ArteKino Festival: Pity Review
The presence of regular Yorgos Lanthimos collaborator Efthymis Filippou as co-writer will give you some idea of what to expect from Greek film Pity.
Filippou brings the same parchment-dry, absurdist black comedy to bear here as he and Lanthimos cooked up for Dogtooth, Alps, The Killing of A Sacred Deer and Oscar-nominated The Lobster. Director Babis Makridis’s sophomore movie – after 2012’s L – also features other Lanthimos trademarks, such as actors delivering their lines in a deliberately stilted fashion, themes of alienation and familial disfunction, and a touch of horror.
The Lawyer (Yannis Drakopoulos) – no one in Pity is given a name – has a wife (Evi Saoulidou) in a coma which brings him a certain amount of sympathy from his secretary, his dry cleaner, and a concerned neighbour who regularly bakes him a delicious-looking orange cake. But when The Lawyer’s spouse regains consciousness and quickly returns to normal, the attention he has been getting evaporates.
Rather than elation, the turn of events makes him feel even more bereft and it soon becomes clear he is addicted to feeling sad and the pity – however perfunctory and insincere – he receives from others. At this point the film takes a bizarre turn as The Lawyer goes to increasingly extreme lengths to continue his wallow in melancholia – letting off tear gas in the apartment to make himself cry, withholding news of his wife’s recovery so people continue to feel sorry for him, and even trying to drown the family dog.
Other than sorrow, The Lawyer is unable to feel any emotion; not joy (he detunes his son’s piano because he can’t abide the beautiful music it makes) nor desire (when his wife exposes a breast to initiate sex, he suggests she have a mammogram). Any concept of fun seems alien to him, even when throwing a ball for his poor mutt or playing beach tennis with a pal.
Makridis never invites us to feel sorry for The Lawyer but does want us to understand him. The director’s camera is often static, mirroring the supposedly stagnant state of his protagonist’s life. The deadpan Drakopoulos – who you might remember from 2015’s Chevalier – is frequently isolated and alone in the frame, with lots of dead space around him. There is usually a physical barrier between him and other characters – they sit or stand behind desks, doors or counters, sometimes with their backs to him. The mise-en-scène is suffused with vertical straight lines, like prison bars, and his otherwise spacious apartment has a narrow corridor which Makridis shoots like something out of a horror movie.
There is a feeling of The Lawyer being trapped, hemmed in; this is a lonely and desperately unhappy man for whom affluence and stability have become a curse. When he goes off the deep end in the film's crazed final act, it is only a little surprising.
But despite Makridis’s best efforts, we quickly come to resent The Lawyer’s self-indulgence. After all, what does this increasingly ridiculous man have to feel so miserable about? He has a gorgeous wife, who has been miraculously returned to him, a talented son, an expensive apartment just a stone’s throw from the beach, a good job, and a best friend – he should be a picture of middle-class contentment. And yet ennui gnaws away at him like a rat with a chicken bone.
I’m not entirely sure what Makridis’s point is. Is Pity intended as a broadside against the well-heeled Greek professional classes when it’s the country’s workers who bore the brunt of a decade of austerity? Is the director suggesting his fellow countrymen have spent the last 10 years wallowing in misery and now have no idea how to feel any different? Or maybe his film is simply what it appears to be – an absurdist portrait of middle-class manhood in crisis.
Whatever, Makridis’s film is another fine example of the Greek Weird Wave's ability to baffle, amuse and horrify in equal measure. You quickly become hooked wondering just how far The Lawyer is prepared to take his quest for attention. The answer is just about as far as it is possible to imagine.
The ArteKino Festival runs online between 1-31 December 2018