, this judgement sounds a bit far-fetched if we remember one of the first dialogues of the film. Christian, after a long night of partying, sits for an interview with Anne. It’s here when he accents the subjectivity of the concept of art, by defining and clarifying the duality of exhibition and non-exhibition. “If we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?” And this argument proceeds to reach “the crowded moment of mega exhibition” If we believed every man-made object is a work of art, why couldn’t the man himself be worthy of this distinction? Isn’t “Square” itself an exhibition in which a man has been put on display? The modern art is a fight for the artist, a relentless battle for the creator. Every work in classic art is an inspiration, with a clear-cut answer for every question and an impregnable belief system. Modern art, on the other hand, presents its audience with a puzzle, and instead of providing them with an answer, hits them in the face with yet another question by provoking them to think. We have a juxtaposition at the beginning of the film; the exhibition of piles of gravel in the museum and the disgraceful removal of an old statue of Karl XIV[i] from the courtyard. On the toppled statue it reads: “The love of the people is my reward.” For the modern man that’s just an empty sentiment and definitely not a good enough answer to his concerns. A four-in-four square is to replace it.

Julian (Dominic West), who’s obviously based on Julian Schnabel[ii], is being interviewed about his new exhibition at the museum. Among the audience, someone keeps interrupting them by yelling out obscene words. It transpires that the man is suffering Tourette, a nervous system disorder involving involuntary and repetitive movements or sounds. When someone finally explains it to the audience, everyone accepts the situation and moves on. Östlund creates the same situation in another scene where Christian and his colleagues are discussing the new exhibition with the two young publicists. No one seems to mind the baby’s disruptive noise. Julian’s exhibition, piles of gravel and huge empty spaces, is clearly reminiscent of Classical Zen gardens, created first at temples of Zen Buddhism. They were intended to imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance [iii], which sounds more like a manifest for minimalism. An unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings might be the best-known motto of Buddhism. Human beings might bring themselves to accept the actions and deeds of the nature, animals, babies and people with proven disabilities, but when it comes to their peers, they see only two ways before them; fight or run. This intolerance is originated from our expectations, which yet again is another cause for unhappiness according to Buddhism.

“Welcome to the jungle. Soon you will be confronted with a wild animal… if you try to escape, the animal will hunt you down. But if you remain perfectly still, the animal might not notice you.” This brings us to the magnificent “monkey performance” by Oleg Rogozjin (Terry Notary), a powerful spectacle which was inspired by the real-life Ukrainian artist, Oleg Kulik. Kulik’s was however a biting dog performance. The monkey enters the room filled with affluent and elegant financial contributors to the museum in a glamorous setting, a truly grotesque contrast. The animal goes straight to Julian, which could be construed as a mockery of the modern art. But it could also mean the opposite. The two modern artists are in cahoots to set the scene and build the atmosphere for what comes later.

modern art
A mockery of the modern art or a duet performance?

Anne is pictured as a naïve and not-so-intelligent woman who never realizes that she had been Christian’s third choice at that night, after the girl on his lap leaves and another one ignores his sloppy flirtation. Anne’s approaches to him after that night only makes her look more miserable than she already is. But her presence helps us witness a fierce act of Christian’s mistrust through his perverse resistance to let the condom go. Anne comes to the museum to confront Christian a few days later. “I think you are interested in using your position to attract women and to make conquests.” Anne is not a good judge of character either. Christian doesn’t enjoy sex, and him going from one woman to another does not qualify for being called conquests. It’s more of a defense mechanism to avoid confrontation with his fundamental challenges. But this strategy of his has started to backfire. He can’t run forever. His mistrust in people is facing him with consequences from which there is no escape. It’s late at night. Christian arrives home with his two sleepy daughters, not knowing that the young boy is there to “make a chaos” with him. Christian gets upset and inadvertently shoves the boy down the stairs, into the darkness. This unprecedented act of violence shakes him to his core. He goes back home. Enough is enough. He needs to face his daemons. He goes back down, dives into the garbage bins, looking for the boy’s phone number. Christian in the middle of the pile of garbage, and under a pouring rain in a top shot in a spectacular way resembles the famous shot of the same type in “Shawshank Redemption” when Andy (Tim Robbins) makes his escape from the prison. This is Christian’s redemption. This is the moment of growth. He finds the boy’s number and calls him: “The person you are trying to reach is not available.” The boy’s job is done, and he is thrown into the shadows. Christian’s video message, which will never reach the intended recipient, is a dialogue with himself, a contemplation on how to implement and consolidate the new order. He soon needs to be ready for his press conference.

