Pantelis Voulgaris’ Little England / Mikra Anglia (2013) and the Power of Emotional Excess
Unquestionably, Little England, Pantelis Voulgaris’ latest film, is made for the big screen: it is monumental and expansive, a fresco structured around long shots with expressive depth of field and a unique visual perspective transporting spectators to the precarious boundaries between pathos and sentimentalism. The film is framed by the excess of emotions that permeate both story and representation: there is no distancing vacuum in its mise-en-scène: everything is full of a powerful rhetoric that suspends the resistances of the spectator through its rejection of both naturalism and illusionism at the same time.
The story itself is quiet complex and intriguing: set in the 1930s and 1940s, it is about the love affair of two sisters with the same man, within the provincial society on the island of Andros (affectionately called ‘Little England’, as its small society imitated to social organisation of the mighty English naval empire). Their mother (Aneza Papadopoulou), the viper, as she is called, decides, for reasons of financial security, to marry the second daughter Moscha (Sophia Kokkali) with the man that the first is in love with (Andreas Konstantinou) and the first Orsa (Penelope Tsilika) with a powerful and wealthy shipowner (Maximos Moumouris). After her decision, the house, which was built by herself and her husband who is travelling for years in distant countries, becomes the haunted place of a bizarre and tense coexistence. The secret love remains secret until Moscha’s husband is killed during the Second World War in the most explosive moment of the film. Orsa’s mental state disintegrates, while later her letters to her first love are discovered and explain to her sister and her own family how it happened.
The film is based on a popular novel by Ioanna Karystiani (1st edition, Athens, Kastaniotis 1997) who also wrote the script and its literary origin can be felt throughout its visual adaptation. It is also an independent, through private investors, production made on digital camera and with the use of impressive digital effects which show the new technological potential liberated by the funding crisis in film production in Greece.
Its thematic core is about the absence of men in remote lands as sailors for trading, an absence which imposes a de facto matrifocal domination on the island: men are presented as playthings of female passions, or as lost children who return to their families with the expectation to be chastised by their wife, who in reality is their mother, have sex with them, produce children and disappear again for sex and money elsewhere. Women seem to have internalised their inferior role that the traditional patriarchal society has imposed upon them; unable to react or confront the dominant rules, they remain prisoners of their own limited authority, turning their sexual frustration and bitterness against their own gender, indeed against their own body.
Voulgaris’ film explores the hidden psychodynamics of such family structures: the absent yet ubiquitous father and the omnipotent yet distant mother create a strange atmosphere of confused emotions and entangled identities. From within such confusion of a family romance, the real melodrama emerges, as an attempt, through the excess of emotions, to explore the feminine emotional world and its mysterious identifications or indeed destructive attachments.
As a film, Little England primarily explores space and the way that people move through space—both the space of actual experience and the imaginary space of memory. The central cinematic virtue of the film is focused around the movement of the camera from open spaces to confined private rooms where the real drama takes place. Fast editing and swift alternation between internal and external sequences make the film one of the rare examples we have in contemporary Greek cinema of a director who knows how to take his spectators to long journeys both in expressionism and poetic realism.
Most significantly, Little England is a radical departure from the dominant visual representations that we have seen during the last ten years with the films by Yorgos Lanthimos, Athena-Rachel Tsangari, Filippos Tsitos and Alexandros Avranas. Within the context of the so-called Weird Greek Wave, films like this bring back to memory happier days from the history of visual cultures, when spectators were seduced by story and characters and not simply shocked by them (if we accept of course that there are characters or story in films like Dogtooth / Kynodontas). The film narrative is structured around a powerful story line, suggestive dialogues and subtle emotional nuances, without ambiguities, abstractions and cryptic references.
From the beginning till the end, this film re-writes certain generic strategies of melodrama by infusing its linear plot with the force of memory, nostalgia and loss. The main form of its melodramatic structure is focused around the restoration of an Aristotelian mytho-poetic articulation, through a chronologically continuous story-line which does not leave gaps or unresolved conflicts. In reality, this is a Euripidean tragedy full of strong sentiments of affect and empathy; the invisible narrator appears sporadically like a missing chorus to guide spectators over the period of almost two decades that the main action takes place.
