Imagine a world where lonely hearts get turned into dogs or donkeys. Or where grown men organize contests to build Ikea bookshelves and compare their erections. Imagine a world where sex is life-threatening and death is funny. What place is this?
Well, Greece apparently. That indebted democracy is currently producing some powerfully absurdist satire thanks mainly to two prominent film directors, Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari. Both of them have new films at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, providing a golden opportunity to judge whether there is really enough evidence to announce the arrival of what some media have dubbed the Greek weird wave.
Lanthimos is already well known for his 2009 feature Dogtooth, which won a hatful of international prizes and was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar. It features a fascistically overprotective family where the adult children are kept inside a suburban compound to protect them from the outside world. They are given the wrong names for everyday objects, told cats are ferocious and inevitably turn to incest.
With The Lobster, which is showing at TIFF, Lanthimos makes his English-language debut with a film that shares a similar black humour and sideways skewering of social and sexual mores: It is set in a country hotel where the single, divorced or widowed have 45 days to find a partner or be turned into the animal of their choice. The pathetic participants in this social experiment can earn extra days by hunting down and tranquilizing the rebel singletons who roam the woods around the hotel. Inevitably our hero – Colin Farrell plays a poor sap recently dumped by his wife – can't win this brutal game and winds up out in the woods, where he finds illicit love in the shape of Rachel Weisz.
Tsangari, who was Lanthimos's producer on Dogtooth, takes an apparently more realistic approach in her films, or at least they are set in the real world, not in a dystopia. Her latest, Chevalier, features six well-off Greek buddies enjoying a bit of R&R from the deck of a luxury yacht. Their natural competitive instincts soon get the better of them and they devise a series of contests – the bookshelf building, the erections, who can give blood without flinching, who makes the most convincing phone call home – and then rank each other's performances ruthlessly.
If The Lobster is an outrageous film, Chevalier is a sly one; the ridiculousness of the men's aggression sneaks up on you. Of course, the Greeks aren't the only people creating sneaky sexual satire – TIFF also includes No Men Beyond This Point, a mockumentary by Canadian director Mark Sawers about a world in which men are going extinct – but it's tempting to see a trend here. Certainly, there is a shared apprehension in Lanthimos's and Tsangari's work that the grown-ups can't be trusted. Can we tie that to a country whose leadership seems to have run it into the ground? Lanthimos isn't biting: In an interview Saturday, he said "The theme of The Lobster is universal; I don't see how it relates to Greece."
Feeling artistically blocked by the lack of a real film industry in Greece, he now lives and works in the U.K. where he can access much better funding, and he points out it has become hard to identify national cinemas or a national aesthetic any more. "Film today travels so fast, you can get a sense of a certain kind of cinema or filmmaker so fast, it's not so isolated any more; it's not that you can say this kind of films is from Greece."
Two lessons do emerge from these films, however. One is a reminder of how hard it is to create successful satire – or at least successful feature-length satire. Once audiences are done laughing at the outlandish situations and done analyzing the social points the situations score, are they going to care about the fate of these silly characters? Chevalier succeeds because of the remarkable performances that Tsangari draws from her cast, who make the men, for all their ludicrous machismo, very vulnerable and very warm. On the other hand, The Lobster, Lanthimos's bid for the wider audience an English-language film can reach, may find those viewers are harder to win over with a story that begins with an outrageous premise but then attempts a shift to a more conventional romance.
The other lesson, and it's a good one for Canadians to remember, is how significant an impact just a small amount of top-level artistic success can make on the international stage. Here are but two Greek film directors and already their unique visions have created an alternative conversation about Greece. That must surely be worth a lot to their beleaguered nation.