lanthimos and language [3/4]


‘There Should Be Nothing’

Dogtooth depicts how patriarchs in neoliberal oedipal matrices deploy language according to a phobic-phallic logic, wherein all that exists Outside of the domestic sphere is transformed into an object of anxiety, an unimaginable Real that threatens subjects’ Symbolic existence; by simultaneously controlling the internal borders of the family through language, and defining anything beyond those borders as an object of existential terror, patriarchs foreclose the possibility of alternative kinship and political structures. Psychoanalysis identifies the ghost as one figure capable of disrupting and challenging these Symbolic boundaries. Lanthimos’ 2011 film Alps follows a paramedic, a gymnast, her coach and a nurse called Monte Rosa in their clandestine second job; they work as a collective that, for a price, will act in the place of deceased loved one to aid the mourning process. Though not ghosts in the supernatural sense, they act in spectral fashion, providing a form and voice through which the dead return. As such, they are able to induce a linguistic uncanny that exposes the artificiality, and therefore undermines the naturalised supremacy, of oedipal relations. However, due to the patriarchal and hierarchical structure of the Alps collective, as well as Monte Rosa’s own desires to return to her recently broken family, her ability to meaningfully and permanently challenge oedipal relations remains limited. 

Before commencing close analysis, it is worth repeating the origins and proposed abilities of the spectre in Lacanian psychoanalysis; when I later explore Monte Rosa’s limitations in contrast with the more effective Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, this will ensure distinctions are clear and precise. Colin Davis summarises how ghosts function in popular culture: the appearance of ‘ghost like creatures’ is always a ‘sign of a disturbance in the Symbolic, moral, or epistemological order’.[1] Lacan identifies Antigone as the ur-ghost who disobeys her father, Creon, by performing funeral rites for the disgraced Polynices. The furious Creon banishes her to a nearby cave with just enough food to sustain her. Antigone hangs herself. By being exiled in this way, Antigone’s Symbolic death precedes her biological death and as such she briefly inhabits ‘the domain between two deaths’.[2] The funeral ‘exemplifies Symbolisation at its purest’; through it ‘the dead are inscribed in the text of Symbolic tradition’, ‘in spite of their death, they will “continue to live” in the memory of the community’.[3] By insisting on Polynices’ funeral rites despite it bringing about her own Symbolic death, Antigone and all subsequent ghosts must be understood as ‘collectors of some unpaid Symbolic debt’.[4] As such, the spectre should be understood as having a unique power to simultaneously exist within and beyond the Symbolic borders and imaginative limits set by Oedipal patriarchs; in being able to move between the Inside and Outside, the spectre disrupts the Symbolic borders set by familial and political Fathers, exposing them as artificial rather than natural. Though I ultimately suggest that Monte Rosa is a failed ghost according to the above definition, she does have limited success in challenging Oedipal boundaries because she retains the spectral ability to ‘disrupt the secure self-presence of Subjects, concepts, theories and institutions’ even if she returns to the Oedipal frameworks that her ghostly attributes allow her to briefly challenge.[5]

Whenever one talks about a ghostly entity capable of destabilising Symbolic borders, one is also talking about the boundaries of political possibility within that Symbolic structure – in this instance, neoliberal and Oedipal capitalism – and how these boundaries can be tested, ruptured, and potentially collapsed by the haunting presence of a radically Other politics. As Matt Colquhoun summarises, ‘this Other is the spectre that Marx and Engels first conjured out of European history’; for Herbert Marcuse it was ‘the spectre of a world that could be free’, of a world beyond neoliberalism’s oedipal, linguistic, and imaginative borders.[6] Perhaps the foremost way in which Monte Rosa performs this spectral function is by invoking the uncanny. John Friedland defines the uncanny as a ‘distinctly not stabilising, but destabilising ghostly apparition of the past’ that directs a Subject back to its ‘horrible void or lack’ by exposing them to the artificiality and fragility of the Symbolic that comprises their world.[7] Lanthimos, through primarily linguistic but also formal techniques, invokes the uncanny throughout Alps and as such provides an initial spectral challenge to the phobic-phallic Symbolic of the family and capitalism.