This was always a strong undercurrent in the work of Voulgaris since his first film; furthermore, the grand melodramas of 1960s and early 1970s didn’t simply disappear after the New Greek Cinema dominated film production after the fall of the military Junta in 1974. Despite its rejection by contemporary directors, Yannis Dalianidis’ urban family melodramas, especially Stephania (1966) and Tears for Electra / Dakria gia tin Electra (1966), which were among the first to depict psychopathology as the central reality principle in the Greek family, still remain seminal but unexplored texts informing the way that contemporary Greek films represent the psychic impact of wider societal structures. The tendency to reinvent melodrama by problematising its generic complexities gave rise to a certain nostalgia about its past, with Voulgaris himself being at the forefront of such effort.
The nostalgic wave had started already in the 1980s and produced some of the most significant films in the country, as for example are Voulgaris’ own Stone Years / Petrina Hronia (1985) and the underrated but extraordinary The Price of Love / I Timi tis Agapis (1984) by Tonia Marketaki; it was renewed later by Dinos Dimopoulos’ The Little Dolphins /Ta Delfinakia tou Amvrakikou (1993) and finally monumentalised by Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow / To Livadi pou Dakrizi (2004), which constructed the grand uber-text for the renewed melodramatic imagination of the 21st century—something that has to be taken more seriously for the appreciation of Angelopoulos’ late aesthetics.
Voulgaris has produced some exceptional films in the genre; in a sense even in his early Anna’s Engagement / To Proxenio tis Annas (1972) he utilised with more or less success the abilities of this “open genre” reconfiguring the fluidity of its conventions. In his last film, he brought together urban drama, family romance, women’s picture and costume melodrama articulating thus an interesting exploration of the Greek cinematic imaginary and the changing forms of its self-pictorialisation. The differences between his Stone Years and his minimalistic masterwork, according to my opinion, It’s a long Road / Ola ine Dromos (1998) show the transition from the expressionistic style of his previous visual explorations to the impressionism of his later films, as found in Brides / Nifes (2004) and Deep Soul / Psyhi Vathia (2009).
In Little England, colour, mood and atmosphere play central role in the actual performative function of his images. Indeed, here nostalgia is expressed through an atmospheric reconfiguration of reality, through forms of poetic realism reminiscent of the best films by Jean Renoir with its heightened aestheticism ultimately foregrounding the subtle and complex representational dimension of the film.
In his previous films also character and personal relations framed existential dramas, dramas of personal redemption, or individual self-empowerment, although they are not always cinematically successful, as for example happens with Brides. In Little England, however, the atmosphere possesses an accomplished immediacy not relying on camera effects while at the same time the mise-en-scène is based on subtle chromatic tones of blue, mauve, ochre and cypress that give each separate frame their distinct impressionistic visuality. However, in most of these films Voulgaris seems to rely excessively on the performance of his actors, who, with very few exceptions, seem to have graduated from the National Theatre: their overabundance of loud emotions overpowers the subtlety and the private nature of the actual emotions depicted in them.
After 2004, we have seen some failed attempts to revisit the Greek past and produce films of nostalgia about the proud history of the nation. For example, Yannis Smaragdis’ El Greco (2007) and God Loves Caviar / O Theos Agapai to Haviari (2012) are some of the least successful samples of this movement: they frame not an era but an ideology, by presenting a modern appropriation of the past without any attempt to depict its complexities and most importantly its differences from the present. Smaragdis’ pseudo-patriotic epics are like the war dramas produced during the 1967 dictatorship: they present the lonely Greek as an exceptional hero in a hostile environment surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, in a demonic and Gnostic universe of illusory conflicts.
In his last film Voulgaris presents a much more sophisticated representation of the past without idealisations and superfluous symbolisms. The camera by Simos Sarketzis subdues the excess of emotions by de-intensifying them and surrounding costumes and bodies with the muffled and faded colours of a family album opened decades after. The music score by Katerina Polemi also follows discreetly the images by enhancing their affectivity only when it is absolutely necessary: yet it is the music of the internal landscape that really matters in this film, given by the vibrations of the sea, the birds, the sounds of clothes, of the human footsteps, and the weather as echoed in the deep recesses of the human mind. As with the music of Eleni Karaindrou, Polemi’s score is a cluster of echolalias, reverbations of natural sounds in the aural labyrinth of failed dreams and frustrated desires.