Pedro Almodóvar, the head of the jury who gave Östlund the Palme d’Or, cited the film for depicting “the dictatorship of being politically correct. “…That is terrible and awful and more horrifying than any other dictatorship,”[iv] Christian’s catharsis first manifests itself in his resignation. He never apologizes for the content of the video, for he’s not responsible for it. He is stepping down not because of the dictatorship of politically correctness. He’s doing it because he simply hasn’t done his job. One of the reporters at the conference shares Almodóvar’s concern with Christian. He happens to have a response for that: “I made a mistake. The clip was published without my approval. This has nothing to do with my own opinions. We’re talking about the museum and my professional role. What is it you don’t understand about that?” After the clip went viral, when Christian first meets with Elna (the lady with the cute dog), he vehemently persists in his belief in freedom of speech: “this is my conviction.” and when asked to comply with any probable outcome of the board meeting on the issue, he refuses to make any promises. Resignation is his own decision. This is where the new Christian draws the line.

Rai garbage
Heavy rain and a top shot, a popular recipe for the moment of redemption

“There are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, racist, free love, nuclear family, and many more utopias. Utopia has an inherent contradictory nature.”[v] When it comes to symbolization, a square could have countless interpretations, but what all those have in common is the notion of an order introduced or imposed by man. Burrhus F. Skinner, American celebrated psychologist, in his novel, Walden Two, has introduced the author’s own idea of a utopia. The nature of this utopia is of no consequence compared to the way he implements it. He starts with a microcosm and volunteers. The illuminated rectangular shape in the museum’s courtyard is the artist’s idea of utopia, all the sixteen square metres of it. The only thing you need to bring is trust.

[i] The king of Sweden and Norway during the nineteenth century

[ii] American painter and filmmaker

[iii] Gunter Nitschke, Le Jardin Japonais, p. 65.


[v] Lyman Tower Sargent (23 September 2010). Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford. p. 21

Moving Along the Cartesian Coordinates


A review on “Occident”, a film directed by Cristian Mungiu, 2002

By: Masood Sabet

“Then the Lord formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Genesis 2:7

Charles Foster Kane, on his deathbed, utters a word with his last breath. It’s not a prayer, nor a last wish or even the name of a beloved one. It’s an object: Rosebud; a sledge into which Citizen Kane in his childhood breathed the breath of life and brought it to life. Kane dies, but Rosebud is born in people’s minds. Rosebud is no more a snow sledge, but a body which can harbour a soul. But could an object acquire a soul? The answer is yes and no! Just like Schrödinger’s Cat, the soul of an object could be, simultaneously and paradoxically, existent and non-existent. Non-existent on the account of being purely subjective, and existent if we are to believe Descartes. According to the French philosopher, if necessity obliges, whatever we can imagine could exist. One of the most fundamental criticisms directed at scriptures is that they have depicted God with human attributes. He gets tired, needs rest, becomes angry and seeks vengeance. But could we surmise that blowing soul into lifeless things is another attribute shared by the God and humans? One of the greatest concerns on Cristian Mungiu’s mind in “Occident” is exploring the Cartesian duality by investigating the matter of body and soul.

In the first scene of the film, Mungiu presents us with his intended narrative style; two railway lines crossing. The crossing-based narrative form has some successful examples in cinema over the past couple of decades, such as “Amores Perros”, made by ‎Alejandro González Iñárritu, and “Magnolia”, directed by Thomas Anderson. But the narration in Occident is slightly different, for Mungiu tells us the same story three times, each time from a different perspective, and through each iteration one of the sub-narratives comes forward and brings us one step closer to the big picture. This not only serves the revelation process by filling the gaps in the narrative, but provides us with the encompassing theme of the work. The first narrative is the story of Luci and Sorina, a young couple who are struggling with a financial crisis. After the landlord throws their things out due to overdue payments, as the first desperate course of action, they go to see Sorina’s father, who we soon realize is dead. Sorina on his father’s grave is longing for a sign, an inspiration, a guidance from his father’s soul. The first intersection of the screenplay emerges in the very same cemetery. A distressed bride weaves through the trees in the medium shot, a red Jeep approaches and a flying bottle falls on Luci’s head and nocks him unconscious. In this manner, Occident gets entangled with the matter of soul from the very beginning. Soul, according to Mungiu, is a quality which could be associated with organic and non-organic entities. He goes even further to apply this to non-existent beings too, like Luci’s cousin, Niko.

Sorina is seeking a sign from his father in the cemetery. A sign from which an inspiration could be received in order to show them a way to put this difficult patch behind them. But for Luci, the function of soul is purely mechanical and has originated from a superficial interpretation of soul and spirituality. For Luci, soul is still subject to the law of cause and effect, like anything else in the material realm. He needs to first ask the soul of the departed a clear question and then look for signs (like birds flying) which could be construed as positive or negative answers. Occident is a stage for the battle between these two views and consequently beliefs and lifestyles.

“Not only do people, but also things have souls.”

In the first dialogue of the film it transpires that Luci is out of job. And Sorina, who works in an orphanage, through her boss, who incidentally and justifiably is very popular with the men of authority in town, has fixed him up with a job interview. The job title is: advertisement agent, and he has to wear a bottle-shaped suit and give out fliers on the street. On the first day of the job, his boss gives him an enlightening speech about the significance of his duties. “Not only do people, but also things have souls. You need to learn how to bring the objects to life. When objects come to life, people will love them more, and when people love something, they buy more of them.” The dominant theme of the film is manifested through this speech: giving life to things.

