Empty Gestures:

Empty Gestures:

Mimesis and Subjection in the Cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos

Carlo Comanducci
It is no overstatement to say that gesture defines the universe of Yorgos Lanthimos’s cinema. Entire sequences in his films portray the characters as they perform complex and arbitrary gestures, or as they enact, through a series of orchestrated movements, a script they have been hired to perform in order to flesh out somebody else’s fantasies or to impersonate someone else’s lost loved one. Language itself is often reduced to gesture – to a superficial, obsessive and empty performance, a movement not only deprived of meaning but of emotion as well. Automatism and repetition further mark this strange universe, calling into question the idea of gesture as something either purely aesthetic or, on the other hand, intrinsically liberating, and affirming instead its entanglement with power and subjection. Characters seem to go through the motions of life, love, and mourning, instead of actually living or giving voice to their feelings. In this sense, their gestures often appear to be not mimetic but automatic, and not only devoid of finality and meaning, but also of intention: not only do the characters seem to touch just to touch, speak just to speak, and move just to move, without any immediate purpose, but, often enough, they touch only because they have been compelled to touch, speak because they have been ordered to speak, and move not through their own will but through their subjection to the will of another. These gestures are not expressive, then, but are rather performed as a bare act of submission. Reading Lanthimos’s work through Giorgio Agamben’s theory of gesture, this article discusses the performative character of agency that corresponds to pure gesture.
Giorgio Agamben; Yorgos Lanthimos; Athina Rachel Tsangari; Guy Debord; Alpeis; gesture; Kinetta; mediality; mimesis; performativity; ethics; action; agency; language; subjectivity; subjection; commandment; alienation; mime; commedia dell’arte.

At the beginning was the kiss

Querelle de gestes – Agamben on gesture

Pure gestures and empty gestures – Kinetta

The unbearable office of being – Alpeis




Suggested Citation

“Certo bisogna farne di strada

da una ginnastica d’obbedienza

fino ad un gesto molto più umano

che ti dia il senso della violenza”

Fabrizio de Andrè1

At the beginning was the kiss

Against the background of white cracked plaster, Marina (Ariane Labed), in medium shot, enters the frame from the right. Nervously, she gulps and comes to stand in perfect profile before the frame’s midline, looking forward. From the left, with more determination, Bella (Evangelia Randou) enters and situates herself in front of the other woman. Following an almost imperceptible gesture of the other’s head, Bella leans her own head forward and, eyelids closing, bending down just barely and softly motioning up with her face, she beckons Marina to kiss her. With some hesitation, Marina brings her head slightly forward and, opening her mouth very wide, she sticks her tongue in Bella’s mouth. Keeping her torso straight and her whole body rigid, including her tongue and her face, Marina moves her head around in what appears to be a mechanical, clumsy first attempt at – or an exaggerated imitation of – a passionate kiss. The two women kiss for a while, all while keeping their bodies apart and touching only at the mouth, until Marina abruptly moves her head back.

When Bella asks her if she liked what they just did, Marina responds in a way that echoes the sense of estrangement and mechanicalness she had communicated through her movements and posture: “I never had,” she says, “something wriggling in my mouth before.” (0:01:11) Bella is not entirely exempt from this strange stiffness, either: in a flat, matter-of-fact, yet earnest tone,, as one would teach a small child to stay away from the fire, she tells Marina that she has to breathe next time, or else she will choke. She then demonstrates how to breathe and, imitating her, Marina takes a couple of deep breaths.

Still from Attenberg. Image source: Attenberg US Press Kit, http://www.the-match-factory.com/films/items/attenberg.html

Let’s cut here, not two minutes into this scene from Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film Attenberg (2010, Greece) – a film which beautifully repeats and interprets the treatment of gestures presented in Yorgos Lanthimos’s earlier films Kinetta (2005, Greece) and Kynodontas / Dogtooth (2009, Greece). Attenberg expands as well as comments upon the role of gesture in these films: in this respect, Tsangari’s film provided me with the initial reading of gesture in Lanthimos which gave impulse to this article. However, these films share more than thematic proximity: Attenberg was co-produced by Lanthimos, features some of the same actors who were cast in Lanthimos’s previous works, and, most strikingly, stars Lanthimos himself in one of the main roles. His character has a love scene with Bella in which reoccurs the same unsettling, even uncanny vision of kissing that opens the film. It is a rare satisfaction to see an author confronted with his fiction – embedded in it, as it were – and Tsangari executes this very elegantly.

In the scene I have described there is clearly little or no feeling, let alone pleasure, on Marina’s part; not only does she consider the experience disgusting, but she also seems oddly distant from her actions. Indeed, her actions are nothing more than acting, nothing more than performance. The series of gestures she performs are meant to exist as nothing more than that: a performance of a series of gestures.The idea that she wants to learn about kissing is suggested, but, since this is the opening shot of the film, this is not yet firmly established, and surely does not exhaust the scene’s significance. One might indeed have to learn about kissing, but who must be taught how to breathe? Along with the idea of learning by doing the scene conveys a more fundamental sense of gestural mimesis – of Marina imitating her friend or, better, of her entering a mimetic relation with her, a movement which the kissing at once figures, incarnates, and seals.

