In praise of the Dionysian: On Giorgos Panousopoulos’s Mania
Shot and set in the 1980s, Giorgos Panousopoulos’s Mania (1985) is perhaps not one of this period’s (or this director’s) most characteristic films – not even within the framework of New Greek Cinema. Yet, it constitutes a fascinating piece of filmmaking, which works on a number of levels, and it seems to be slowly regaining the recognition it deserves. The film tells the tale of an incident in the life of Zoe Spyropoulou (played by Alessandra Vanzi and voiced by Aspasia Kralli) on the day of the Ascension. Zoe is a computer expert working for the multinational corporation IBS. Described by one of her superiors as being “monstrously rational”i, early on in the film she is notified that she will be relocated to Chicago for a period of 90 days, during which she will be given further training, as she is believed to be among the company’s most gifted employees in her field of expertise. Returning home, she consents to her daughter’s pleas for a visit to the National Garden, which is situated in the very centre of Athens. There, while studying the print off of a computer-generated psychological profile that has been handed to her by the company, Zoe unintentionally overhears a man, who appears to be the Garden’s janitor (Aris Retsos), talking to a group of visiting children (Zoe’s daughter included) about a supposed hole that leads to a tunnel running under the whole city, and about a fairy who can walk through the hole and into the Garden’s premises at any given time.
Although Zoe appears impartial to this narration (as opposed to the children who seem to enjoy it) and even though Panousopoulos does not draw a clear, direct line connecting the janitor’s claims to how the story unfolds later on, the young woman starts to wander around the Garden premises soon after, adopting an increasingly erratic behavior along the way. Eventually, Zoe wreaks havoc all over the peaceful haven that is known as the National Garden.
Mania and Freud’s concept of ‘the Uncanny’
Koliodimos concisely describes the process of Zoe’s transformation in the following words: “with all the grace of a pixie and all the madness of a maenad, [Zoe] abandons herself and sets free all her repressed animal instincts that had been hiding under the shell of a civilized behavior” (Koliodimos, 2007: 41). “Secret and hidden” is one of the definitions of ‘the Uncanny’ (“Unheimlich”) that Freud mentions in his essay on the concept, drawing, in this case, from Schelling (Freud, 1955: 225); therefore, Koliodimos’s aforementioned description matches Freud’s definition of the Uncanny.
Freud’s study of the Uncanny was in part written as an answer to, but also as a continuation of Ernst Jensch’s essay on the same subject. Freud found Jentsch’s text “fertile but not exhaustive” (Freud, 1955: 219) and critiqued Jentsch’s inability to perceive the concept as something that goes beyond what is novel and unknown. Freud further critiqued the fact that Jentsch linked ‘uncanniness’ simply to intellectual uncertainty (Freud, 1955: 221). Following a linguistic and etymological explanation of the word focusing on a wide variety of German definitions, Freud points out that the opposite concept of the Uncanny (which is called “Heimlich”) is of ambivalent meaning, at least until it is put alongside the word “unheimlich”.
Freud offers a series of instances which can be described as generating a feeling of the Uncanny, but what is important here is how he describes the nature of the Uncanny as “something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (Freud, 1955: 241). In this respect, Zoe’s transformation into what the janitor characterizes as ‘the fairy’, or indeed into one of the women that Euripides has defined as ‘the Bacchae’, is in fact the awakening of a second, hidden nature.
In short, before the National Garden incident, Zoe could be described as a technocrat. Yet, by overhearing the janitor talking about these otherworldly creatures, a lust to escape her structured life is triggered. As she listens to the strange man’s account of this Other, underground, outlandish world, she reads in the computer-generated profile: “The moon on an angle (descendant) suggests psychic potential” ii. A series of encounters within the Garden grounds further fuels this need for abandonment: the scouts, the cast and crew of a TV commercial, the couple who are kissing in some remote corner, the troupe of musicians and dancers, the man with the dog and, finally, the janitor himself with his faun-like hoofs, all help her – mostly unintentionally – turn into the sort of otherworldly figure that causes chaos all over the hitherto quiet premises of the Garden. Based on Richard Kearney’s analysis of the Uncanny, Zoe has crossed the very boundaries between what is real and what is imaginary, bringing out repelled instincts (Kearney, 2006: 157): she has become a “figure of disorientation within the process of order and orientation” (Kearney, 2006: 105).