Monte Rosa is not a ghost in the supernatural sense; she is a young woman, working two jobs, living with her Father. However, she is undeniably spectral. As Landon Palmer suggests, this is because Alps is the ‘portrait of a woman who lives entirely without identity’; forfeiting any Symbolic identity of her own, Monte Rosa ‘offers her body as a receptacle for various spectral Subjects to inhabit’.[8] As a kind of Antigone, ‘stripped of any sense of identity’, moving between but having no fixed place in the social or familial realm, ‘Monte Rosa is perennially condemned to inhabit the threshold between life and death’.[9] The more she commits to the deceased personas she is ordered to re-enact, the more intensely she beckons her social death; unable to find wholeness in either realm, she condemns herself to an endless ‘meandering “between two deaths”’.[10] Moreover, by indefinitely deferring the Symbolic death of her clients’ relatives, she disrupts Symbolic tradition; by repeating the words and gestures of people that should have passed into the Symbolic traditions of the dead, she provokes Fisher’s metaphysical question: ‘Why is there something here when there should be nothing?’[11]

The members of Alps are intensely concerned with correctly memorising and delivering their ‘lines’ to clients because they constitute the foremost means of recreating dead loved-ones; this constant repetition is also the foremost way in which Monte Rosa invokes the uncanny. Sarah Cooper notes in her article ‘Narcissus and The Lobster’ how the process of copying and repetition ‘brings out proximity to the original event or exposes the constructed status of relationships’ but every time ‘the copy always lacks something and gives itself away’.[12] Monte Rosa’s work with a man who owns a lighting shop provides a case study of this effect; she engages in a ‘rather twisted version of “orgasm faking”’ that is the result of a long game of linguistic “foreplay” between herself and the client.[13] Monte Rosa goes to dinner with the man, who informs her that there are ‘three main categories of light fittings’ with ‘various sub-categories’, before listing them for her and demanding she ‘repeat them back to [him]’. Monte Rosa tries and fails, but performs a disruptive spectral function in doing so. First, she proves that romantic relationships – the corner stone of the Oedipal triangle – are artificial, relying on Symbolically predetermined fantasmatic criteria set by the Father. Second, she exposes the uncanny gap between herself and the real wife who would have been able to list them flawlessly but has found her voice replaced with another despite the supposedly unique bond of husband and wife; romantic and familial relationships are revealed to be a projection of the Father’s own Symbolic standards, echoed back to him by a partner who fits within these fantasmatic coordinates. True love is exposed as a fake, and the Symbolic that underpins it is shaken.

This effect is repeated more intensely in a later scene when the same “couple” are in the aforementioned lighting shop. First, they rehearse an argument that took place between the man and his wife which almost results in a breakup. After delivering the lines with robotic flatness they repeat the entire ordeal, this time with louder voices and the appropriate props; Monte Rosa is asked to smash a lamp at the argument’s peak. Once again, by repeating the event once in rehearsal, then doubling this repetition in the fuller performance, the Subject is once again shown to be replicable and replaceable so long as the Father’s Symbolic framework remains intact. The pair reconcile before going into the basement to consummate this peace. The man asks Monte Rosa to say ‘it feels like paradise’ as he performs cunnilingus. As Monte Rosa reaches climax – either real or a performed repetition, the audience does not know – she utters ‘it feels like heaven’; the man looks up, the illusion shattered, the fantasmatic frame collapses and the uncanny gap is revealed, the Outside Real bursts in.

