This year, Cannes programmers decided on a special form of psychological torture: 13 out of 19 competition films feature the torment of children, among them sinister new dramas by Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, Happy End and Killing of a Sacred Deer, respectively. Their tense moods are amplified off-screen, by news headlines about the recent mass bombing in Manchester, and in the lines to see films, which were especially long because of extra security checks.
Haneke’s film begins as a live video stream from an upright iPhone — a jarring sight at a theatrical screening. The author, we later find out, is 13-year-old Eve (Fantine Harduin), a warped product of neglected childhood — her dad left, and her depressed mother ignores her. Eve doses a hamster with anti-depressants, then her mother, wondering on live chat “how easy it is to make people quiet.” With her mom in a hospital, Eve can join her dad’s wealthy clan in Calais, where the real fun begins.
The Laurents, imperious Calais industrialists, hardly notice the immigrants who serve them. Anne, the matriarch, is a master of damage control. She shuts down a lawsuit after an employee dies in a landslide (we see the accident via a CCTV feed). She also shuts down her Moroccan live-in servants (Hassan Ghancy and Nabiha Akkar) when they worry about their daughter’s bloody dog bite. Her son Pierre’s (Franz Rogowski) feeble attempts at cross-racial fraternization backfire. The son of the dead worker beats him up when he comes to apologize. Anne kicks him out of the family business.
Despite these storylines, the film does not quite succeed as an indictment of French nativism. Refugees serve more as a backdrop than a driving force, unlike Haneke’s earlier Caché. Instead, Eve represents them, as an “immigrant” in the Laurents’ household. Impassive and silent, she become as invisible to the Laurents as their help. Her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife Anais (Laura Verlinden) are busy with a new infant. Her suicidal grandfather George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) seems frail and not all there, and casually hostile to his unwanted granddaughter.
Happy End is a Snapchat collage of Haneke’s previous movies rather than a new chapter, continuing themes of video surveillance and immigration (Caché), euthanasia and suicide (George and Anne step into Happy End directly from Amour) and sadistic children (White Ribbon). Yet it is also lighter than these earlier works. Eve is a menace to the Laurents as well as their victim: her tech savvy wreaks havoc in her father’s deviant sex life. Eventually George reaches out to Eva, recognizing a kindred soul obsessed with death. Their mutual understanding leads to an almost lyrical (if macabre) outcome.
Nicole Kidman at Cannes 2017. Photo by Terence Baelen
Killing of a Sacred Deer is brutal rather than lyrical. The Greek director’s second American film features the kind of affectless acting and stilted dialogue that made a fantastic tale about single people turned into animals — The Lobster, which was at Cannes in 2015 — such a delight.
Cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) talks like a zombie and treads slowly through interminable Cincinnati hospital corridors filmed with a fisheye lens. His ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman) lies motionless on a bed for a “general anesthetic” lovemaking mode. His little son Bob (Sunny Suljic) asks strangers to display their armpit hair. “I just started my period” is his daughter Kim’s (Raffey Cassidy) idea of a conversation starter.
The family is under threat from Steven’s secret friend (a bit of a stalker), 16-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan), who drops by at the hospital unannounced and calls Steven at home. The two have dinners together and exchange presents. But gradually their relationship sours. Martin’s father died on Steve’s operating table. He blames the surgeon and demands retribution.
The story, turns out, is an updated remake of a Greek tragedy. Kim had starred in a school production of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis, wherein goddess Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter for killing a deer in her sacred wood. This prepares us for what’s coming.
Killing of a Sacred Deer is a film better seen without knowing the spoilers. Screenwriter Efthimis Filippou (who also wrote The Lobster) dramatizes the battle between science and fate, as Steve wastes precious hours trying to make sense of the mysterious ailments afflicting first one, then both of his children. Steve denies his guilt, saying that “the surgeon is never to blame” for a death, only the anesthesiologist. Then the family members turn on each other.
Despite the plot’s suspenseful twists and turns, the characters’ predicaments fail to touch the spectator. Filippou’s zany storytelling talents are wasted on an archetypal story. The value of a sacrifice depends on emotions – familial attachments, love and loss — and Lanthimos’s wooden characters cannot muster much suffering, beyond being afraid for their own merciless fate. Deer‘s didactic lesson would bore even the Greeks – for them, Iphigenia’s story had an open ending. ■