If at first this transformation induces laughter to the people in the Garden – as viewed in the scene where Zoe’s daughter runs around and feeds Zoe snacks that belong to the rest of the visitors – soon after, all bystanders, officials and so on, are filled with anger, and thus Zoe becomes the object of a chase. Kearney has written extensively on how deviant behaviors are viewed as satanic and how Otherness is demonized as a threat to a group’s collective identity (Kearney, 2006). If, in Zoe’s case, the Uncanny is something that she herself has repressed but has now somehow resurfaced, the bystanders’ reactions to it are of a similar nature: they do not just see Zoe as a troublemaker but also as someone who refuses to act in the restricted, inhibited way in which they feel the need to behave. At the same time, they see someone they feel an affinity for. With Freud as a starting point, Kearney notes how the Others awake terror and horror in us, not due to their dissimilarity, but due to the fact that they are closer to our true nature than we are (Kearney, 2006: 154). Moreover, Cavell defines horror as the kind of uncertainty that comes with the notion that we might in fact become that which we are not (Cavell, quoted in Kearney, 2006: 111), while Kristeva has similarly spoken of “l’ inquietante etrangete” and how it is nothing more than our own fear of death (Kristeva, quoted in Kearney, 2006: 156).
If Freud, as quoted earlier, speaks of something familiar and innate yet repressed (Freud, 1955: 241), Nietzsche speaks of destroying “the usual barriers and limits of existence” which “contain [...], for as long as it lasts, a lethargic element in which all personal experiences from the past are submerged” (Nietzsche, 1999: 40). The means for this abolishment is, according to Nietzsche, Dionysian ecstasy.
Nietzsche and the depiction of the Dionysian in Zoe and the ‘janitor’
The main concept behind Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is how the combination of two contrasting elements, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, brought about the creation of ancient Greek drama. In short, Nietzsche thinks of drama as “the apolline iii embodiment of Dionysiac insights and effects”, ideas and actions (Nietzsche, 1999: 44). I will later elaborate on whether Zoe can be viewed as a tragic figure, but first I will analyze the presence of the Dionysian in Mania.
From the title sequence, the juxtaposition of the traditional element (if not overtly Dionysian, as is the case later on) with today’s industrialized, technocratic, polluted world is very much felt. This is achieved through the combination of music written iv and performed in a more traditional vein, and footage from the streets of central Athens, which was already a crummy, unwelcoming city in the 1980’s, a city where very little urban planning has actually been made (Veremis & Kolliopoulos, 2002: 351). Again, one cannot help but think of Nietzsche, who mentions how “hidden beneath the reality in which we live and have our being there also lies a second, quite different reality” (Nietzsche, 1999: 15). But the music is not simply contradictory to what is seen on screen in terms of different aesthetics or cultural background; it is at once ominous and mournful, threatening and sad, creating a feeling of unease. Whether the Dionysian element (as it will be later depicted in the characters of Zoe and the janitor) is the subject or the target of that threat rests upon the viewer’s decision.
Zoe’s sense of asphyxiation is not only felt in the title sequence, where she is seen pushed against the window in a crowded cable car, but it is also seen in the fact that she constantly feels the need to smoke. Moreover, her face remains without expression for most of the first thirty minutes of the film. Juxtaposed to this is her daughter’s playful mood and loud voice but also, more importantly, the monkey that is seen escaping from a pickup truck in the title sequence. Already, we are given the impression that Zoe, despite her successful professional life and the love of her family (which includes her equally successful husband and her more conservative, religious mother), is not totally satisfied with her situation.
