Behind the high walls of their family home, three siblings are convinced by their parents that the outside world is filled with death and danger. They spend their days in splendid isolation in a near-alternative universe where reality is kept at arm’s length by their father’s conniving machinations. That is, until he introduces co-worker Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) into the disquieting mix.
Desperate to maintain what they perceive as their children’s innocence, the nameless Mother (Michelle Valley) and Father (a quietly terrifying Christos Stergioglou) confine their family to a plush but subjugated existence at home in the quiet Greek countryside, thereby stifling the brother and two sisters’ — teetering somewhere between their late teens and early twenties — emotional if not physical growth. Lessons learnt include: cats are predatory killers and the planes flying overhead are toys pinned to an otherwise empty sky. They’ve even created their own language; snippets gleaned from tapes provided by their Mother inform them uselessly that “a carbine” is “a beautiful white bird”.
To sate Son’s (Christos Passalis) desires, Father brings female security guard Christina (from the anonymous factory where he works) for perfunctory if eye-wateringly detailed sex. But it’s her introduction into the family’s inner-circle that allows the outside world in, muddying the clear waters of their stilled existence. In Lanthimos’ cruel utopia very little happens — Father and Mother inject colour into this pallid universe with stories of a terrifying life beyond their walls, while the ‘children’ dabble with anaesthetic and self-inflicted pain to fill their days. It sounds torturous, but the film is leavened with a dry sense of humour that flickers around and then sometimes engulfs the frame. Case in point: Father and Mother debating which lie to tell next as they idle naked with a hardcore porn flick wavering on the TV screen behind them. You’re not sure whether to gasp or giggle.
The suffocating atmosphere, cleverly constructed in a film that works with a lush, sun-washed garden and white interiors bathed in light, builds to Older Daughter’s terrible unravelling when real life rushes in like a flood breaching a dam, brother and sisters falling apart in spectacular fashion as Mother and Father impose their will on and around the family unit as surely as if it were made of steel.
As harrowing as it is humorous, Giorgos Lanthimos’ award-winning journey to a family’s heart of darkness is unflinchingly detailed, thought-provoking fare.