The pervasive use of cliché throughout Alps also serves to expose the impersonal, Symbolically determined nature of oedipal relations. This is clearest in the depiction of the tennis-playing daughter who Monte Rosa “replaces”. The film’s second scene depicts Mont Blanc, a paramedic by day, transporting a girl to hospital in the back of an ambulance. Already grooming her for Alps’ services, he begins asking her questions: ‘If I asked you to pick an actor, who would it be? Who’s your favourite? Look, I’ll list some names’, ‘Brad Pitt?’, ‘No?’, ‘Johnny Depp? What? Not Johnny Depp?’ As the girl lies in a coma, Monte Rosa ‘attempts to recreate a parental counselling session’ by giving the unconscious girl advice about the cliched feminine topics of ‘pregnancy and hair care’.[14] When the girl passes, Monte Rosa counsels the family by saying that their daughter ‘lost the greatest match of her life’, ‘her opponent proved too strong for her’, and pitches them Alps’ services by saying that ‘the end can be a new and better beginning’. These hackneyed turns of phrase demonstrate that language is not a vessel for expression of unique family intimacies, but repetitions of preordained Symbolic discourses and desires. Lanthimos reveals that the cumulative effect of such clichés is to ‘imprison characters in predetermined modes of behaviour that reinforce existing social hierarchies’, those of the heteronormative family and the neoliberal capitalism it maintains.[15]  Just as in Dogtooth, the absence of proper names for Alps’ characters similarly ‘reinforces the de-individuation of characters’ and reduces ‘the deceased to a set of personality traits, habits, and phrases’ that are easily recreated by Alps because the desires embodied in those phrases were always-already Symbolically determined. By invoking a linguistic uncanny, Lanthimos implies that Subjects enact desires that are not their own; they have been created elsewhere, by someone else, and are eternally repeated via a Symbolic order that benefits from the repetition of desires generated through their repeated utterance. However, Lanthimos simultaneously uses this uncanny language to gesture back towards the Outside Real, thus destabilising and undermining the supposedly total authority of Symbolic borders.

Several formal techniques reinforce Monte Rosa’s ghostliness and the Symbolically predetermined nature of Oedipal relations. Lanthimos’ framing, lighting, sound, and colouring all emphasise Monte Rosa’s ‘instability, fluctuation, and ephemerality’.[16] Her ontological flux is reflected through tone; her already ghostly pallid complexion seems to dissipate as her figure dissolves into the pale blues of the Greek sea or the pastel shades of the interiors. Moreover, the film is littered with wide shots in shallow focus that transform Monte Rosa’s body into a spectral ‘breathing shadow, an abstract body’.[17] Decapitating shots that sever character’s bodies are less prevalent than in Dogtooth but just as disconcerting; they reflect the lack of wholeness or individual subjectivity afforded to Monte Rosa by the Oedipal Symbolic. Alex Lykidis suggests that the abundance of shots depicting characters looking at something off-screen but not at each other, standing with their backs facing the camera, or off-centre frames that isolate characters to their margins are all ‘used to emphasise that the social relationships between characters are noticeably absent in these films’.[18] I would nuance Lykidis’ comment by suggesting that the relationships are present but not “real” in the way the characters may have once thought. Following this line of thought, the same techniques could be read thus: the shallow focus and frames that keep one member of the exchange off-screen or hidden from view create the impression that characters’ words are ‘floating in air’, untethered to a specific speaker, thus representing a general discourse above and between all people – the Symbolic – rather than unique utterances that emanate from an individual.[19]

Although Monte Rosa is able to induce a linguistic uncanny that reveals Oedipal relations to be Symbolically determined, her ability to make lasting and meaningful change to Oedipal flows of desire is severely limited by her own underlying desire to inhabit an Oedipal matrix; Poly Lkyourgou rightly claims that Alps’ protagonist ‘runs in vain and with sorrow back to the past, the home, the womb’.[20] Psaras also identifies this trait in Monte Rosa: using Zizek’s words, he argues that Monte Rosa becomes ‘an incarnation of pure drive’ as she pursues ‘her desperate efforts’ and ‘demand to take up the place of the deceased tennis player as well as that of her own Mother’.[21] However, where Psaras uses this notion of drive to exemplify why Monte Rosa is a successful haunt, I argue the opposite by drawing a crucial distinction between her and Martin in the following section on The Killing of a Sacred Deer. According to Lacan, desire is always the desire of the Other, and if it is the desire of the Other it is always the desire of the predetermined Symbolic; drive exists as an answer to the fundamental impasse of a Symbolic that cannot provide a justification for its existence or be directly addressed since one only has language – the language of the Symbolic – with which to address it. Thus, Monte Rosa’s desire to be part of a family is representative of the Symbolically predetermined Oedipal triangle; a ghost exhibiting pure drive would work against this matrix, looking to bring the Symbolic tradition to account, not strive to return to it.