We have two thematic relationships in the film; one between Luci and Sorina and the other between Michaela and her mother. After the drunken groom leaves Michaela in the alter on her wedding day, her mother starts a relentless quest to find her a husband. She even turns to matchmaking agencies whose expertise is finding foreign husbands, especially from western European countries. But the “business” strategy in these agencies is different from that of the advertising company. Whereas the latter gives life to the lifeless, the former strips men of their souls and presents them to the customers as commodities with only physical and materialistic characteristics. The pinnacle of this satirical contradiction is where Michaela’s mother is shown two identical twin brothers who are both doctors and asked to pick the one of her choice.

Luci after a quarrel with Sorina moves in with his aunt, who incessantly asks about his son Niko. The son who’s only present in the pictures on the walls. As the story unfolds, we realize that Niko, years ago during the dark Nicolae Ceaușescu era crosses the Danube to get himself to Germany and seek refuge. But there are some crucial segments of this story which have been kept secret, and the narrator is not to reveal them up until around the end.

Nae Zigfrid, twelve years ago, along with many other people suffocating under the tyrannical regime of Ceaușescu, crosses the border illegally to get to Germany. He has returned now with grim news for Niko’s family; he has died in a car accident. Nae’s suitcase has been stolen upon arrival into Romania. The suitcase contains Niko’s paltry bequest, which despite its obscene nature has significant sentimental value. The robbery drives Nae to the colonel, with whom he had a brief but not particularly pleasant encounter twelve years ago.  According to Niko, which is narrated through Nae, years ago, Luci and Niko set out to pass the border by crossing the Danube. But the border security is so alert and observant that they scrutinize and confiscate whatever could be possibly used in any way as a means to cross the river. The two cousins come up with an ingenious idea. They want to cross the river floating on an inflated sex doll. But the doll is not big enough to accommodate both of them. The flip of a coin decides to send Niko off. Niko manages to start a good life in Germany, but his addiction to alcohol destroys everything. Now all he’s left behind are this black sex doll and a perforated coin, which he always carried on a string around his neck. The colonel, who has now comprehended the spiritual value of the stolen merchandise, summons all the soldiers of his station to chase and hunt down the ill-fated robber. Right before launching the operation, the colonel delivers an epic speech. “A soldier’s first mission is his most important one. Whatever happens today will be engraved into your brains and you will never forget them. You will someday look back and talk this day to your grandchildren.” But the forthcoming turns of events transform this potential memorable story into an unforgettable dark comedy, a distasteful joke. Zigfrid and the colonel shape another thematic relationship in the narrative. The two men later pair up to break the news about Niko to his mother.

The colonel is depicted as a passive personality who has been through immense metamorphoses. He has served the police in two completely different eras; Ceaușescu’s dictatorship in a state behind the iron curtain and a post-communism Romania, which is trying to open its doors to western Europe. Twelve years ago, when Zigfrid first tries to illegally cross the border, he was arrested and beaten so brutally by the police that had left him with all his ribs and teeth broken. The colonel, as the penitent member of the beating squad, tries to console Nae: “That was a different time. Now everything has changed.” The Romanian society however, like any other nation after a long period of totalitarianism and oppression, has become devoid of its identity and succumbed into a hypocrisy and banal pretense out a natural instinct for human survival. It has turned into an empty shell, just like the plastic fruits on the colonel’s table: hollow and flavourless.

Mungiu won The Palme d’Or for “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” in 2007

Through a relative, an eligible suitor has been found for Michaela; an Italian young man who is quite wealthy and owns a publishing house and above all, has taken an interest in Michaela’s poems. Every member of the colonel’s family is summoned to give the house a makeover worthy of receiving the honourable guest. Pictures of Italian historical figures sit on the walls and the orphanage mistress places a plastic statue of Venus at a corner of the living room. The Venus has a clock on her stomach which has apparently run out of power. The goddess of love is devoid of soul. But this spectacle of superficiality has a long way to come to an end. Eventually, the young suitor arrives and at the doorstep meets with the astonished and disappointed receiving party. He’s black! Mungiu has depicted a society which is obsessed with the West and longing to be associated with it, but on the other hand it lacks the propelling force to catch up with the modern values around which the European Union has formed. The society may not be to blame, for it has a long way to recover from the immense blow inflicted upon it by half a century of tyranny and suppression. Mungiu’s Romania’s perception of the western society is utterly malformed and distorted. For Michaela’s mother, having the weekend dinner at the Mcdonald’s is considered a paragon of living the western dream. The European Union has sent a delegate to train the Romanian police force in regards to basic human rights principles from the scratch. “Gypsies are human beings, just like you!”