In some ways, this kiss is a pure gesture, in the sense the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben gives to the term. It is a gesture removed from its proper finality (in this case, mutual pleasure) and performed in a way that highlights both its gesturality (its very being a gesture and a performance) and its mediality (its being a basic form of human relation, before we can assign to it any particular meaning or significance). As a bodily movement, the gesture is devoid of emotion and done for its own sake; as a symbolic action, it at once represents, fleshes out, and makes visible a relation that is not, or not yet, qualified either as a personal or as a sexual one.

The prospect of lesbian desire in this scene is not so much absent as it is negated: not only because, later in the film, this moment is retrospectively constructed as a prelude to Marina’s heterosexual approaches with the character played by Lanthimos, but because, despite Bella’s responsiveness and despite the visible eroticisation of their contact, this eroticisation remains unfelt, suggested but too mechanical, signified but not lived. Watching the scene, one has less the impression of being aligned with a desiring gaze (homosexual or heterosexual, and howsoever gendered) than to be looking upon the universal infancy of sensation as such.

For Agamben, pure gesture lies at the beginnings and falterings of language and communication; gesture is for him the zero degree of signification – “a signifier without a signified,” he asserts, “is not a sign: it is an act, it is an action […] a gesture” (Agamben 2012). At the beginning of language, Agamben argues, there is something which is not of the order of language: there is a commandment and, more specifically, a gesture of commandment (Agamben 2012). For him, the original nonlinguistic act that initiates language is a gesture that establishes the site of the word in its relation to things, instituting the very category of symbolic reference and, thus, creating the “scene” of linguistic communication as such. What we are dealing with here, then, are not linguistic gestures (neither in the sense of gestures that accompany speech, nor in the sense of gestures that constitute a form of language in themselves), but the very gesture of language.

If gesture is a pure signifier, then, for the subjects who perform it, pure gesture constitutes an act of mimetic identification which lays out the ground for symbolic exchanges. Both in Agamben’s view and in the psychoanalytically informed theory of performativity, indeed, we find a crucial link between the formation of the subject and the institution of the scene of linguistic communication. Symbolic communication is born out of gesturality, that is, out of a fundamental mimetic relationality, as a relation of correspondence between two speaking subjects or a reciprocity at the site of utterance.2 To say the same in a more flirtatious way: words are born from kisses.

But the kiss, so seductively presented in its mimetic aspect and creative performativity in Attenberg, returns as a terrible torture in Lanthimos’s latest film, The Lobster (2015, Ireland, United Kingdom, Greece), precisely at the bodily sites of inscription of language and gender: in the film, the law of a community that sanctions all forms of sexual rapport and personal relations (including verbal flirtations) punishes kissing by cutting the lips of the perpetrators open and forcing them together, and sex with cutting at the genitals and then compelling a “red” – so they call it – intercourse. While the scene from Attenberg may suggest that a more embodied mimesis – a “‘primordial tendency’ to identification […] which brings […] the desiring subject into being” (Campbell and Harbord, eds. 1998: 129) – undermines the original gesture of commandment, Lanthimos, in the films he directs, does not easily allow for such interpretation. In this respect, his position is closer to Agamben’s. And indeed, Agamben makes clear throughout his writings on gesture that its phenomenology cannot be separated from a discourse on commandment and the law.

In the end, I would say that commandment (especially in the sense of a deliberate act expressing authority and volition) only founds the intelligibility of communication, not the existence of symbolic exchanges as such; language accounts for the speaking subject, but is unable to create it. Here I echo, to some extent, Jacques Rancière’s understanding that the principle of equality is not only more fundamental than, but fundamental to, the inegalitarian discourse that negates it: in order to issue a command, indeed, the one who commands has to assume the other’s equality, precisely, as a speaking being (Rancière 1998: 49). In order to account for a subject, in this sense, commandment has to rely on a subjectivity and a gesturality prior to prior to the subjectivity and the gesturality that the command makes visible the command itself makes intelligible. Thus, mimetic or pure gesture is always implicated with language and commandment but would never be entirely reducible to a function of either of them. The subject’s gestures are never completely his or her own, but neither are they entirely dictated by the external authority that sanctions their existence.

As such, the dimension of pure gesture individuates a disturbance in the agency of the speaking subject. This is, in fact, the same conclusion Agamben reaches by other means. “Because being-in-language is not something that could be said in sentences,” Agamben writes, “the gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language” (2000: 58): being-in-language is “an incurable speech defect” (ibid.: 59). The gesture of language, then, takes place at the very moment at which language falters and collapses; the agency of the speaking subject is not only fraught with its own original lack, but exists, in fact, precisely because of it.