Monte Rosa’s Oedipal desires are most apparent in her personal life when, as Nick Pinkerton observes, she returns home ‘to care – like a doting wife – for her elderly widower Father’.[22] An hour into the film, after this relationship and her Father’s flowering relationship with a woman from a local dancing club have been established, Monte Rosa attempts to mimic the role of his new lover by asking him to dance with her in their living room; she begins to play substitute privately as well as professionally. When this is declined, her desires intensify: wearing only her underwear and the upper-portion of her nursing scrubs, she prepares a drink for her Father and sits opposite him. She asks him a series of questions: ‘Who was Mum’s favourite actor?’, ‘Robert Redford’, he says, ‘Me too’, she replies. ‘Her favourite singer?’, ‘Harry Belafonte’, ‘and yours?’ she follows up, ‘Elvis Presley’ he says. As she replies ‘Mine too’, she reaches forwards and begins sliding a hand up the inside of her Father’s thigh before attempting to touch his penis. She is swiftly reprimanded, but by verbally duplicating both of her parent’s interests, before making sexual advances on her Father, the repetitive technique that initially inspired an unsettling uncanny is repurposed to Oedipal ends.

In her professional life, and the collapse thereof, similarly Oedipal desires are displayed; ‘desperate to experience the affection missing in her own life, she descends into murky terrain, testing the boundaries of her professional duties in an attempt to shape herself a life where she’s loved and valued’.[23] From the moment Monte Rosa has to inform the parents of that tennis-playing girl that she has passed, she responds with a level of emotional intensity and intimacy that seems excessive to the requirements of the professional ‘pitch’ that she is secretly and simultaneously making; she desires inclusion in their Oedipal suffering. Moreover, Monte Rosa brings the tennis-playing girl’s (ex)boyfriend – whom she initially meets under “parental” supervision as part of her work substituting for the girl – back to her private home and seduces him; she is insistent on inserting herself into the family’s desiring flows. Finally, having just had her aforementioned   advances rejected by her Father, she breaks into the home of the tennis-playing girl, climbs into her bed and, upon being discovered by her parents, begins manically reciting her lines: ‘Nice shoes! Thanks’, ‘Yesterday, I saw an old movie about a soldier!’ Even as the Father drags her down the stairs and forcibly removes her from the house she continues to repeat these lines. The repetitive technique that first worked to expose an overdetermined Symbolic now functions, or so Monte Rosa hopes, as a route back into the structures she was working against. A ghost that desires is no ghost at all, and a ghost that desires to return to the womb cannot be the ghost to meaningfully challenge the resurging hegemony of the neoliberal family. 

In Monte Rosa’s defence, the patriarchal, hierarchical, and ‘quasi-familial’ structure of the Alps collective forecloses any possibility of instantiating Oedipally-threatening drives because she is always-already caught up in Symbolically predetermined Oedipal networks with phobic-phallic Fathers. When Alps is formed, each member takes the name of a mountain from the eponymous range; Mont Blanc takes his moniker because it is ‘the name of the highest mountain’. He kindly allows his colleagues to choose from ‘any of the smaller mountains’. It is telling that the only other male member of the group – the gymnastics Coach – is second to pick and chooses ‘Matterhorn’; patriarchal hierarchy is inscribed at the level of interpellation into the group. The punishments dealt by these Father-figures is also representative of an oppressively Oedipal regime. Monte Rosa experiences harsh reprimand from Mont Blanc after he discovers that she has slept with the aforementioned boyfriend. He asks her to kneel on the gymnasium floor and stands next to her with a gymnastics club in hand: ‘if it turns red’ he says, ‘you are too unreliable and incompetent to stay with us’, if it stays white, she can stay. ‘Let’s see’ he says, before viciously beating her with the club until it is soaked with her blood. Any notion of freedom or democratic choice, particularly on behalf of the female members, is revealed to be a fake; the Father retains total control of the discourse.

