Following the success of The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos engages audiences worldwide yet again with his dramatic soundtracks, obscure plots, and uncomfortably vivid cinematography and sound. The Killing of a Sacred Deer made it to the top 10 in the UK box office in its opening week. What does this mean? Has arthouse become mainstream?
Arthouse films are generally independently produced and have a niche fan-base, pursuing an artist’s ambition as opposed to a popular following and a sizeable profit. This means that the films tend to be less restricted by narrative conventions and concerned with pandering to an audience’s emotional dialect, allowing for experiment. The Killing of a Sacred Deer exemplifies just this: its unrealistically absurd and fundamentally unsatisfying plot centres around a teenage boy’s supernatural revenge on his late father’s surgeon. Amusingly metaphorical, it prioritises an examination of its ideas over a mind-numbing consumption of pleasant story-telling. Among phrases scribbled on the Watershed’s comments board were ‘a waste of 2 hours’ and ‘unpleasant’, alongside equally passionate commendations.
The growing popularity of arthouse is reflected in the burgeoning ranks of A-listers appearing in low budget, often avant-garde films. Think of Scarlett Johannsson in the dark, oblique Under the Skin, or Daniel Radcliffe’s in last year’s bizarre Swiss Army Man. The fact that Colin Farrell plays Killing’s beleaguered lead, and superstar Nicole Kidman his mysterious, domineering wife, is a continuation of a trend that indicates the growing willingness of not just actors, but of the market to take risks, and push audiences into unfamiliar, often uncomfortable places.
There is no evidence to suggest that the artistic methods and ideas being explored now were not explored in the same depth and with the same creativity fifty years ago. But with such huge, varied distribution offered by modern media, particularly Netflix, the average couch potato can access a whole range of cinematic forms, as opposed to simply the current blockbuster at the local cineplex. When someone sits down at home one weekend, and turns on Netflix for their evening’s entertainment, they no longer have to worry that by putting on an obscure, Czech arthouse film, they’re facing a serious risk: they’re not spending any more of their hard earned money, and the film can always be turned off and replaced with one of Netflix’s countless other titles in a matter of seconds. In this sense, arthouse is finding audiences it previously could not reach, and this added accessibility is opening up arthouse’s narrow niches to mainstream cinema.
Artistic freedom means free expression, conveying important messages and reflections of culture and society, and the influence of mainstream media causes audiences to become more accepting of, and receptive towards these ideas. On the other hand, the popularity of the fringe threatens the fringe itself as it becomes the centre. But this is the nature of art and culture – always evolving and rotating. Perhaps we are venturing towards an even more radical form of cinema. And perhaps this in turn will cycle round to the classicism of the mid-20th century yet again. The direction of cinema is ever-changing.