In the third reiteration of the narrative, the missing pieces fall in their places. Now everything is starting to make sense. According to Luci’s account of that eventful night, Niko had been lying about his escape story. Luci claims that the sex doll they had at that night was of a white woman, not a black one. There was no coin, and there was no flipping. Luci goes behind a tree to relieve himself for a brief moment, whilst Niko seizes the opportunity, snatches the doll and hits the river. Now all the devout efforts by the colonel and Zigfrid to retrieve the suitcase prove worthless, futile and embarrassingly comical. The sex-doll is no more a memento of a dramatic escape at a memorable night. It’s only a cheap commodity with a revolting backstory. Niko’s perforated lucky coin too has not only no spiritual significance, but has even lost its intrinsic monetary value. The epic operation by the police and the monumental speech of the colonel now are nothing more than a stigma which will haunt all the participants forever. This wasting of the resources however, is a characteristic of a society with a shattered identity. The soldiers, whose main duty is to serve the society, now are hirelings to the colonel to adorn his house with bogus decorations. The soldiers’ loose-fitting uniforms symbolizes a grim immaturity and unfitness for the pre-determined function they have been entrusted with by the society.

Mungiu’s sense of humour in the second half of the film reaches the extent of teasing the viewers. Sorina is leaving Romania with Jerome, whilst Luci is pedaling on a bike under a heavy rain headed for Jerome’s house. He gets in and finds Sorina’s farewell note. This is the end. Now we switch scene to inside Jerome’s car. Sorina contemplates for a moment, gets off the car, runs back inside the house, opens the door, and throws herself in Luci’s embrace is slow motion while a romantic and sentimental theme is playing in the background. But if we have come to know the director and followed the story intently, we’ll realize that this couldn’t be the end of this story. Sorina is condemned to leave Luci and leave with Jerome, which eventually happens in the consecutive revelation scenes.

When the colonel’s ingenious method of imparting sad news leaves the grandma unconscious on the floor, the three musketeers, colonel, Luci and Zigfrid put their heads together to think of another approach. “Niko is not coming back.” Luci utters. Niko’s aunt however, hasn’t quite grasped it. She construes the announcement in her own way and assumes that Niko has a good life in Germany and doesn’t intend to return home. She accepts her own version of the truth immediately and chooses not to investigate further. Niko lives in his mother’s mind. She has breathed the breath of life into a body that does not exist. She has given birth to a new son, a new Niko and brings him to life once more.

And the Date Was Nineteen Eighty Four


What happened on the 8th of November 2016 sent a shock-wave all around the globe. A shock-wave which shook the status quo to the core and created a new discourse among the scholar and the intellectual, who since have desperately been trying to explain what had become of America. What brought Americans to this breaking point to fiercely and radically forsake their inborn values and sink this low to allow a clown, arguably, become their president, their face to the world. Some argue that Trump is an evil genius, who premeditatedly devised a populist discourse to deceive and mislead the American electorate in order to advance his wicked and unholy agenda, which is solely to benefit the affluent class, the one percent. Some others believe that the latter argument has generously overrated Trump’s intellect. They claim that Trump is not the cause, but the consequence of a decline of morality in American society. Another group of analysts attribute this not to a moral decline, but a miscalculated outburst out of frustration. Some say Russian meddling played an influential role, whereas some others conjecture that what the democratic party unfairly did to Bernie brought his young and highly indignant and delicate supporters to the verge of defection. Some even blame the electoral college system. Since the catastrophe struck, TV presenters, political pundits, talk show hosts, columnists, philosophers, anthropologists and on and on have attempted to explain the situation, but no one has ever done it better than Salman Rushdie in his latest novel, The Golden House. He masterfully captures the essence of Trumpism and what caused it through his powerful and unrivalled grasp on words. Enjoy:

Golden House “… America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe; DC was under attack by DC. It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen – it was not an age of heroes – but his arch-rival in the purple frock coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his interiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivalled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha! The origins of the Joker were disputed, the man himself seemed to enjoy allowing contradictory versions to fight for airspace, but on one fact everyone, passionate supporters and bitter antagonists, was agreed: he was utterly and certifiably insane. What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero. Sikh taxi drivers and rodeo cow-boys, rabid alt-right blondes and black brain Surgeons agreed, we love his craziness, no milquetoast euphemism from him, he shoots straight from the hip, says whatever he fucking wants to say, robs whatever bank he’s in the mood to rob, kills whoever he feels like killing, he’s our guy. The black bat-knight has flown! It’s a new day, and it’s going to be a scream! All hail the United States of Joker! USJ! USJ! USJ!

Salman_Rushdie_by_Kubik_03bisIt was a year of two bubbles. In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh crowds laughed right on cue. In that bubble the climate was not changing and the end of the arctic ice cap was just a new real estate opportunity. In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American. In that bubble, if its inhabitants were victorious, the president of the neighbouring country to the south which was sending rapists and killers to America would be forced to pay for a wall dividing the two nations to keep the killers and rapists south of the border where they belonged; and crime would end; and the country’s enemies would be defeated instantly and overwhelmingly; and mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers; and the parents of dead war heroes would be revealed to be working for radical Islam; and international treaties would not have to be honoured; and Russia would be a friend and that would have nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian oligarchs propping up the Joker’s shady enterprises; and the meanings of things would change; multiple bankruptcies would be understood to prove great business expertise; and three and a half thousand lawsuits against you would be understood to prove business acumen; and stifling your contractors would prove your tough-guy business attitude; and a crooked university would prove your commitment to education; and while the Second Amendment would be sacred the First would not be; so those who criticised the leader would suffer consequences; and African Americans would go along with it all because what the hell did they have to lose. In that bubble knowledge was ignorance, up was down, and the right person to hold the nuclear codes in his hand was the green-haired white-skinned red-slash-mouthed giggler who asked a military briefing team four times why using nuclear weapons was so bad. In that bubble, razor-tipped playing cards were funny, and lapel flowers that sprayed acid into people’s faces were funny, and wishing you could have sex with your daughter was funny, and sarcasm was funny even when what was called sarcasm was not sarcastic, and lying was funny. and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eighty-four.” [1]