The film investigates a deep emotional disrupture in the fabric of a traditional society, by problematising the emotional unity of its characters. We will not insist on certain obvious shortcomings: one could claim that it is thirty minutes too long, (see Katsounaki’s review below), the script occasionally sounds too literary and not dramatic enough, the acting is frequently too theatrical and self-conscious, while the language used is an incongruous mixture of local expressions and contemporary colloquialisms; if these aspects were edited, the whole film would have been an artistic triumph, as a romantic opera dedicated to the power of emotional and libidinal repression.
Nevertheless, the script tries to create a mythology about a pre-modern world inhabited by displaced feelings and oppressive invisible rituals. In a sense it is the best film on female masochism, the best Freudian visual essay on the psychic structure of contemporary Greek women. Sometimes dramatic tension is sacrificed to awkward forms of poetic aphorisms, which in a film by Theo Angelopoulos, with its symbolic artificiality and dialogues taken from the poetry of George Seferis, Rainer Maria Rilke or Homer, would have been inevitable, but in a film by Voulgaris are totally out of place. Dialogues like “Mother, masculine fingers are heavy; they only touch you and you melt...”, or “whoever drowned in the sea regretted it” or “What am I to you? A plot of land to sell me out...?” sound so ponderous and trivial that they simply dispel the affectionate atmosphere of the story.
Probably, the prudishness of the script, which tries to hide the very strong sexual subtext of the relations, is what ultimately creates a deep incommensurability between image and its references. The fierce emotional antagonism between the two sisters remains underutilised and undermines the narrative cohesion of the film. In the end the reluctance to present women as sexual subjects and not simply as symbols of societal rules creates an aesthetic anomaly within its story: is the film a mythos about femininity or an escapist tale away from femininity?
Beyond these shortcomings however the visual aspects of the film are uniquely enchanting. Definitely, it doesn’t possess the hypnotic qualities of an Angelopoulian visual-scape with its numerous details, reverse perspective and Neo-Platonic geometries. It is a film based on human form, the human face, the movement of the body in front of the camera, the movement of clothes, the reality of small objects, the transforming presence of furniture, the magnetic rituals of the living room, the sexualisation of female hair and finally the poetry of the bedroom with its muffled sighs and seductive silences. The ultimate symbol of its visual world, the sea, opens and ends the film, being the mere/mer of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the beginning and the end, the womb and the grave.
Against this timeless background, Voulgaris manages to create archetypal forms without altogether sacrificing the historicity of their representation. They are all recollections of a lost world, a world of unredeemable tensions without closure or a sense of finality. In his previous film, Deep Soul, the plight of the individual was determined by grand historical forces that overpowered the personal ability to choose. Here, the story is based on the actual choices of individuals that bind them forever although they know that they are wrong. There is a sense of fatalism and pessimism beneath the overpowering sentimentality of the story: without any sense of idealisation the film addresses the omnipotent presence of structures that people are not aware of and thus are unable to confront. The only sign that indicates and escape to another reality is the name Little England, a reference to an illusory centre of self-determination while at a colonised outpost in an unknown corner of the Mediterranean.
The main thrust of its visual configuration is given by the faded impressionist colours that constitute the most important running commentary on the action. The camera frames unfilled desires, as they interact and collide through a process of continuous displacements. Yet it avoids strong contrasts, or sharp figurations; it is based on a series of still-lifes with cohesive colours and interlocking forms, like monochromatic photographs with obvious layers of superimposed paint, symbols of the double life that the characters experience.
In that respect, Voulgaris’ melodrama is close to Douglas Sirk’s perception of space, colour and action, minus of course Sirk’s redeeming and subversive self-irony. Very effectively it conceals its critical message by refocusing attention on the style of representation and less on the factuality of what is represented. Through its Monet-like chromatic tones the whole action is de-realised, in a psychologically powerful manner, as a Freudian sublimation. What is a déjà vu becomes a strange and awe-inspiring jamais vu: although the spectator has experienced such expression of emotional excess, Voulgaris’ film takes it to the extremes and somehow to its reductio ad absurdum. The internalised dilemmas continue till the end: the spectator anticipates a catharsis which never comes. The romanticism of the story finds here its ultimate expression: women fatalistically love for ever whereas men take their children and disappear in London.