The brief but powerful scenes depicting the Coach and young Gymnast make for an apt case study of this point. The film is framed at both ends by scenes of them alone. In the opening scene, the Gymnast dances to classical music. She finishes, sits, and strops: ‘What’s wrong?’ asks the coach, ‘I don’t like it […] why can’t we use a pop song?’, ‘You’re not ready for pop’, he replies. The gymnast gently insists, the Coach responds: ‘Raise your voice at me again, and I’ll take a club and crack your head open, then I’ll break your arms and legs, and then you really won’t be able to perform pop’. The threat of violence from a Father-figure again forestalls any possibility of meaningful change or resistance. Similarly, after the Gymnast insists once too often – or so the viewer is left to assume – she is discovered hanging by the neck from a gymnastics ring; Monte Rosa rescues her just in time. In the final scene, the Gymnast is seen finally dancing to pop, leading her to proclaim that he is ‘the best coach in the world’. However, as Lykidis recognises, this represents a ‘false note of euphoria’; her moves, choreographed by the Coach, remain exactly the same no matter what she dances to.[24] Her cliched hyperbole heard in combination with the gratingly cartoonish pop tune once again gesture towards a patriarchally predetermined Symbolic against which any observable change is superficial and meaningless.            

As such, despite Monte Rosa’s ability to linguistically induce the uncanny and expose Oedipal relations as Symbolically predetermined and artificial in the process, meaningful resistance to Oedipal flows of desire is severely limited by the always-already Oedipal structures in which Monte Rosa is forced to live and, as a result of these structures, her underlying desire to return to an Oedipal matrix. If this kind of ghost is unable to break apart Oedipal flows and the powers that come with them, what kind of ghost can?


[1] Colin Davis, Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Return of the Dead, (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 2.

[2] Zizek, Looking Awry, p. 21.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Davis, Haunted Subjects, p. 16.

[6] Colquhoun, Egress, p. 229.

[7] John Friedland, ‘The Uncanny’, The Symptom, 15, (Summer 2013), last accessed 20 August 2020, <lacan.com>.

[8] Landon Palmer, ‘Alps Is Exactly the Follow-Up You’d Expect From the Director of Dogtooth’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <filmschoolrejects.com>; Psaras, Weird Wave, p. 163.

[9] Psaras, Weird Wave, pp. 166-7.

[10] Ibid., p. 174.

[11] Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie, p. 12.

[12] Sarah Cooper, ‘Narcissus and The Lobster’, Studies in European Cinema, 13.2, (2016), pp. 165-6.

[13] Psaras, Weird Wave, p. 173.

[14] Alex Lykidis, ‘Crisis of Sovereignty in Greek Cinema’, Journal of Greek Media, 1.1, (October 2014), p. 22.

[15] Ibid., p. 15.

[16] Ina Karkani, ‘The Funambulist Papers 56: Framing the Weird Body in Contemporary European Cinema’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <thefunambulist.net>.

[17] Psaras, Weird Wave, p. 183.

[18] Lykidis, ‘Crisis’, p. 19.

[19] Ibid., p. 14.

[20] Lykourgou, Poly, ‘Alpeis’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <flix.gr>.

[21] Psaras, Weird Wave, p. 175.

[22] Nick Pinkerton, ‘Alps: The Full Range’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <villagevoice.com>.

[23] Janardhan, ‘Rules Are There to Be Broken’, <bfi.org.uk>.

[24] Lykidis, ‘Crisis’, p. 17.

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