 [1] Rushdie, Salman, The Golden House, London: Jonathan Cape, 2017, pp.243-244

Justice Has Been Served

The killing

A review on “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

By: Masood Sabet

Yorgos Lanthimos is known for his idiosyncratic stories and effectively and constantly utilizing symbolism in his cinematic storytelling. He’s made six feature films, but his first internationally recognized work was “Dogtooth”, which was his third feature, he made in 2009. Dogtooth brought Lanthimos his first Academy award nomination for the best foreign language film in 2011 Oscars. Unfortunately for Lanthimos, luck was not on his side, as he had to compete with Susanne Bier’s “In a better world”, beautifully depicting modern moral dilemmas and contemplating the extent of personal responsibility, and Alejandro G. Innaritu’s Biutiful. And finally, the Oscar went to Susanne Bier, which was well deserved.

Yorgos Lanthimos is his sixth feature film has his fourth collaboration with his co-writer Efthymis Filippou. The plot is simple. Steven is an eminent heart surgeon, who has a seemingly unconventional relationship with a teenage boy: Martin. The nature of this relationship is revealed gradually, and we subsequently realize that Martin’s father died two years ago and now he lives with his mother. In the beginning, Martin and Steven appear to have an amiable relationship, even with a faint notion of one of paternal-filial nature, as though Steven is filling a void in Martin’s life by acting as a greatly needed father figure. They exchange gifts and regularly visit one another. But as the plot unfolds, we find out that Martin is harboring a grudge against Steven, as he’s been blaming him all along for his father’s death, who died on Steven’s operating table. Apparently, Steven had an alcohol problem at the time, but he’s been sober since. According to Martin, for justice to be served, Steven must kill a member of his own family.

Lanthimos has based his story on one of the ancient Greek tragedies: the story of “Iphigenia at Aulis”, written by Euripides, a Greek tragedian and a contemporary of Aeschylus and Sophocles. The story revolves around Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army in Trojan war. The army is about to set sail to Troy, but the air is stagnant and the wind refuses to blow. They ascertain the cause and it is the wrath of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, forests and hills, the moon and archery. And this wrath is attributed to Agamemnon, who has offended the goddess. As legend has it, Agamemnon has slain an animal sacred to the goddess and subsequently boasted that he was Artemis’s equal in hunting. So as to propitiate Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter: Iphigenia. There is a direct reference to the story of Iphigenia in the film, when Steven is speaking with his children’s school’s principal.

“She wrote a brilliant essay of the tragedy of Iphigenia, which she read out in class and received an A plus.”

But who’s representing the goddess in the film? Well, who else but Martin? He shares some attributes with Artemis, one of them being the lack of sexual desire. This could be the reason why Lanthimos decided to choose a male antagonist in his narrative, instead of a female one. There are a few indications scattered throughout the narrative to convince the audience that Martin is a god. The first clue is in the names Artemis and Martin, which share the part “art” in the stressed syllable. One of the main attributes of the goddess is the lack of sexual desire. The director emphasizes the same characteristic in Martin, by utilizing a stereotype in viewers’ minds. Kim willfully presents her naked body to Martin, an irresistible invitation for a typical teenage boy, but he doesn’t look impressed or interested for that matter. One could hypothesize that Martin could be homosexual, but there is no other scene, indicative of this hypothesis. When Steven first visits Martin’s mother in their house, they watch a film together, Martin’s late father’s favourite film: Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. While watching the movie, the camera’s focus in on Martin’s back in the foreground, when we hear Bill Murray say in the blurred background: “How do you know I’m not a god?” As yet another indicator, once Steven, whilst driving towards Martin’s house, goes past a cemetery. In order to reach Martin, Steven needs to go past the realm of the dead, he needs to go to the beyond to meet with the god.

While narrating a paranormal occurrence in a completely realistic setting, the narrator (whether in cinema or literature) is bound to create such an atmosphere in which the occurrences would be believable to the audience. In literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s a hundred years of solitude epitomizes such a skill. Yorgos Lanthimos too has successfully created this atmosphere. An accomplishment he partly owes to his composer, Gyorgi Ligeti, who has also composed the music for the most prominent works of late Stanley Kubrick, including Eyes Wide Shut, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Shining. The most disturbing scenes of Eyes Wide Shut wouldn’t be so unsettling if it weren’t for Ligeti’s eerie recurring tune, played by the piano. In “The Killing of A Sacred Deer”, whenever we see Martin, we hear a disturbing theme, as if every time he enters the scene, he brings with him a mystical aura of nerve-wracking tension. However, almost halfway into the film, we occasionally hear the very same tune, even without Martin’s presence. He has already established the new order. The two worlds have collided and we are untethered from the suffocating grasp of reality, but at the same time fallen into a precarious realm of the unknown. However, Steven is still hanging in a limbo and all the endeavours of the narrator, Lanthimos, is to dispel his doubts and convince him to let go.