Agamben is less concerned with the kind of agency that corresponds to gesture and gesturality than he is with the dimension that they individuate; but still, the only free, nonalienated gesture he imagines is a gesture whose agency is fundamentally compromised and ultimately indeterminable. His theory of pure gesture as the gesture of the mime implies a theory of subjectivation in which the mime becomes the model of the subject. This is the insight that Lanthimos’s films portray most clearly: every agent is an actor, we could say, and a free agency can only exist as a failed performance.

Querelle de gestes – Agamben on gesture

Agamben frequently uses the word “gesture” to indicate a distinctive movement in theoretical thought: an idea gestures toward another (Agamben 1998: 111), Primo Levi’s “gesture” is opposed to Nietzsche’s (1999b: 21), Linnaeus’s choice to classify humans in the order of Anthropomorpha together with other primates is called a “gesture” (2004: 24), and so on. This corresponds to a particular understanding of philosophy, one in which the idea is “not at all an immobile archetype as common interpretations would have it, but rather a constellation in which phenomena arrange themselves in a gesture” (Agamben 2000: 55). Agamben’s distinctive philosophical “gesture”, then, is that which brings gesture, politics, and philosophy together: “for politics,” he writes, “is the sphere of the full, absolute gesturality of human beings, and it has no name other than its Greek pseudonym [...]: philosophy” (1999b: 83).

Philosophy is a gesture, then, and gesture always defines a politics of the sensible. If, then – respectfully tiptoeing away from Agamben’s grander philosophy, and setting foot on the murkier grounds of theory – there is a specific value to critical theory against facile endorsements of “pure” spontaneous action, it is that it individuates the performativity of gesture as an essential component of any political act. But let us take a step back and retrace, briefly, Agamben’s conception of gesture.

Philippe Theophanidis’s short reconstruction (2014) individuates three distinct articulations in Agamben’s theory of gesture. The first is found in the preface to the 1990 Italian edition of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, later translated and reproduced in Means without Ends as “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle”: here we have Agamben's broadest – and, I would say, most strategic – definition of gesture, positing it as the name of the “intersection between life and art, act and power, general and particular, text and execution” (Agamben 2000: 79). The second theorisation is from “Notes on Gesture”, also anthologised in Means without Ends, and first published in Trafic in 1992. Here, gesture is approached as the exhibition of a pure mediality, as a pure means disengaged from its original end – like the gesture of a mime representing the action of drinking a glass of water, where no glass is actually present and no water is meant to be drank. Both in the “Notes” and in the third text that Theophanidis mentions, the chapter on “A Genealogy of Office” in Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty (2013; a year after the Italian original), Agamben discusses a quote from Varro that distinguishes the proper scope of gesture (referring to the Latin verb “gerere”, meaning to manage, supervise) from that of acting (“agere”) and making (“facere”), thus articulating the ethical and political foundations of pure gesture, that are to be found, precisely, in the genealogy of “officium” and the archaeology of duty and commandment.

In Theophanidis’ as well as in Adam Kotsko’s (2014) account, on which the former is in part based, Agamben’s conception of gesture would acquire, in the course of the development of his work, a “sinister edge”, as Kotsko puts it, passing from denoting “something hopeful or redemptive” to being “a part of the ‘archaeology of office or duty’ that separates the subject from his or her actions, rendering anything like ethical experience radically impossible” (Kotsko 2014). In a similar way, having said that Agamben in the “Notes” identifies gesture with the proper sphere of politics, Theophanidis claims that “as such, the gesture appears to offer an adequate stance to face the dead ends of our current predicament”; he then reads Agamben’s reiteration of his analysis of the passage from Varro’s On the Latin Language in terms of a shift from gesturality as a sphere of politics “‘uncontaminated’ by law” to gesture as the “paradigmatic expression of normative action” (Theophanidis 2014).

Against these readings, I would argue that Agamben’s theorisation of gesture, though surely multifaceted (we have, on the one hand, the definition of gesture as endless means, and, on the other, the differential discussion of “gerere” as a particular modality of action in connection with commandment), is still unitary and coherent. I do not see, more specifically, that the concept of gesture acquires a “darker” connotation in later works nor, for that matter, have I perceived a movement from a redemptive understanding of gesturality as a whole to a view in which gesture would stand against the very possibility of ethical experience. Notably, there is no evolution from gesture as connoting an always positive sphere of political action to an idea of gesture as being exclusively a function of command – Agamben generally refrains from such clear-cut oppositions. The theory of gesture as pure means necessarily implies the theory of commandment as pure gesture, and vice versa. As with other concepts in Agamben’s oeuvre, indeed, gesture becomes relevant as it individuates a set of tensions within a zone of indifference – something that, after all, Agamben had already made clear in his first, strategic definition.