The visit to the park gives Zoe an opportunity for a change that she was not even hoping to find. The setting of the National Garden is itself very unique, as it is situated in the center a city that is crammed with concrete buildings; however, the main instigator of Zoe’s transformation is the janitor of the park. Zoe’s meeting with the janitor has a (trans)formative effect on her. In one of the key sequences of the film, the janitor appears having hoofs on his feet, which is characteristic of the mythological creatures known as Satyrs. Dionysus himself, myth has it, was mentored by a Satyr called Silenus (Graves, 1992: 45). As Graves describes, Silenus was Dionysus’s tutor but also a member of his army of Satyrs, whose weapons were the ivy-twined staffs with pine cones on their edge (known as the thyrsus) (Graves, 1992: 45). Nietzsche also comments on Silenus’s “terrible wisdom” (Nietzsche, 1999: 26).
Even though Nietzsche often explains that wine and drunkenness were parts of the Dionysian experience, it should be stressed that this element is absent from Mania. Moreover, after the change she undergoes, Zoe’s behavior may be anarchic and chaotic, but it is not in the same vein as ‘the Bacchae’ or the Maenads, Dionysus’s female companions. Zoe is not violent nor does she get drunk. She is silent throughout most of the film and especially after her true, repressed nature surfaces. Her chaos and ecstasy is of another form, but equally effective and impressive.
This ecstasy is best portrayed in the sequence during which Zoe visits the janitor/Satyr in his cabin: while wandering around the Garden, Zoe chances upon this strange man. Sitting on a rock, bare-chested and with hoofs on his feet, he plays what seems to be a small windpipe and then asks Zoe to join him in his cabin, as he has something to give her. The janitor’s residence is almost derelict and cluttered with things that the visitors leave behind. Zoe tries on various pieces of clothing, including a traveler’s expedition hat, a long fur coat and a blouse in the same red color as the dress worn by the monkey in the film’s title sequence.
Even though there is already enough erotic tension between the two characters, the red blouse initiates a more passionate connection and leads to a masterfully filmed sequence, thanks to the physicality of the performance of the two actors but also due to Panousopoulos’s brilliant use of editing, music and sound design in general. The sequence unfolds both in the janitor’s cabin, on a heap of abandoned, long-forgotten clothes and other items, and also in a field outside the cabin (which cannot actually be found within National Garden). With regards to editing, Panousopoulos makes use of both slow motion and regular speed shots. In either case, Panousopoulos keeps his shots very short, usually focusing on details on the bodies of actors. The shots are taken from a variety of angles. He thus builds up a sense of great tension and ecstasy. The couple’s lovemaking resembles wrestling, but it is a joyous, ecstatic kind of wrestling, with smiles that never leave their faces, resembling animals that are playing but might easily become hunters and preys.
All the above is augmented by the brilliant use of sound design: while the couple is still in the cabin, we only hear their dialogue, plus the off-camera voices of goat-like animals and the bells that are attached to them (these animals are perhaps situated outside, but we never get to see them). Just a few seconds after Zoe has put on the red blouse, the janitor drops the mirror that he has been holding up for her. However, we do not hear the noise that the mirror makes when it falls on the ground and the glass shatters, nor do we hear the two characters talking. What we do continue to hear is the sound of the off-screen animals: this is most probably a nod to the Dionysian, to the primal and animal-like, to the tragic; ‘tragos’ is, after all, the ancient Greek word for goat. The glass that breaks is just a foretaste of the ecstasy to follow. As the sequence continues to unfold, what prevails in terms of the soundtrack is the music, which is played by traditional instruments and sounds ecstatic to the point of madness. Underneath that, we hear the two characters’ continuous laughter in voice-over, as they reach the eventual consummation of their passion.
Women’s sexual liberation or awakening is a theme that recurs in Panousopoulos’s work, even if it is only viewed from a male standpoint. For example, one can look at Oi Apenanti/A Foolish Love (1981), M’ Agapas?/Love me Not (1989), Eleftheri Katadysi/Love Knot (1995) and Testosterone (2004), all of which have been written in collaboration with a variety of male Greek novelists. However, in Mania we have an approach that is much closer to a female standpoint, as the whole story is centered around and very much instigated by the character of Zoe, a force of joyous chaos.
