When Conventional Isn’t Enough: Metaphors, Allegory, and Satire in Films
Some ideas require something more than literal interpretation. Concepts and trends, too ambiguous or deeply rooted in our lives for us to be able to really put our finger on. They might have crossed the periphery of our minds like elusive dreams or hover under our nose every day. We might have even experienced them and unknowingly passed them forward in our society. To truly depict the very essence of such ideas and put their significance in perspective, filmmakers often turn away from conventional scenarios and turn towards purposefully exaggerated allegorical stories, satire, and metaphors.
And few directors can do it as masterfully as Greek director and screenwriter Yorgos Lanthimos.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
It takes one frame to feel that The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t a regular film. The strong, conspicuous feeling that something is off takes over as soon as Colin Farrell opens his mouth and starts stringing together calculated sentences like a robot who is learning to speak. All the dialogue is reminiscent of the methodical, unnatural speech you find in foreign language textbooks, except that you’d never expect to see in a textbook some of the weird things these characters say. Lanthimos not only maintains the mystery behind this lifeless demeanor for quite a while, but he heightens the tension beyond the breaking point with the help of some of the most sinister sound effects imaginable. All you know for a while is that the strange scenes playing out are like pieces of a complex puzzle that will either remain a complete mystery or make a lot of sense once everything falls in place. I thought it was definitely the latter.
…the strange scenes playing out are like pieces of a complex puzzle that will either remain a complete mystery or make a lot of sense once everything falls in place.
Just like the name of the film derives from Greek mythology, the whole film is pervaded with deep symbolism which alludes to the omnipresent concepts of justice and balance, and how it’s in our human nature to try to tip the scales in our favor even when we know it’s unfair. Above all else though, the film shines a horrific light on the innate ugliness that hides in some of us, behind the doors of gilded cages, under layers of polite, robotic conversations.
The film would have hardly been able to deliver such a universal and morbid message within the frames of an everyday scenario.
The Lobster is somewhat reminiscent of some of South Park’s narratives in the way it ridicules two opposing ends of a spectrum. On the one side, there’s the extreme belief that being alone is a personal failure that needs to be punished as a crime. Being single is forbidden, and so is masturbating in the hotel where singles have to find their “soulmate” within 45 days or they become an animal of their choice. Newcomers to the hotel have one of their hands restricted for a day in order to see how a pair works better. The “pairing” process reminds of awkward high school dances, minus the romantic part. Singles need to find someone compatible, and by compatible, Lanthimos means someone practically identical, and by identical, he means someone sharing features or flaws as trivial as inherent nose bleeding.
…saying which one is better or worse would be like choosing between obesity and anorexia.
On the other hand, you got the camp of the “loners” where the exact opposite, but equally extreme ideology reigns supreme. Seeking help or companionship of any sort is a sign of weakness. Any form of intimacy is strictly forbidden and barbarically punished. People have to pre-dig their own grave in case they die as nobody would bother burying their body. Their society is a mirror-like, reverse reflection of the hotel’s, and saying which one is better or worse would be like choosing between obesity and anorexia.
Satirical and Grim Metaphors
We definitely see more of these types of metaphorical, implausible stories within satirical and gloomy contexts. Black Mirror took the world by storm with its exaggerated (at least for now) but ridiculously accurate scenarios which expose some of the darkest aspects of our society to which technology keeps making darker. Nosedive, the first episode of the third season was a story few people would stay indifferent to. By showing what it would be like to literally live on social media and literally live off the likes of “our friends’”, the series offered a startling reflection of our society and truly lived up to its name.
Mother!, on the other hand, induces a dreamlike state in which the film’s message eerily starts to sink in deeper and deeper as the story becomes more and more implausible. The whole movie is a very unusual and imaginative metaphor, and this storytelling approach makes the takeaway far more impactful and universal. Had it tried to deliver its message through a conventional story, it would have likely came across as just another outlook on a couple’s romantic struggles.
…like a magnifying glass that doesn’t distort the truth but just makes it pop.
When it comes to comedic satire, nobody tells exaggerated, even absurd but also absurdly accurate stories the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone do. For two decades, South Park has been parodying all the covertly self-righteous, extreme, and ridiculous trends in our society by making them overtly self-righteous, extreme, and ridiculous in its episodes. The cartoon works almost like a news outlet, but rather than sticking to cold facts, it captures the ideas and human motives behind world events by recreating them within the town of South Park. Other parody series operate on a similar principle, but arguably none can compare to the cultural phenomenon that is South Park. The show has rightfully earned Trey Parker and Matt Stone the reputation of objective moral judges. The series is like a magnifying glass that doesn’t distort the truth but just makes it pop.
But not all metaphoric or allegoric scenarios view the world from gloomy or satirical standpoints. Some filmmakers use this approach to put an idea in perspective in order to help us fully grasp its beauty. Passengers delved into a concept that is as old as is love itself – the sacrifices one often has to make in the name of love and staying with a loved one. The message of the film is hardly something new, but the delivery is anything but banal. Through a scenario which at least for now is impossible and existentially scary and daunting, the film really ups the stakes in which love has to call or fold. This beautiful and deeply philosophical story can make even the most sworn cynics think twice before dismissing the idea of soulmates. Passengers is a brave and inspiring exploration of the nature of relationships and people’s capability of loving altogether.
Metaphors and allegory…are the sort of art that can change a culture’s course, and usually for the better.
Metaphors and allegory are so powerful in film, as well as in art and discourse altogether, because they offer a different, zoomed-in perspective on a problem from which everything becomes crystal clear. They are often purposefully overt and even ridiculous in order to really get their message across, and that message reaches far beyond the particular scenario. It’s a difficult and very ambitious storytelling approach that certainly wouldn’t work for all films and ideas, but when done right, the results can be truly eye-opening; they are the sort of art that can change a culture’s course, and usually for the better.