Keeping with the practice of blurring and compromising boundaries, “Marginal Notes” begins with the vindication of a composite, phantasmagorical, concept of commodity – part sensuous thing, part social, suprasensible, construct – against Louis Althusser’s dismissal of Marx’s Hegelian fancies (Agamben 2000: 75).3 The eclipse of use value in the economy of the spectacle, which is coextensive with commodity fetishism, is then closely tied to what Agamben calls an “alienation of language itself, of the linguistic and communicative nature of human beings” (ibid.: 81). The combination of these two processes provides the very definition of the society of the spectacle that Agamben was discussing. This alienation is first of all a trouble, a disturbance, in gestures: this idea is explicitly stated from the “Notes” on (ibid.: 48-52), but it is already implicitly suggested in the earlier text. In the “Marginal Notes”, indeed, the spectacle is defined as a pure mediality: the “communicativity” that is the proper sphere of the spectacle is disconnected from the sphere of human communication, so that the society of the spectacle can be defined as that regime in which “what prevents communication is communicability itself”, in which “human beings are kept separate by what unites them” (ibid.: 83). Communication, for Agamben, can only take place because we are subjects-in-language; but this condition of being-in-language, as we have seen at the end of the previous section, at the same time is the measure of a lack. So that we can only communicate, as it were, thanks to a fundamental and irreducible mis-communication.

A parallel definition of gesture is later given in “Notes on Gesture”: “what is relayed to human beings in gestures”, Agamben writes, “is not the sphere of an end in itself but rather the sphere of a pure and endless mediality” (Agamben 2000: 58-59). Both gesture and the spectacle are defined in relation to the concept of pure mediality and this pure mediality is in turn characterised in terms of a trouble in language and of a particular subject position.

In the end, Agamben’s theorisation of the ethical and political ground of gesture does not fork away from, but rather returns to his original definition of the spectacle as an alienation of communicativity – because of this, gesture can be gradually established as the ground of political being as such. It is quite clear, then, that what Agamben presents in the earlier essay as the “other side” of the commodity (Agamben 2000: 79) is not gesture as such, but a gesture recovered from its alienation. It is important to note, though, that what is recovered is the alienation of the subject’s relation to its being-in-language – that is, the alienation of the subject from a more fundamental lack. Gesture, Agamben writes, is

Even in these lines, indeed, where gesture is contrasted most directly with commodity fetishism, Agamben is not evoking the gesture of a self-possessed individual, but that of a mask, of a role in the Italian commedia dell’arte. “In the commedia dell'arte there were cadres – instructions meant for the actors, so that they would bring into being situations in which a human gesture, subtracted from the powers of myth and destiny, could finally take place” (ibid.: 78). This passage from 1990 foreshadows the following discussion of gesture in terms of “gerere” – that is, in terms of the carrying out of an order and of the assumption of an office (here, of a type): the actor playing in the commedia dell’arte is both losing something of her identity as a performer, and is performing a “text” that, while still binding the actor to a role, does so in such a way that the character itself loses something of its individuality. “Harlequin and the Doctor”, Agamben explains, “are not characters in the same way in which Hamlet and Oedipus are: the masks are not characters, but rather gestures figured as a type, constellations of gestures” (ibid.; emphasis in the original). Gesture takes place where contingent performance and universal law, as well as individuality and subjection, meet and compromise one another, none being reduced to the other.

What the mask does is precisely to interpose itself between the becoming-art of life (the actor’s expression of his or her own “personality”) and the becoming-life of art (representation as the full embodiment of a dramatic character), so that the gesture of the actor performing the cadre or canovaccio is neither entirely life nor entirely art: it neither expresses an act of individual creation, nor does it perfectly embody a script. As a result, the actor playing the mask escapes from both psychological and textual imperatives. Where both impersonal script and personal affect are marred by a lack, but still remain intertwined, a free gesture emerges from what we could call an empty position of enunciation – a gesture neither entirely free nor completely conditioned, but free precisely on the account of this undecidability.

In this way, gesture comes out not only as a troubled field of action (constrained both by its contingent situation and by the script) but also as a trouble within action and the subject itself. Agamben holds that it is only within those contingent conditions – in the kairos of the mask’s constrained improvisation, not as an act freed from all bounds – that a situation can take form and a free gesture can actually take place (ibid.: 77-78). In “Notes” this contingent “productive constraint,” to use a Butlerian expression (Butler 1993: xi), is theorised as a “gag in the double sense of an impediment to speech, and of the actor’s capacity for improvisation. Gesture as pure mediality, Agamben writes,

is always a gag in the proper meaning of the term, indicating first of all something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech, as well as in the sense of the actor's improvisation meant to compensate a loss of memory or an inability to speak. (2000: 58; emphasis in the original)

The same idea returns in another important essay on gesture, “Kommerell, or On Gesture”, translated in Potentialities (1999a), but first published in Italian in 1991, and thus situated in-between the “Marginal Notes” and the “Notes on Gesture”. There, Agamben repeats the double definition of gag (Agamben 1999a: 78) and then adds that “there is a gesture that felicitously establishes itself in this emptiness of language and, without filling it makes it into humankind's most proper dwelling” (ibid.: 78-79).

