“From your blood, reckless car drivers!”
A bankrupt nation suffering from severe depression that’s ripe for surrealistic cinematic escape, Greece has spawned some wild films lately. Whereas Dogtooth possessed a plot you could dig into as an outsider, however, I’m at somewhat of a loss with Babis Makridis‘ L. There’s definitely a strain of social and economic commentary at play courtesy of an emotionless tone and weirdly stringent views on human interaction, but I’m drowning underneath the artifice with nothing to securely grab hold of save the quirkily dystopian aesthetic. That imagery is unequivocally magnificent: the lead character’s (Aris Servetalis) nightmarish sojourns in the woods with his best friend’s (Lefteris Matthaiou) bloody ghost, shot by a hunter mistaking him for a bear, proving just one of many unforgettable details. But what does it mean?
The conceit is surprisingly matter-of-fact despite its seeming incoherency. Servetalis is a father of two who lives in his car. This automobile is his life’s blood and as such a beacon of safety. His wife (Nota Cherniavsky) and children don’t live with him but do often visit by pulling their car to his window at empty parking lots. His occupation is that of a transporter of high-end honey to his employer (Yannis Bostantzoglou) within a system carefully regimented and scripted so as to confuse no one and run like clockwork. But for some reason Servetalis’ life has entered a period of upheaval—subtly, but without question. His son notices it in his driving; his boss grows concerned by his tardiness. His reliable robotic façade has lost its perfection.
Again, though, I ask what it all means because it’s not funny enough to exist as a straight comedy and it’s too obtuse to solve without a glimpse into Makridis’ mind, those of his collaborators (Efthymis Flilppou and George Giokas), or the history of contemporary Greece. My guess is what has grown to an estimated 35% spike in suicides over the three years since L‘s release. The film masks this with supposed accidents, but it’s difficult to see them at face value when the causes are so absurd. A man with a beard gets mistaken for a bear? A proficient yachtsman drowns because he forgot his boat shoes? An expert motorcyclist’s love is cut down because she stopped in the middle of the road? No this goes beyond coincidence.
It’s intriguing because the evolution towards a lack of safety arrives as Servetalis seeks to secure himself. The man believed he couldn’t be safer than inside his car—a fact that keeps him behind closed doors for half the film before he inexplicably re-ties his shoes outside—but he changes gears as his world begins to spiral out of control due to a loss of job, lack of love, and growing hopelessness. Suddenly the idea of riding a motorcycle appeals to him as a more reasonable, safer, and efficient means of travel. In his mind this is the greatest decision of his life until seeing new friend Black Rider (Makis Papadimitriou) fallen on the side of the road because he “slipped.” That would never happen in a car.
So he begins wondering about boats and the sea—the mode of transportation his sad sack friend (Stavros Raptis) dreams to acquire. Would owning a boat be safer? He does live by Sounion—his favorite destination to drive to with its own cassette tape soundtrack. The water is all around him and yet here he is remaining on roads full of tragedy wherein life starts looking as though caution and survival are out of his control. His world isn’t crumbling, the entire world is. Trust in his abilities as a driver wane; trust in his ability as a father follows. There becomes nothing left to live for as everybody he once knew disappears one by one. Talk about depression-induced drama that no amount of laughter can offset.
And yet we do laugh because we aren’t living it. To see the complacency onscreen is to see a manufactured air of characterization one would find in a satire. Only that’s not what this is. L is a cry for help, compassion, and understanding. The country is trapped within the doors of its international borders as chaos reigns supreme. Servetalis being strapped to his car is a metaphor with grave consequences but we still laugh because it makes no sense in our own terms of existence. Crazy people live like this, not stable fathers and husbands trying to scrap by while friends and family die around them. Pillars of society have unwittingly devolved into unrecognizable shells of their former selves so those closest don’t know who they are.
What was an interesting fantasy of honey as gold and threats on the wings of indecipherable parables about wolves and ants reveals itself as a depressing look at a reality we’re lucky not to know. We can laugh at Servetalis’ character going through his odd mid-life crisis rather than acknowledge the look of utter defeat in his eyes as every step forward ends up three steps back. We laugh when his wife closes her windows to him, ignoring the look she gives is killing him bit by bit inside. Rather than wonder if affording a boat or even a semblance of leisure time is possible, these people now ask how they’d like to die and what their last words will be. This is as dire as life gets.