26th SFF - Talents Sarajevo: All the Pretty Little Horses

Fillmofil.ba proudly represents the works of young critics done in program Talents Sarajevo of 26th Sarajevo Film Festival with participation of Goethe-Institute Sarajevo

Written by: Savina Petkova

Weeps and cries with no source in sight hover over a seemingly endless landscape of hills. ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES / OLA TA MIKRA OMORFA ALOGA (2020), Michalis Konstantatos’ sophomore feature, opens with a lachrymose setting to a jarring effect. The Greek writer-director follows up his festival winner LUTON (2013), which tackled the banality of violence. Once again, captivated by the deviations of common folk, Konstantatos follows in the stylistically reticent footsteps of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, but showing more empathy than any of his Western European predecessors might have. On the other hand, recent Greek cinema has welcomed the self-marginalized characters of Babis Makridis and the clandestine aberrations of upper-middle class families in films such as DOGTOOTH / KYNODONTAS (2009) and MISS VIOLENCE (2013). ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES, as part of the Feature Film Competition of the all-online 26th Sarajevo Film Festival, turns its gaze inwards to an atypical ostracism – that of maintaining social status by means of pretense.

The film’s ominous beginning conceals an unspoken incident with traumatic ripples that has disrupted a nuclear family’s life – a husband, Petros (Dimitris Lalos), a wife, Aliki (Yota Argyropoulou, who also starred in LUTON), and their little one, Panayiotis (Alexandros Karamouzis). Indeed, the narrative withholds its otherwise simple chain of events by presenting only the aftermath of a happening in a noir-like fashion, rather than laying plain the circumstances which led to the status quo. Thriller and mystery elements frame the first half of the film and act as distancing devices for both the audience and between the characters – a story about identity theft as a source of marital friction and arousal. By intertwining the idea of thrill-seeing in a crime without consequence, the film offers an allegory for the misplacement of class in relation to Greek identity.

Konstantatos’ background in theater directing and sociology has no doubt imbued the film with subtextual gravity. While his close work with the actors has yielded tenacious Brechtian performances, the inner workings of a highly sexualized make-belief life speaks volumes of his understanding of contradictions and relationship mishaps. As a consequence, teasing out the motif of role play forth within a more rounded portrayal of a conjugal bond actually doubles the ambiguity of narrative. Even though the dialogue is all-too natural, there is a certain dead weight to the couple’s shared conversations because of the lack of particularities – they discuss that things will “get better,” that they will find “the right place” – but these filler worlds enclose another layer of abstraction for the audience to peel off. By superimposing Petros and Aliki’s tense relationship, their obvious dissatisfaction with their respective occupations, ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES veils its simple truth in mystery, that this supposedly fortuitous couple is only ever on the brink of success but never truly there. Naturally, as the demarcation line between in and out is blurred, the walls of the house they inhabit are largely glass, and the camera frequently couples reflections of the outside world (cloudy skies) with a static shot of the inside, evoking various connotations of mirrors – as surfaces that constitute one’s identity (Lacan), as a passage to another world (Lewis Carroll), or as a mechanism for exposure.

The idea of the understudy or substitution is crucial for the story of ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES. Petros and Aliki are a real family with very real troubles, as both have lost their secure jobs in Athens, and now are dwelling in someone else’s suburban home while the owner is away. While precarity provides a good pretext for their temporary life, the film touches upon the political implications of unemployment and financial troubles that seeped through Greece as a long-standing result of the 2008 crisis that swept the whole of Europe. Without any direct references, their socio-political context defines both protagonists and consequently heightens their marital tensions. The film’s aestival setting, with its verdant greens and sunburnt colors, provides a sinister backdrop to a make-belief life, while Yannis Fotou’s floating camerawork draws closer and closer from low and high angles. The camera is both intimate and scrutinizing to a nerve-racking degree, particularly as it dives in the pool with the couple, when their sexual foreplay turns sour. Sparing the viewer from any harrowing scenes with its incisive framing, the use of off-screen space here is rather titillating, separating the film from its weird-wavy predecessors. Indeed, ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES feels new in its layered use of Verfremdungseffekt to ask the very timely question of why people would go to such lengths to ensure the longevity of a lustrous (but ultimately feigned) social status.

The plot also advances an unexpected, but very political move, by revealing that the family has left Athens for the countryside, instead of the other way around. With a certain nostalgia for city life and its lost promises (is this the dissolution of “the Greek dream”?), Aliki interjects a random conversation asking about life in Athens. Panagiotis asks about returning home to play football. Nostalgia is typically a romantic notion, an ache for one’s paradise lost, but in the case of ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES, the previously well-off family is now turned destitute and their survival choice is to stand in for who they once were. As an anesthesiologist and a finance manager, they could have had the same villa they now illegally inhabit. So this scenario is far off from Yorgos Lanthimos’ ALPS / ALPEIS (2011), where people took the places of dead relatives in hope for class mobility. In Konstantatos’ film the social crisis has swollen up to a point where denouncement is impossible, thus Aliki and Petros pull it off with minimal repercussions.

By the end, a cathartic deus-ex-machina finale act promises absolution in a classical Greek way and importantly, this is relegated to a non-place. Such a gesture in itself is rooted very much in middle-class morale, as a visual manifestation of Aliki and Petros’ deliverance takes the shape of a trench in the nearby forest, once dangerous and ruptured open, now safe-guarded with metal bars. The idea of a “safe space” turns ironic in relation to class politics, but, by doing this, the film cleverly smudges its ethical lines in order to construct its incisive social criticism by adopting ambiguity as its formal approach – promising a good night’s sleep with its lullaby title, yet also making it absolutely clear that the sleep of reason breeds monsters.

Written by Savina Petkova under the mentorship of Dana Linssen and Yoana Pavlova as part of the 14th edition of Talents Sarajevo

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