The possibility of a nonalienated gesturality, but also the inevitable dependency of gesture upon the strictures of language and law, are reaffirmed in Profanations at the end of the chapter on “The Author as Gesture”. There, Agamben writes, “a subjectivity is produced where the living being, encountering language and putting itself into play in language without reserve, exhibits in a gesture the impossibility of its being reduced to this gesture” (2007: 72). Far from subscribing to the kind of argument that sets kinaesthetic experience (gesture as it is perceived from within by the embodied subject) against gesture as a purely socio-symbolic construct (gesture as a function of a disciplinary gaze, as a form of visibility of the culturally constructed body), Agamben points out how gesture is in fact fundamentally a linguistic (or discursive) phenomenon, connected with power and subjection.

The same understanding, in fact, was already at work in Agamben’s own commentary on the Society of the Spectacle: for, as he had written, the only subject that escapes the grasp of spectacular integration – the subject of a coming politics – is an illegible subject, a “whatever singularity” that “wants to take possession of belonging itself as well as of its own being-into-language, and that thus declines any identity and any condition of belonging” (2000: 88). What is alienated by the spectacle is the speaking subject’s radical and generative illegibility, its lack of a foundational identity and the ambivalent nature of its agency.

If capitalist spectacular alienation is an alienation of gesture, then gesture is first of all a site of struggle before being a means of emancipation. And if gesture is also the fundamental dimension of political life, then gesture becomes the fundamental site where the subject has to put itself into play (Agamben 2007: 67-69). A subject reclaiming possession of its being-in-language is in fact claiming possession of a founding dispossession: what is reclaimed from alienation is not an autonomous agency, but the singular, contingent and subjective, gesture of existing – that is, the burden of occupying and sustaining one’s place as a subject. Living entails putting life into play and in this sense, Agamben adds, “a life is ethical not when it simply submits to moral laws but when it accepts putting itself into play in its gestures” (ibid.: 69). So that agency should not be seen as the origin of gesture, before gesturality and being-in-language; on the contrary, we should seek in contingent, and somewhat unwilled, gestures the very possibility of ethical and political acts. What is radical in Agamben’s understanding of politics as gesture is that there is no telling apart agency and performative gesture: “free” will is always implicated in the field of “commanded” gestures.

The ambivalence of gesturality is reaffirmed in connection with Agamben’s treatment of cinema in the “Notes”, where he suggests how the birth of gesture as an object of science (like Gilles de la Tourette’s observation of motor tics that took his name, or Eadweard Muybridge’s recordings of the human gait) corresponded with a general loss of natural gesturality, and with a naturalisation of this loss (2000: 48-51). Cinema would thus be the ultimate, and ultimately thwarted, attempt to hold onto non-alienated gestures on the brink of their inevitable fragmentation. When here in “Notes on Gesture” the condition of modernity is established as a loss of naturalness of human gestures, what takes place is an extension of the concept of alienation of humankind’s being-in-language we found in the “Marginal Notes” to the gestural level, not a change in the position of gesture in relation to capitalist alienation. There is, then, a clear continuity between these two texts, one that, more importantly, is further connected, as we have argued, with Agamben’s discussion of gesture in his other works. We see that Agamben is not so much setting up opposing categories – spectacle versus human communication, gesture versus alienated automatism – as much as he is individuating a zone in which those categories are indistinct, and where the relation between the subject and its gestures must be engaged in political and ethical terms.

Finally, this reading of gesturality as a zone of indistinction is confirmed across Agamben’s two presentations of Varro’s passage by the very contrast of “gerere” with “facere” and “agere” that the quotation is used to discuss. In both cases, indeed, Agamben argues that the sphere of gesture must be understood as a collapse of the articulation of means and ends and that ethics is properly gestural precisely because of this indifference. In “Notes on Gesture”, he writes that:

nothing is more misleading for an understanding of gesture [...] than representing, on the one hand, a sphere of means as addressing a goal (for example, marching seen as a means of moving the body from point A to point B) and, on the other hand, a separate and superior sphere of gesture as a movement that has its end in itself (for example, dance seen as an aesthetic dimension). (Agamben 2000: 57)

He argues that “gesture [...] opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human” precisely because “in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported” (ibid.: 56; emphasis in the original). And, in Opus Dei:

the one who executes an order and the one who carries out a liturgical act neither simply are nor simply act, but are determined in their being by their acting and vice versa […] The transformation of being into having-to-be, which defines the ethics as much as the ontology and politics of modernity, has its paradigm here. (Agamben 2013: 84; emphasis in the original)

The very distinction of “gerere” from “agere” and “facere” – as well as the intertwining of agency and subjection that is characteristic of the sphere of gesture – makes any redemptive interpretation of gesturality impossible, and, at the same time, establishes performative gesture as the only possible site of resistance to commandment. That is why, in the ultimate analysis, Agamben holds not only that the sphere of gestures is intrinsically political (which would amount to the obvious observation that everything has political innervations and repercussions), but that, more significantly, the sphere of politics is itself fundamentally gestural.

