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Yorgos Lanthimos, Nikos Nikolaidis and the tradition of Greek shock cinema
MIFF Critics Campus participant Kai Perrignon takes a look back to the early days of the so-called Greek "weird wave" that paved the way for MIFF favourite Yorgos Lanthimos.
One of the most anticipated titles at this year’s MIFF is undoubtedly Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest film from the star auteur of Greece’s so-called “weird wave” that’s risen to prominence across the last decade. But Lanthimos (The Lobster, MIFF 2015; Alps, MIFF 2012) isn’t the first Greek provocateur to make an impression on audiences worldwide. Back in 1990, Nikos Nikolaidis’s seminal Singapore Sling arguably paved the way for Lanthimos’s own breakout hit about screwed up family dynamics, Dogtooth (MIFF 2009).
Though Nikolaidis’s feature work stretches back to as early as 1975 with Evrydiki BA 2O37, it wasn’t until the release of the singular Singapore Sling that the director found any manner of international success. The filmmaker’s social and cinematic satires had always been critically acclaimed, but their confronting uses of violence and sexuality, as well as their often inscrutable themes, left audiences mostly cold to his work. For a brief moment in the early ’90s, however, Nikolaidis became a cult hit, internationally known and acclaimed — and it was all thanks to a strange tale of BDSM, incest, and murder.
Singapore Sling: The Man Who Loved a Corpse (as its full title) is an incredibly difficult film to describe, as it utilises various elements of noir, exploitation, thriller and experimental films to twist an archetypal detective story into something bizarre and unforgettable. At its heart, it’s a riff on Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura, as we follow a mute, alcoholic, lovesick detective obsessed with a woman of the same name’s disappearance. Where Preminger’s film traces the entire investigation all over town, however, Nikolaidis’s film begins and ends in one place: the home of Laura’s killers, an incestuous mother/daughter duo who kidnap the detective and manipulate him into a series of BDSM role-playing games, all of which the detective endures due to his mistaken belief that the younger woman is the missing Laura.
Much like Lanthimos’s later Dogtooth, Singapore Sling is obsessed with sexuality as a tool of power and performance
Much like Lanthimos’s later Dogtooth, Singapore Sling is obsessed with sexuality as a tool of power and performance. The teenage children in Dogtooth and the mother/daughter team of Singapore Sling live secluded lives, isolated from the outside world — by their parents in the former, and insanity in the latter — and they are forced to use their sexuality to deal with their delusional reality. In Lanthimos’s film, that means using sex as a bartering tool for both good behaviour and outside supplies. In Nikolaidis’s film, the mother and daughter play their games to maintain a state of movement and meaning in their decaying mansion home; shifting sexual dynamics create change and, most importantly, a sense of power in a place where hierarchies need not exist.
It’s important to note that, despite the overt presence of sexuality in both directors’ works, nothing portrayed onscreen is overtly erotic. Lanthimos pitches most of his films in such a deadpan register that most examples of sexuality — no matter how explicit — are played for dark comedy and cringe humour. Nikolaidis is much more explicit in what he shows — one of Singapore Sling’s most infamous scenes involves the insertion of kiwi into various orifices, the camera showing the audience almost everything — but he plays up the artifice of his work to such an extent that the graphic acts depicted are impossible to take seriously, erotically or otherwise. These are clearly theatrical acts, not genuine expressions of desire, and that clarity allows for both comedy and commentary to shine brighter than any supposed disturbance.