Stories are going hand in hand with humanity. The main reason can be that human mind is naturally thinking in the form of stories. We are projecting tons of short stories each day in our heads. Even paintings in the Lascaux caves had been structured to resemble some kind of a story, and they have been there for over 17 500 years. The concept of mind as a small theatre is certainly an appealing idea, we should, however, concentrate more on a myth. Myths, generally or archetypally well-known stories, follow the footsteps of human race in every nation. Each folk or tribe has its own symptomatic story or stories, thus myths. Lévi-Strauss, Freud and Jung presented bewildering results concerning human psyche and behavior just by studying stories of primitive tribes. The discussion can go on and on, even anatomizing how myths were once part of a folklore and how during several decades of 19th and 20th centuries, they were assimilated and slowly transformed into popular culture, mostly thanks to industrial revolution and globalization. Studies and reality proved myths to be inseparable parts of human life as in Stone Age, Renaissance, the Age of Reason and even in the Age of Consumerism.
From the myriad of stories all over different mediums and platforms, including the tiny multifunctional theatre we are bearing on our necks, cinema can also be proud for a number of stories, which can be easily regarded as myths. Surely, there is a plethora of myths and quasi-myths all leading to the king of mythical kings, the granddaddy of them all, the iconic myth of mankind, Oedipus Rex (second in charge, Hamlet), addressing the essence of life, universe and everything else. However, every era, even a single decade, produces a cinematic myth to itsown taste. And the first decade of 21st century has already discovered the signature myth (well, several of them actually) leading the others: an obscure although knock-about film with vocal title L. We won’t be taking off sandals for a little while. L, as well as Oedipus, comes from the cradle of western myths, the country of tzatziki, Plato and economic crisis, Greece. Since its launch on the festival circuit, L proved to be a small-grand miracle. Small because of its low budget, grand thanks to the richness it bears within a simple and minimalistic albeit mesmerizing story and distinctive style. The synopsis alone - with its bizarre and at the same time witty description of the plot - teases viewers to watch it. The basic setup is a man living in a car, his narcoleptic employer, his dead best friend pretending to be a bear and his estranged wife and kids living in another car. No cinematic gourmet can resist the temptation to lay eyes on a picturesque jewel of this scale. The roots of L spring from the framework of Greek cinema which is supposed to be called New Weird Wave, a very inappropriate label. As these films are somehow reflecting and building on the aesthetics of the theatre of the absurd, I would propose to call it Post Absurdum, if there is some irrational urge to stamp a label on films by Lanthimos, Tsangari, Makridis and the likes.
Why so much commotion for some oddball Greek film with protagonist repeating almost the same routine each and every day? This film is so powerful due to its philosophical nature, despite the fact that the director is not even trying hard to establish one. L assembles and unifies several postmodern philosophical concepts such as those of Baudrillard, Virilio, McLuhan or even Barthes. It reeks of modern thinkers. The über-philosophical mélange is not a product of the director´s/screenwriter´s interest in an excessively complicated and multilayered abstract discussion. The beauty of L lies in its unnatural naturalism, the quirkiness of common days. The debuting feature director, Babis Makridis, is just simply projecting condensed experiences and thoughts from the collective unconsciousness of 21st century. This sole fact dignifies the myth status of this peculiar film about living in vehicles. However, there is another aspect consecrating its off-beat story on a cinematic treat. The films of Lanthimos and Tsangari feature strong formalistic tendencies, most visible in their lighting techniques (low-key), framings and compositions. Makridis preserves this approach fixed at formal aspects. Moreover, he adds new stuff into the mix. The most dominant element of camerawork strikes the viewer right from the beginning: painfully fixed shots. No dollying, nor riding or even panning. Besides, the fixed shots underline the minimalistic, yet ambiguous compositions. The captivating cinematography of Thimios Bakatakis (he shot both aforementioned films, Dogtooth as well as Attenberg) and editing (Giannis Halkiadakis) prevail by hypnotizing inner rhythm. The absorptive visual style is generated thanks to regular and intensive use of long and medium shots and ingenious juxtapositions.