What is at stake in gesture, then, is being-in-language itself: on the one hand, the relation of language to commandment, which points to the founding gesture that institutes the relation between words and things (Agamben 2012), as well as the fundamental scene of the relation between speaking subjects; on the other, the very constitution of the speaking subject, the relation of the subject to its own being-in-language.

In the end, what the aforementioned analyses by Kotsko and Theophanidis fail to convey, in my view, is the sense in which the very passivity or lack of agency that is connected with gesture as the assumption of an office and as the carrying out of a commandment founds, rather than negates, the sphere of the subject’s ethical and political action. From the very beginning of Agamben’s reflection, then, gesture is more the battleground than it is the sure-fire solution for the alienation that characterises our current global order; and, until the very end, it remains the only dimension in which, assuming its lack and working through its very alienation, the subject can put itself into play. It is precisely towards this connection of gesture and a trouble in agency that Lanthimos’s films drive us.

Pure gestures and empty gestures – Kinetta

A woman (Evaggelia Randou) is sitting on a bed listening to a tape on a portable recorder. She is wearing earplugs and we cannot hear what she is listening to. Cut, she is standing: the camera, hand-held, slightly wobbling, frames her torso and head. She raises her right hand with dan open palm and slaps the air. She waits for an instant, then drives her face to the right, twisting her body and stepping back as if she had just been hit. She falls on the bed, then stands back up. She puts her open hands at the level of her shoulders, as if she was about to push something in front of her. Cut, she is standing right in front of a wall, arms distended to the sides of her figure. She turns her head back over the right shoulder and moves her hands behind her back, locking the right arm with her left hand as if someone were pulling and bending it backward. She turns her head again all the way to the left, as if struggling to break free, but without much energy, then she positions her left hand in front of her throat and grips it in the gesture of choking. She then moves the hand as if it were pressing tighter and tighter, but without actually choking herself, while she takes a few quick, short, steps back. But at this point one earplug falls from her ear, so she stops and uses the hand that was choking her to put the plug back in its place, then calmly returns her hand to her throat.

Still from Kinetta, http://lanthimos.com/film/kinetta/ ©2017 Yorgos Lanthimos.

In another scene, later in the film, the same woman comes out running from what looks like the skeleton of a prefab unit, one among the many that are scattered around in what must be a storage area or an open-air dump. The scene is framed in a long shot – we know that she is the same woman because we have seen her drive to the site together with two men in a previous scene. The woman stops and looks back to where she came from, waiting. The camera travels to the left to reveal one of the men (Aris Servetalis) operating a video camera on a tripod, pointed at the woman. The other man (Costas Xicominos) comes out from the prefabricated structure running toward the woman and, when he reaches her, he gestures in such a way that it appears he is attempting to grab at her. She slides to the right sluggishly, turns and slaps him in the face. After that, the man and the woman are standing in front of each other without moving. A moment passes, and the man speaks; in a very flat, fastidious and at the same time somewhat aggressive tone, he says: “He returns her slap with his right hand” (0:08:31). He then moves his right hand toward her face, but his gesture is slower than an actual slap would have been. His hand may not even have touched her face, but she nevertheless flings her head to the right as if she has been hit violently. She recoils and steps back, then stops and stands still again in front of the man. The man speaks another time, with the same monotonous tone, less as if reciting a script than as describing the scene with the detachment of a coroner: “He approaches her”, he says, “she raises her arm and pushes him” (0:08:39). The two then proceed to perform what the man has just described, but their gestures remain stiff and stylised: before pushing him, for instance, the woman lets her hands hang at the level of her shoulders for a second or so, far too long to be credible. Generally speaking, there is nothing of the fear, excitation, or even energy that the “signified” of the scene (a rape and murder scene, as it will later become clear) would involve. Rather, we only have the “signifiers”, only a series of “emptied out” gestures that signify the scene. In this sense, the man and the woman’s gestures do not represent a scene at all, in the usual sense of evoking a credible, life-like action by acting according to a script: their gestures are truer to the tone of the man’s words, than to the actions that they convey.

In this second fragment of a scene from Lanthimos’s first feature film Kinetta, the woman and the man are performing together what the woman has practised on her own in the first fragment I have described. It turns out that Xicominos’s character is having the woman and the other man stage this and other scenes for him: he first prepares a scenario, which defines every detail of every gesture that they will have to perform, and records it on tape. Most of the time, the man is there to direct the performance: as we have seen, he voices what is about to take place and sometimes acts in his own scenario, carrying out the gestures that he has scripted for himself.