The whole sequence ends with a prolonged cross-fade: the entangled bodies juxtaposed with Zoe’s bare feet in the water. Zoe is now silently walking down a stream, in another part of the Garden; she’s all alone, with the janitor nowhere to be seen. Joining her daughter again, Zoe denies actually knowing the little girl and, after the aforementioned scene where she first causes laughter and then rage to the bystanders, Zoe escapes, only to be found shortly after swimming in the pond of the Garden among the ducks. This causes further havoc, as the children are quick to follow Zoe’s example and jump into the water with her. They also have a new name for her, inspired by one of her lines earlier in the film: “Mommy I-Don’t-Know” (“I don’t know” is Zoe’s repeated response to a series of questions posed by her daughter).
If Zoe’s swim in the duck pond is seen as something playfully rebellious by the children, this very action also inspires a new wave of rage to the adults who are also present. Graves mentions this duality of reactions caused by the presence of the God of Wine in the Greek islands: Dionysus, as Graves writes, spread “joy and terror wherever he went” (Graves, 1992: 47). Zoe has fallen victim to what Nietzsche calls “Dionysiac intoxication” thanks to the “approach of spring when the whole of nature is pervaded by lust for life” and has been led to a state of “complete self-forgetting” (Nietzsche, 1999: 17). On the other hand, the adult in the crowd, either “from lack of experience or from dullness of spirit”, express anger and sarcasm. Nietzcshe explains: “These poor creatures have not the slightest inkling of how spectral and deathly pale their ‘health’ seems when the glowing life of Dionysiac enthusiasts storms past them” (Nietzsche, 1999: 18). This last phrase is followed by:
Not only is the bond between human beings renewed by the magic of the Dionysiac, but nature, alienated, inimical, or subjugated, celebrates once more her festival of reconciliation with her lost son, humankind. Freely the earth offers up her gifts, and the beasts of prey from mountain and desert approach in peace. The chariot of Dionysos is laden with flowers and wreaths; beneath its yoke stride panther and tiger. (Nietzsche, 1999: 18)
Nietzsche then goes on to draw a parallel between the above images and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the part of Symphony No 9 which incorporates Schiller’s poem of the same title. In Mania, the children, still under Zoe’s spell but not following any specific orders from her, go on to liberate the caged animals in the Garden’s small zoo, an act which further causes chaos (and ends in the death of a policeman).
It is then that the dark side of the story begins to unfold, and Zoe’s fate finally becomes evident.
Tragedy, sacrifice and Ascension: on the film’s finale
After the death of the policeman and the coming of night, one of the last images of Zoe is a close-up of her face covered in ivy-like plants and other flowers, an image very reminiscent of certain images to be found in The Bacchae: in Euripides’s tragedy, both Dionysus himself and the Maenads/Bacchae are often described to wear wreaths and crowns of ivy, or even berries and bryony. These decorations are part of their particular identity, but also something that is at once strange, awe-evoking and yet joyous (Euripides, 1920). This ivy-laden close-up is brilliantly dissolved into a computer-generated portrait of Zoe, coming out of the IBS printer in the company’s offices in Athens.
A few minutes later, after Zoe’s husband as well as a group of policemen (each one from different starting points and with different aims), have finally come upon Zoe, she slowly disappears, and is replaced by a small goat. Kearney mentions a variety of examples in which the goat was used as a symbol of sacrifice, catharsis and deliverance in ancient societies and religions. Drawing on Nietzsche, Kearney points out how mythical figures, such as Dionysus himself, Pentheus, and Oedipus carried the weight for catharsis for a whole city (Kearney, 2006: 61). He also notes that scapegoats are not just miasma but can also be viewed as an apparition of divinity (Kearney, 2006: 71).
But is this the case with Zoe? I argue that this particular character is not interested in playing any kind of role, be it of the monster, the miasma or the goddess. Nor is she interested in explaining her transformation to those around her as a means to achieve being reconciled with them. She has been deprived of her consciousness and that is simultaneously a positive and a negative development. She is being carried away by her will to finally live life to the fullest, free from all preceding restrictions. As for the chaos she generates, she, very much like Dionysus in The Bacchae, seems to be directing the goings-on around her without actually getting emotionally involved in any of them (Veremis, 2016: 204).