Voulgaris’ characters do not communicate—not even through their silence, or even through their bodies. As the sexual bond is not expressed, the whole story remains in a pregnant ambiguity. The polymorphous perversity of desire raises the question about who desires whom in this film: is the most important aspect of the story the hidden erotic identification between the sisters? Are both sisters, symbolic expressions of the maternal “phallic envy” through which the disempowered mother can reclaim authority and influence in the public sphere? And why are men so passive, so lost, so inarticulate? Is the whole film a male fantasy, expressing a reversed Law of the Father, as the feminine is tortured by ideals of marital fidelity and monogamy at the moment that the males are enjoying themselves all over the planet? Is this the ultimate male fantasy about the irreplaceability of the penis and the self-inferiorisation of the female body?
Ultimately, Voulgaris’ film is based on the revelatory power of the letter, in an interesting device which gives the film its ultimate closure. The letters themselves are symbols of what Laura Malvey observed about Sirk’s melodramas; that “the fact of having a female point of view dominating the narrative produces an excess which precludes satisfaction” (1). Although the letters are written by a woman to a man, they are read and more importantly understood only by other women: the letters as objects are erotic rituals of reconciliation and existential appeasement.
The film is therefore an implicit exploration of frustrated female sexuality, or even homoeroticism, with the men incapacitated and totally unable to produce forms or symbols of their sexuality. In this melodrama, the impasse of heterosexual libidinal drives finds its most eloquent exposition. It is certain that male spectators will feel satisfied with the end of the film while female ones must remain in an uneasy ambivalence.
Within the context of the recent Greek cinema of transgression as expressed by Lanthimos and Avranas, this film affirms the possibility of an anthropocentric cinematic space; within the Greek crisis of self-perception, and one could claim within the European crisis of representation, Voulgaris dares to overthrow postmodern forms of narrative in order to restore pure representationalism to its canonical status. Instead of being close to the loud emotionalism framed by Giuseppe Tornatore, with its communal feeling of perpetual innocence, we would suggest that, at least in this film, he is closer to Terence Davies’ works, like The House of Mirth (2000) and The Deep Blue Sea (2011) with their symphonic structure, repressed sexuality and slow introspective temporality.
Like in Davies’ films, Little England is punctuated by the tension of unredeemed sexuality which struggles to find its symbolic expression for both the characters and their emphatic union with the audience. Voulgaris presents, according to Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase, “passion for compassion”, as his cinema constructs a monument to human vulnerability in an era of cynicism and diminished expectations. According to the pioneer study by Peter Brooks, melodrama is modernity’s response to the “loss of tragic vision” (2). Voulgaris manages to reach some genuine tragic moments in the film which make it a very interesting formal attempt in retrieving lost values.
Generally speaking Little England is a film about the tragic grandeur of failure and the anguished psyche of individuals who didn’t dare confront the societal codes that conditioned them. We know that the era of revolutions is gone; even the memory of the famous revolutionaries simply creates sadness and melancholy. The only heroes that survive are the unsung ordinary people crashed under the weight of social pressure and the normalities of conformism—and such are the main characters in this moral epic story: normal people destroyed by their normality.
Furthermore, Little England is a film that shows the diversity and the richness of contemporary Greek film-making which is not reducible to the mannerisms, self-indulgence and affectations of the Weird Wave. And despite its flaws, Little England’s presence is a solid achievement, a magnificent architectural collision between means and ends, an imbroglio between intentions and outcomes. The tension and energy of its architectural complexity establishes the foundations for a cinema of narrative and stylistic completeness, based on Aristotelian mythos and compassion. Maybe the old saying by Giuseppe Verdi “let’s return to the past—it will be a progress!” is something that we must keep in mind when we talk and evaluate films like Little England.
(1) Laura Malvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2nd ed., 2009, p. 46
(2) Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1976, p, 26
Interesting Reviews on the Film
Review by Thodoros Koutsoyiannopoulos here
Yannis Zoumboulakis’ review here
Akis Kapranos’ review here
Kostas Terzis’ review here