I couldn't stop thinking about The Lobster days after watching it (that ending: did he? didn't he?), so my response to Yorgos Lanthimos' follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, may be the result of sky-high expectations – but I think the film really is a huge disappointment. Colin Farrell plays Steven, a surgeon who befriends a teenager (Martin, played by Barry Keoghan), and this causes havoc back home. (Nicole Kidman plays Steven's wife; she's excellent.) It has to do with Martin's father. To tell more would be to kill what little interest there is in this one-note premise (actions have consequences), but I should mention Martin's mother, who holds a torch for Steven. One evening after dinner, when he gets up to leave before dessert, she gets hysterical. "I can't let you leave until you have tried my tart." I got hysterical too.
The story, as in The Lobster, centres on a gimmicky conceit, but that film was coloured by a wonderful weirdness. Everything, everyone was so… absurd that things fit together, felt right. Here, Lanthimos plays it too straight – for the most part, it's like a routine (and frankly dull) domestic drama, and the eerieness of the Stephen King-meets-Fatal Attraction-meets-Sophie's Choice design doesn't catch. Lanthimos slathers on the effects – jangly music, robotic line readings – but everything is external. Nothing emerges from within. Sacred Deer is a clockwork toy. It feels mechanical. The final scenes should have been harrowing, but I merely felt manipulated, and not in a good way.
The eponymous heroine (Jasmine Trinca) of Sergio Castellitto's Fortunata is the victim of domestic abuse – soon-to-be ex-husband Franco (Edoardo Pesce) keeps showing up and threatening her. Their sullen daughter, Barbara (Nicole Centanni), needs therapy. (Stefano Accorsi plays Patrizio, the doctor). At one point, Franco takes Barbara away and Fortunata barges into Patrizio's office to tell him her daughter is going to miss a session. "Why didn't you just call?" he asks. I grinned. Of course she wouldn't. She needed to be in the same room with him, so we sense the smouldering passion between gentle doctor and bruised mother. Listen, I'm not judging. There comes a point during every festival when you need a break from all the… aaht. A steamy Italian melodrama seemed just what the docteur ordered.
But the film veers into unexpected directions – a reminder that life for an unhappy woman isn't always what Danielle Steel tells us it is. There's death, a heartbreaking separation, professional failure… Even the sex is different. You expect a bubble bath and tender ministrations, the kind Hollywood has trained us to expect. But Patrizio literally bangs Fortunata, a hand lightly closing around her throat. Fortunata isn't always satisfying, but I liked that it's a you-go-girl saga with jagged edges. We know Fortunata will survive. What we don't know is whether there will be a happily-ever-after.
No festival is complete without a stark Iranian drama where nothing of great interest seems to happen for about an hour, and then the screws-tightening second hour recasts everything we thought we knew. Mohammad Rasoulof's Lerd (A Man of Integrity) is the story of Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad) who quit city life and came away to the outskirts with his wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee), and son. But the idyllic life he craved is fast becoming a pipe dream. An unnamed local corporation is after his land and they'll stop at nothing. Can Reza remain… a man of integrity?
Even if we know the answer, the film leads us there in startling ways. For one, this isn't a David-Goliath story. There are no winners. The film is about how a family crumbles under pressure. Hadis, at first, seems the strong one, prone to statements like "Men's pride can sometimes bring about problems that only a woman's intelligence can solve." But her character takes a turn that left me shocked. That's the thing with Iranian cinema. The events only sound like melodrama. What you're reacting to isn't a director's manipulation but the realisation that the things people do on screen aren't all that different from what we'd do in a similar situation. These thrillers are existential in the truest sense, and no country makes them better.
More films that slipped away. Hong Sang-soo's Geu-Hu (The Day After; Korean) – about a woman who joins a publishing company and discovers her boss is a philanderer. I'm going to have to consume several glasses of soju to get over this miss. And thanks to my flight bookings, I'm not going to be able to watch the Fatih Akin (In the Fade) and the Polanski (Based on a True Story). The former is about a woman who loses her family in a bomb attack. Step 1: Mourning. Step 2: Revenge. And the latter is about a bestselling female author who develops an "intense" and "disturbing" friendship with another woman. A true film buff doesn't do the glass-half-full thing. It isn't about how many films you were among the first in the world to see. It's always about the ones you missed.
Watch a clip from The Killing Of A Sacred Deer here-