The exaggerated idiosyncrasy in some characters’ behaviours contributes even more to this mystical quality the director has created in the film. In the first sex scene, after Anna (Nicole Kidman) closes the bedroom door, she turns the lights on, which makes the space dominated by mostly cold colours of the white light and the blue quilts. These qualities, accompanied with the open curtains and blinds, which we see all together in a medium shot, are in absolute contrast with whatever could be conceived as erotic. The couple have this little game they play while making love, which they call “general anesthetic”. She plays unconscious and Steven takes full control, which gives a bizarre necrophiliac shade to their sex-life. Anna’s submissiveness is later reflected in her encounter with Martin and his supernatural quest for vengeance. She shows little resistance and submits totally to his sanctitude. She visits Martin at his house to plea for her children’s lives and later, when Martin’s tied and beaten up in Steven’s basement, Anna painstakingly attends to his wound and kisses his feet, but all to no avail. Steven on the other hand is a control freak and claims that he can take command of any situation by utilizing logic and science. But this time, he’s evidently way off. Steven is dismissive of any notion of the supernatural playing a part in the situation. He vehemently refuses to contemplate the notion, even after both his children are paralyzed and bedridden. Steven, desperately delving into the circumstances for a medical cause, a logical explanation. When Anna suggests the possibility of a psychosomatic disorder, Steven fiercely objects. He knows deep inside that psychology, like a double-edged sword and interpreted as a pseudoscience, could be an easy gateway to the supernatural.

After all Steven’s endeavors to discover the cause of the children’s paralysis, he eventually resorts to an intellectually inconvenient measure. Whatever the cause is, he surmises, has something to do with Martin. He’s on the verge of conversion, and about to stumble and fall into the realm of all possibilities. He kidnaps Martin and binds him in the basement. Steven is alone in this fight. His wife and children have dropped the sword long ago, but Steven is still resisting to concede. He beats and tortures Martin only to realize that what works on man doesn’t work on a deity. The god shall be propitiated with a sacrifice.

Steven’s children are so certain of the ominous fate of the story that they have started manipulating his feelings in the hope for him to spare their lives. Bob crawls out of his bed, clumsily cuts his hair short with scissors, drags himself all the way to the kitchen to talk to his father and express his remorse for not cutting his hair sooner when his father had told him to do so.

“Dad, I’ve been thinking about it and I decided I want to become a cardiologist. Not an ophthalmologist. I lied to mom because I didn’t want her to get upset.”

This is the last straw for Steven, which brings him to his knees, a turning point and indicative of the protagonist’s growth. He carries Bob back to bed and tucks him in, goes outside, sits on the street and bursts into tears. Is this growth sufficient for the hero to overcome the crisis and bring everything into a new equilibrium? We should think so. But there’s more to the story. Steven has not yet abandoned the illusion of control. The next morning, he goes to his children’s school and meets with the principal:

“The boy’s very good at math and physics. Kim, on the other hand, apart from her natural aptitude for music, is very good at literature and history, areas in which Bob lags behind.”

Steven is still adamant to devise his “scientific method” of solving problems and collecting data. He doesn’t beat around the bush.

“Do you especially like one of them more than the other? If you had to choose between them, which would you say is the best?”

It’s a difficult choice for Steven on an unconscious level, as if a choice between mind and body, between reason and faith, and between leaving his hard-earned belief system or clinging to it, the very same struggle he has been through over the entire narrative so far. Steven’s growth is an illusion. He’s endeavoring to make an informed decision, which is doomed to failure, because he is still perversely dismissive of the idea that under the new order, the old conventional ways have to be relinquished.

Steven is finally convinced that there is no escape from the new order and devises a mechanism in order to shirk the responsibility of the impossible choice. This brings us to the most grotesque scene of the film: the sacrifice ritual. Steven binds and gags his wife and two children in the living room, loads his rifle, puts on a blindfold bag, spins around and starts shooting. He misses the first two shots, but the third one pierces Bob’s heart, a heart of math and physics. The spirit of reason and certainty has been sacrificed. The book of Steven’s consecutive failures has concluded.