However, like a tragic heroine, she has taken a path that was certain to end with her punishment or even with her demise, in one way or another. Yet, she is not conscious of or responsible for her mistake, for the fact that she manages to transcend the restricted lifestyle she had been leading until now. In Poetics, Aristotle refers to tragedy as a myth that presents the shift from happiness to unhappiness with the conscious goal to awaken fear or compassion to the viewer (Aristotle, 1920). This can be achieved by telling the story of a person who is moral and good, but not exceptionally so, and who runs into misfortune due to a mistake in judgment, not out of evilness. His or her decline or demise will serve as a cautionary tale for the viewer (Aristotle, 1920). Panousopoulos decides that his heroine can no longer walk this earth in the form and in the way that she had until recently, given all the things that happened on that day. Apart from a tragic heroine, Zoe can of course be viewed as someone who is punished for being a force of destruction but also a force of liberation from useless restrictions. The fact that it is a woman who symbolizes the above makes her an enemy of the status quo.
The aftermath scene of the film implies that Zoe has ‘ascended’, depicting a red candle, symbolizing her soul, among white candles. This is in keeping with the Christian feast of the Ascension (during which Zoe’s story unfolds), but more importantly, it is in keeping with the myth of Dionysus. The theme of ascension is also present in the wine God’s story. Dionysus’s presence on earth was completed, as Graves writes, when he “ascended to Heaven” where he “now sits at the right hand of Zeus as one of the Twelve Great Ones” (Graves, 1992: 47). Regardless of the religious (Christian or otherwise) nuance, Zoe meets a similar fate, a plot twist that can at once be viewed as optimistic and pessimistic: it might signify death, but at the same time, as Nietzsche would put it, slightly more poetically, Zoe is now “on the brink of flying and dancing, up and away into the air above” (Nietzsche, 1999: 18). In short, the ending can also be viewed as redemption, or, coming back to Aristotle, as catharsis.
i His exact phrase is “A monster of rationality”, which, I feel, does not translate so well to English.
ii Ironically, just before she leaves the office the man who hands her this profile tells her: “Here, you may find your true self inside”.
iii In quotes by Nietzsche, I have kept the translator’s spelling: Apolline, Dionysiac, Dionysos.
iv By Nikos Xydakis.
Aristotle (2008), Poiitiki/Poetics, trans. by Dimitrios Lypourdis, Athens: Zitros.
Cavell, S. (1979), The Claim of Reason, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Euripides (1920), The Bacchae, trans. by Gilbert Murray, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, New York: Longman’s, Green & Co.
Freud, S. (1955), ‘The Uncanny’, in The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XVII (1917-1919) , London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Graves, R. (1992), Greek Myths, London: Quality Paperbacks Direct.
Injesiloglou, N. (1992), Koinonia kai Nea Technologia: Dokimia Viomichanikis Koinoniologias, Anthropinon Scheseon kai Koinoniologias ton Epagelmaton/Society and New Technology: Essays on Industrial Sociology, Human Relations and Sociology of the Professions , Thessaloniki: Sakkoulas.
Jentsch, E. (1995), ‘On The Psychology of The Uncanny’, in Angelaki 2.1, 17-21.
Kearney, R. (2006), Ξένοι, Θεοί και Τέρατα, μτφρ. Νίκος Κουφάκης, Αθήνα: Ίνδικτος.
Koliodimos, D. (2007), I Ellada meta ta Mesanychta: to Fantastico ston Elliniko Kinimatografo/Greece after Midnight: Fantasy Fiction in Greek Cinema, Athens: Aigokeros.
Kristeva, J. (2006), Etrangers a Nous Memes, στο Kearney, R.,Ξένοι, Θεοί και Τέρατα. μτφρ. Νίκος Κουφάκης, Αθήνα: Ίνδικτος.
Nietzsche, F. (1999), The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, trans. by Ronald Speirs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pastré, O. (1986), I Pliroforikopiisi kai I Apascholisi/L’ informatisation et l’ emploi, Athina: A/synexia.
Veremis, T. & Kolliopoulos, J.S. (2002), Greece: The Modern Sequel, From 1831 to the Present, New York: NYU Press.
Veremis, T. (2016), Skepseis gia ton Eikosto Proto Aiona/Thoughs on the 21st Century, Athens: Kastaniotis.