Gesture here is pure, exactly in Agamben’s sense, as the gestures are removed from their immediate finality: the slap is not meant to hurt, the hand that takes hold of the throat does not choke it, and so on. Pure gesture, as we have seen, is mimetic; or, mimesis takes place in the realm of pure gestures, of gestures without finality. In the example Agamben gives, the mime is repeating the gesture of drinking without performing the action of drinking, without the original end of actually ingesting the liquid and quenching a sense of thirst. The mime does not drink, but nevertheless he or she is performing the gesture of drinking, a gesture that, being separated from its finality, points only to its own gesturality, which can thus emerge more powerfully. What the mime performs is the gesture in itself – and only through the mime’s action of representation, Agamben argues, does the gesture really appear as a gesture (2012). The aesthetic finality we could still attribute to the mime’s performance – the fact that the mime could be performing for an audience’s enjoyment, or even for his or her own – should not be seen to reinscribe finality in his or her gestures: it is only insofar as the mime’s gestures remain pure, without finality, that an aesthetic finality of a secondary grade can be mobilised. Just as the mime performs a pure gesture, detached from any finality, so, too, do the characters in Kinetta (and most other Lanthimos’ films) carry out gestures as pure means.

Gestures in the second scene from Kinetta, however, are not simply disconnected from their finality, but have also lost their emotional dimension: their very gesturality is lacking some elements of passion, dynamism, and agency that are fundamental to it. The mime can indeed mime an emotion or a violent gesture, and unlike an actor who does not intend to kill but can perfectly convey the illusion of the intent of killing, the gestures we see here are not only pure, but also empty. Referring to the commedia dell’arte, what we have here is the loss of agency and singularity that defines the mask, minus the power of improvisation granted to the performer: the woman is unnamed (even in Lanthimos and Kakanakis’s scenario) and she is performing not a specific person but merely the “type”, the mask, of the victim; at the same time, however, she is denied any possibility of invention – she is in fact compelled to perform a script that is even more binding than a dramatic scenario, especially with regard to her gestures. Her gestures, in other words, are not her own, but she nevertheless acts as the site of their performance.

What we see, then, is a gesture that not only foregrounds its mediality, but also its condition of being commanded. Gesture here begins, quite literally, as word and commandment, and it is then incarnated in a performance that never attains the full embodiment of an action: not only because the intention of the act is not carried out but because, like in the example from Attenberg that we have seen at the beginning of the article, these gestures present a specific mechanical quality that foregrounds a complete lack of agency in them.

The woman has to sustain (“gerere”) and embody the very report that is given of her gestures, in a distinctively Agambenian case of indifference between fact and law. She is not really performing the scene, but, rather, carrying out the performance of a (commanded) gesture, and sustaining the very empty site of such performance. The actress Youlika Skafida, then, has the peculiarly difficult task of playing a woman who is performing a performance, all while showing that the character is not doing that willfully (that is, neither because she wants it, nor against her will). In other words, the purity of gesture also suggests an indifference between action and command, agency and subjection, that is particularly evident here in Kinetta and that is the most distinctive feature of all other films directed by Lanthimos.

The scene, in this sense, does not only represent pure gestures, but uses this representation to stage the scene of gesture as such, in its connection with commandment and subjection. Even the fantasy that this particular scenario fulfils for the man, we could say, is not so much the fantasy that is represented through the performance (a fantasy of violence and death), but the one that is realised through the very enactment of his script (a fantasy of commandment).

Further peculiarities in Kinetta emphasise the bond between the archaeology of commandment and patriarchal violence, between video and audio recording and disciplinary power, between mimesis and subjectivation, and, finally, between officium and bare life. Here I will briefly focus on what is perhaps the most fundamental gesture of Lanthimos’s cinema, one that can be used to locate the “zero degree” of all the couplings I have just listed: a passage from, or rather the emergence of an indifference between commandment and compulsion, which is present in Kinetta, and Attenberg as well, but which is perhaps more strongly exemplified in another of Lanthimos’s films: Alpeis / Alps (2011, Greece).

The unbearable office of being – Alpeis

Alpeis revolves around the activities of a strangely devious group. Members of this group, most of whom work in a hospital, contact the relatives of recently deceased people and offer themselves to impersonate the deceased. In order to do so, the group collects details about the habitual expressions of the deceased and about any distinctive items they may have worn or used in life, then the leader of the group (named Mont Blanc after the Alps’ highest peak) arranges with the employers a series of scenes and writes down a series of scenarios – not unlike the man’s scripts in Kinetta – that the member of the group selected to impersonate a particular person will have to learn by heart and perform together with the family of the departed.