Also, Makridis and Bakatakis did incorporate outstanding framing, particularly the scenes outside the protagonist´s car. The well established exterior shots alongside the calculated editing are enriching the aforementioned unnatural naturalism. The explicit and sophisticated elements unified only to be deconstructed pervade the whole film. Bizarre combination conjoining almost Brechtian technique of distancing the audience (which reinforces not only the mechanical-like or expressionless acting as part of the odd poetical style), yet amazing them with subconscious familiarity of the story thanks to clear referential framework. The Greek filmmaker has established his own visual style, thereby distinguishing himself for example from Lanthimos who commands impressive interior shots, unsettling but stunning framing and off-screen action. We will see whether Makridis sticks with this signature, sort of lyrical, style in the future. It would be a great shame to lose it.
The L miracle is enthralling the curious and courageous eyes casting a visual non-conforming spell. It can be recognized from far away and will burn its way into the mind of a viewer. Indeed, the unforgettable formalistic toying paves its way into the Hall of Cinematic Oddities causing a bit controversy along. How is such a thing possible? The vague nature of the story induces its minimalist essence. Where there is a minimalistic set-up, there is plenty of space for variety of interpretations. Actually, the borders of interpretation are expanding from one pole to another, leaving a vast area of choices how to grasp the message or filmmaker´s statement. Unfortunately, this concept has a certain tendency to confuse the audience. Sharing a similar subject as the (in)famous mind and reality bending Holy Motors, L disposes of an amusing ability to polarize audience. While Carax is more fiddling with the idea of Baudrillard´s simulacrum half-bred with meta-narrative about acting, life and everything, Makridis´s opus enables to be read either as a textbook about midlife crisis or palpitating existential thriller, among other possibilities. Besides baudriallardian references, there is also a bit of Schopenhauer hidden underneath the Greek allegory.
The viewers can identify in the story the traces left by Efthymis Filippou, co-writer of Dogtooth and Alps. While Dogtooth is a kind of a modern take on Plato´s parable about cave (mixed with the horrifying Fritzl case) and Alps its antithesis, both films are interweaved with everyday absurdity, deadpan jokes and mundane nonconformism. The same aspects figure in L. Furthermore, the screenwriting alliance of Makridis and Filippou has equipped the inventory of uncanny films also with new elements. The film is focused on sort of a zeitgeist statement, juggling with the notion defining present times. And one of the notions could easily be a paradigm, a template we are living by. The trope used to illustrate this statement, people bound inside/on various vehicles, fulfills all the necessary standards to be called bizarre, absurd, and yes, darkly funny. Moreover, it works par excellence. One of the many memorable scenes is a short ride with the camera mounted onto a vehicle (shooting the road and its surroundings). Not only has the director redeemed a painful lack of camera movement, he also happened to find a simple image for drive (life) force, figuratively and literally.
The unflattering observation of our lives lived by the very same formula comes as a foolish epiphany, although there´s more than one grain of truth in it. As Jean Baudrillard has put it, one of the bold features of our times is the reproduction of the same (according to the principle of cancer). Man seems to be incapable to throw down shackles of his comfort of hopelessness thereby echoing the mournful destiny of Sisyphus. Being sentenced to life not rolling a boulder, but to live trapped inside the very same paradigm. Despite the strong philosophical nature and truthful albeit daunting manifesto exposing the sign of the times, L didn´t get adequate recognition. It´s a pity that such a provoking cinematic experience (yet not stirring any controversy) remains so underrated, almost on the margin. A vigorous declaration about times we are living in wrapped in a formalistically innovative style, L is condemned to be immortalized in not exclusively cineaste circles, sooner or later. Until then, we can enjoy this cinematic opus till its last bitter drop.