More Human than Human


A review on Blade Runner, 1982, directed by Ridley Scott

by: Masood Sabet

     Everything started with the discovery of fire. And human, in the metaphorical flickering glimmer of this fire started to look upon himself. A revolutionary change in the course of human evolution, which drew his attention more to himself, other than his surroundings. Human was banished to the earth, because he started to query his own existence by asking who am I? And where am I from? Based on scriptural stories about the creation, the devil took the form of a serpent to deceive man, but in most mythologies the genesis of the devil is fire. From the light and warmth of fire, the angels and from the flames the devil was born.  Like fire, human split into a duality. Life was no more an eternal, meaningless cycle of animalistic needs and whims. There was something more to it. Abstract concepts started to come into existence from nothing, just like the myriad galaxies following the big bang. Human rose to his feet and set out on a quest for answers, seeking a creator. But the more he sought, the less he found. Frustrated man, sick and tired of this futile endeavour and countless efforts and theories to no avail, decided to become a god, rather than finding one. But little did he know that God was far from a mere creator. Becoming a god required attributes which man utterly lacked in nature. Not only didn’t man find his way back to the heaven from which he was banished, but he found himself plunging head first into a self-made inferno.

     Blade runner starts with a hellish landscape of Los Angeles in the future. Flames erupting everywhere in a dark grim setting, which is reminiscent of scriptural descriptions of hell, nightmarish and horrendous, and an eternal rain, which lashes heavily and indiscriminately through the grooves of the city like open wounds. This everlasting rain, along with the massive fog and smoke leaking from everywhere and shadowing everything, besides the thematic functions in the film, are serving to compensate for the insufficiency of the technology of the time for the mise-en-scene. We could add the low angle cinematography to this collection. It is still the early 80s and it hasn’t been long since the advent of the CGI, and this provides the filmmaker with the opportunity to utilise creativity. Scott’s Blade Runner, after almost four decades, still looks decent and even commendable. The production design is astonishingly ingenious, which is particularly highlighted in the scenes of Tyrell’s and Sebastian’s houses. Vast spaces, high-rise ceilings and very tall lavish doors, which through this highly exaggerated grandeur is evidently compensating for some inadequacy and timidity.

Blade runner starts with a hellish landscape of Los Angeles in the future

     Blade Runner is loosely based on a novel by Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But the screenplay was written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples. In juxtaposition to the other aspects of the work, the script seems to be suffering from some shortages. For instance, we could start from the exposition in the beginning. There is an on-screen text which presents the viewers with some essential information about the story. What is a Replicant? What do they do? Who is a blade runner and why are they after replicants to kill (“retire”) them? This information could be (and partly is) conveniently conveyed through the dialogues during the film. In one of the early scenes, we see a blimp hovering over the hell-bound city, trying to entice people to migrate to off-world colonies, in which replicants will serve them as slaves to fulfil a broad spectrum of their needs and desires. The very same piece of information has already been conveyed through the on-screen text in the beginning.

     In mission persuasion emerges another shortcoming in the screenplay. Deckard is a retired police officer, but captain Bryant needs his expertise to hunt four replicants who have stolen a ship in the space and have returned to earth is search of their creator. Mission persuasion is supposed to establish a base on which the second act and the entire narrative for that matter will be based. But this mission persuasion is not particularly persuasive. Deckard first refuses the call, but only one single sentence is enough to bring him round. “Bryant: if you’re not cop, you’re little people. Deckard: So, no choice ha?”

     Generally, the screenwriters have been a bit impatient when it comes to some critical milestones during the film. Deckard, in search of Zhora, finds himself in Abdul Hassan’s shop, who makes high-end artificial snakes. Even though Hassan doesn’t show the slightest unwillingness to cooperate, Deckard turns to violence, which seems utterly unnecessary. In another part of the film, it surprises Deckard to hear that replicants have come to earth, whereas his career would make no sense if there were no replicants on the earth.

     Gaff is a police officer who apparently has a talent in origami. In the last scene of the film (in the directors’ cut) Deckard finds an origami unicorn in his house, which couldn’t be made by anyone other than Gaff. We already know that Deckard sometimes sees a unicorn in his dreams. Although this could be a mere Jungian coincidence, but it also could be an indicative of the fact that Deckard might be a replicant himself, and the unicorn is an implanted memory, downloaded into his bio-engineered mind. But this seems quite far-fetched, since this theory has no other indicative to this in the movie and we also have the privilege of seeing the sequel (Blade Runner 2049), in which Deckard is still alive and well after three decades, whereas we know that the lifespan of replicants is limited to four years, as a fail-safe measure in case replicants develop their own characteristic feelings and emotions.

     Ridley Scott’s film is filled to the brim with symbolism and extratextual references, especially to scriptures and the Greek mythology. But Blade Runner in regard to form is so powerful that it not only makes up for the shortcomings, but puts the film among the best in the history of cinema. The replicants who have come to the earth pursuing this mission have attributes which transcend them from human and transform them into deities. These attributes were designs and implanted in the replicants by their creator, Tyrell. Roy is the leader of the rebellion replicants with a deiform posture, blue eyes and a face reminiscent of a marble bust of an ancient Greek deity. Tyrell corporation, the manufacturer of replicants, has a famous motto: “More Human than Human!” But before the confrontation between Tyrell and Roy, this phrase means nothing more than an empty advertising slogan. Here, we are presented with a Nietzschean definition of God. Man created gods because they served a purpose; compensating for man’s ignorance and weakness. The enlightened man has no purpose for god, therefore its existence is obsolete. Roy, seeking a long life confronts his creator, but finds him weaker to answer his prayer and fulfil his desire. Human goes past another milestone in his evolution, and more human than human is born by killing his creator, and finally Tyrell’s motto comes true.

