After dipping his toes in the waters of English-language filmmaking, Yorgos Lanthimos makes his return to his Greek roots with Bleat, inviting a cadre of international collaborators — notably, his current muse Emma Stone — to participate in a piece commissioned by the National Greek Opera for their Artist on the Composer program. Tasked with putting a classical piece of music to film, Lanthimos and his team have produced a curious spiritual parable devoid of sound, but teeming with familiar images of aberrant sexuality.
A small, exclusively female enclave on an unnamed island (Lanthimos shot the film on the 75-square-mile island of Tinos) congregates for a funeral. They are mourning the only man among their flock, whose widow (Emma Stone) is their youngest member. Tight close-ups of Stone’s face rhyme with the wizened faces and hands of her peers, a communal vision belied by a prevailing specter of mortality. Upon their departure, Stone’s face gradually cracks into a fissure of sorrow as she regains her composure on the brink of tears. Stone’s mechanically precise transition between the polarities of grief is striking, and more than a little disquieting, for the discipline she displays in a scenario of which, ostensibly, she has little control.
Yet she transgresses the boundaries limning life and death by resurrecting her husband through a spontaneous bout of necro-cunnilingus, sealed with a none-so-subtle lick of a portrait of Jesus hanging above the bed. Without expounding upon the rest of the plot, the man (Damien Bonnard) partakes in an unorthodox inversion of a wedding ceremony. Lanthimos has cited Macedonian Wedding, Takis Kanellopoulos’ 1960 documentary short, as an influence on Bleat’s second half. Kanellopoulos infused ethnography with a poetic romanticism, as his camera tracked in and around villagers celebrating long-standing East Macedonian and Greek customs. For his part, Lanthimos is less interested in cultural specificity than in doffing his cap to one of the prominent figures of Greek Cinema’s Golden Age.
With its other cinematic precedents and touchstones, Bleat splits the difference between the ecumenical austerity of Dreyer and the comparatively secular sacrilege of Keaton. Lanthimos’ insistence on screening the film on 35mm with live orchestral accompaniment only doubles down on this formal invocation of silent cinema. But as made evident by his two previous collaborations with Stone, he freely appropriates historical signifiers into a postmodern cocktail that vaguely gestures toward universal aphorisms. As the final minutes of the film unfold, they approximate an aura of rapturous awe that only yields a manufactured miracle.
If the spiritual dimensions of Bleat feel overly calculated, that may be because Lanthimos is a filmmaker who’s more comfortable in the realm of the senses. Goats aptly abound throughout the film, occupying a metaphorical parallel to the human figures driving the wisp-thin plot. Their presence calls attention to the peculiarity of human behavior, yet the brutal fate of one poor bovid seems distinctly informed by a vestigial echo of Greek antiquity. In this respect, Bleat yields a flash of historical specificity that’s refreshing in the wake of the director’s burgeoning overreliance on anachronism.
If the film’s offbeat pleasures are greater than the sum of their parts, then those pleasures are provided by the game artists who have helped Lanthimos realize his vision. This writer had the good fortune of seeing the film in Alice Tully Hall with an orchestra performing the accompanying pieces by J.S. Bach, Toshio Hosokawa, and Knut Nystedt. Lanthimos wished all of the musicians good luck before the screening — “Hope you do a good job!” were his words — but he needn’t have worried: their clockwork precision invigorated Thodoros Mihopoulos’ stark monochrome photography with ethereal beauty. Even if the film’s parting shot of collective transcendence rings hollow, the choir that sang over the ending instilled enough hushed awe, its voices joined in polyphonic grace.
Published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.