The impersonation aims less at producing the illusion that the dead person is still alive than at setting up a stage in which certain exchanges that took place between the deceased and the people who have known him or her can be repeated as pure gestures: the impersonator is not really substituting for the lost loved one but merely standing in at his or her place.

Still from Alps, http://lanthimos.com/film/alps/ ©2017 Yorgos Lanthimos.

In this sense, what the group sells to its clients is not so much help in the process of mourning as the possibility to forestall this process indefinitely. Indeed, while a more standard process of mourning would entail finding again in another person, with fully renovated force, what was lost and grieved for with the disappearance of a loved one, the impersonator prevents, in a sense, the place of the lost one from being occupied at all (at least by a fully embodied and independent person). Acting not as a person, but as an impersonator, as an empty mask, the substitute allows the griever to invest the very act of substitution with those feelings that should have normally found their way toward another object. There is no revival of love, then – there is merely a repetition devoid of feeling. What are repeated, in fact, are merely the gestures that signified the grievers’ relation to their loved ones, disconnected from their corresponding emotions. In other words, the action of the impersonator not only foregrounds the pure gesturality that lies at the basis of human relations, but alienates, so to speak, the process of mourning in its own mediality. What characterises this particular dispositif for the “spectacularisation” of mourning is a fetishistic investment in the act of impersonation itself.

The defining gesture of the film, then, is that it gradually becomes unclear whether there is any relation that actually manages to escape this kind of hollowed-out repetition. Every time the Nurse (Angeliki Papoulia) comes back to her own apartment, for instance, she finds there a man whom we are initially led to believe is her father. However, the few words they exchange in several scenes appear to be as unnatural, unemotional, and scripted as those in scenes that the Nurse performs for the group’s customers. Doubt besets us: are they actually father and daughter, or are they merely playing a part? Do their gestures express any feeling toward each other, or are they merely tokens of feelings that, in fact, do not exist? Moreover, it is never clear who might be performing for whom: is she playing the daughter to the man, or is the man playing the father to her? It may very well be, in fact, that they are both playing a part, which would mean the complete collapse of the way we ordinarily endow human relations with meaning: “father” and “daughter” would cease to signify filiation, and rather appear as purely symbolic and arbitrary, empty, subject positions. What the film so clearly presents, again, is not the ordinary case of a relation expressed through a specific constellation of gestures, however devoid of agency and feeling, but the very gestural core of human relations as such.

The Nurse is also the protagonist of a different case of mimetic relation that extends beyond the proper boundaries as they are defined by the laws and habits of the group. Having grown dependent on her role as impersonator, and unable to accept that one specific role has been assigned to a different member – who, in her view, is “taking her place” – the Nurse secretly substitutes herself to the appointed impersonator and starts playing the role of a young tennis player who recently died in a car crash. Not only does she disregard Mont Blanc’s authority – a transgression which will be punished very severely for its own sake – but she also allows herself to be carried away and become sexually involved with the boyfriend of the dead girl. As she extends the alienating aspects of the group’s practice to her own personal life, the Nurse is in fact going against the group’s rule and is led to violate its strict hierarchic system. Her intent, however, is not to rebel: her disobedience is motivated by her dependency on the group as well as by an extreme adherence to the principle that sustains its action – that of preventing mourning as a “true substitution.” From her point of view, in fact, it is the group that has violated this rule, because it has allowed for somebody to truly substitute her.

Here we see how, as Agamben claimed, it is not by recuperating a dimension before the alienation of gesture but through this very alienation itself that a subject resists commandment; however, at the same time, this resistance inevitably emerges as a further iteration of the commandment itself. More specifically, in this case, it is in the process of becoming-indistinct that takes place when what is initially perceived as an external commandment is revealed to be (also) a subjective compulsion that the ground for a truly free act is established. Lanthimos here suggests that a break from a system of power of which we are part can only take place as an act of self-shattering. Until she disobeys, the Nurse’s life was not truly put into play; but when she commits her very self in her gestures – and loses – what happens is not only that she is punished, but that, being expelled from the group, she achieves in the only logical way possible her complete emancipation from the principle that the group embodies: excluded from the game of impersonation and repetition, she is forced to mourn, and will thus have condemned herself with this gesture, against her will and against her intentions, to being free.

Carlo Comanducci

Vistula University, Warsaw



Carlo Comanducci is a film scholar, MPhil and PhD in film studies at the University of Birmingham, UK, previous studies in literature and film at the University of Genoa, Italy. He specialises in theory of spectatorship and politics of aesthetics, and has written various articles on psychoanalytic theory, film theory, phenomenology of perception, technology, memory, and power.


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Suggested Citation

Comanducci, Carlo. 2017. “Empty Gestures: Mimesis and Subjection in the Cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos.” Mise en geste. Studies of Gesture in Cinema and Art (ed. by Ana Hedberg Olenina and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 5. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2017.0005.56

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner’s terms.

Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758