The epic scene of the film, where Roy confronts Deckard, with an immaculate production design, the historical acting and monologue by Dutch Rutger Hauer, and an enthralling tune by Vangelis, has guaranteed its immortality in the history of cinema. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire, off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Roy’s half-naked body in this scene symbolizes the rebirth of the first man. He is holding a dove is his hands, which has a dual function. Roy, by eliminating his creator, has chosen to behave against his own “nature”. A nature which is not natural. The filmmaker here reminds the viewer of the subjectivity of the elusive concept of nature. This duality has a constant presence throughout the whole film; the duality of human and more human than human, human and creator, and finally the Cartesian duality of body and soul, which manifests itself in the mystical ascension of the white dove in slow motion. The white dove in Roy’s hands is a declaration of a new rebellion. He recreates his own identity, and consequently his function in the universe. Contrary to the function that gods (Tyrell and associates) have defined for Roy, he now is a messenger of peace, and incarnation of Jesus Christ who dies for man’s sins and to save him. This salvation has been ingeniously symbolized by Roy saving Deckard’s life by pulling him up and sparing his life.

     Each one of Roy’s companions have traits evocative of ancient deities. As though these are delegates from the world of replicants to meet with the God of gods. “In classical Greek polytheism, Zeus, Hera, Apollo and their colleagues were subject to an omnipotent and all-encompassing power [called] Fate, [who] is devoid of interests and biases, and therefor it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans.”[1] Tyrell is the Fate for replicants. Replicants were born on the earth and considering the miserable conditions they are suffering in off-world colonies, they still see earth, in all its horridness, as a heaven they long to return to. They have been banished from the heaven, and the only way they can return to it is embrace death. The replicants have started this Odyssean journey in pursuit of relief from this everlasting horror of an overhanging Damocles’ sword of death, which in human scale could be translated to a quest for immortality.

     One of Roy’s companions is Lion, who has an extraordinary physical strength and could be a rival to Hercules, the son of Zeus. Pris, another companion of Roy is a pleasure model and a match to Hedone, the Greek goddess of pleasure. But among these deities, Zeus has another representative: Artemis, the goddess of hunt and wild animals. But Zhora’s choice of wild animal is not a deer like that of Artemis. It is a serpent. “Watch her take pleasure from the serpent, that once corrupted man.” Another verbal reference to the story of creation.

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”

     Replicants start their pursuit of the creator from the modest laboratory of Hannibal Chew, who designs replicants’ eyes. To reach for the brain (Tyrell), replicants start their journey from the eye, the most notorious Achilles heel of humans. Upon entering into Chew’s laboratory, Roy recites a poem from William Blake, the English poet of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Fiery the angels fell, deep thunder rolled around their shores, burning with the fires of Orc.” Although in the original poem it says: fiery angels rose, this subtle adjustment, considering the replicants’ descent from the skies appears to be justified. This poem is from a book called: “America, a Prophecy”, which Blake published in 1793. This book belongs to a series of books in which Blake foretells the fate of the continents on earth with a poetic diction reminiscent of that of the sixteenth century French seer, Nostradamus. In all Blake’s books in this series, there is a character called Orc, who is a symbol of rebellion and insurgency. Orc was born as a worm and then transformed into a serpent. His mythic opponent, Albion’s Angel, describes him as “Lover of wild rebellion, and transgressor of God’s law”. Orc was bound upon a mountain and so as to set himself free and seek vengeance, he needs to emancipate his imagination. He needs to discover fire.

     Time and memory (which are collectively manifested in the form of photographs) are the fundamental thematic elements in Blade Runner. Man, in order to preserve his memories against the destructive and fierce torrent of time, records them in the form of a two-dimensional projection, a photograph. But this image is so deceitful (Rachel’s implanted childhood memories) and so betraying (Lion’s photographs which lead Deckard to Zhora) that has proven utterly unreliable. Yet human so firmly clings on to this untrustworthy shred of the lost memories, a remnant of a former existence, as if a man overboard on a driftwood, stranded in the ocean. Human has proven an astonishing capability of creating spirits for rocks and trees, and souls for the dead. So, what could stop him from arousing a sentiment over an “unreal” memory? After all, a memory is what I remember, not the moments which are long lost in time. And who can trust their memories? We form our perception of the world based on our experiences, which are nothing more than a personal account of the events.

     The confrontation scene between Roy and Deckard presents the utter diffidence and paltriness of human, who finds himself at the mercy of his own creation. There is still a long way to become God. The creator, in order to protect himself against criticism, humiliation and even vengeance, should have stayed hidden from the eyes, shielded by the unknown and mystery.

[1] Noah Harari, Yuval, Sapiens, a brief history of humankind, London: Penguin Random House UK, 2014, print, p.238