It’s been over a decade since Greece’s government-debt crisis first bit down — perhaps the sharpest national crunch to happen in the immediate aftermath of the 2007-08 global financial meltdown. And so, in the way of things, it’s been about a decade since class disparity, economic distress and social inequality have surfaced among the primary themes of Greek cinema’s arthouse output. It makes Michalis Konstantatos’ icily controlled sophomore feature, “All the Pretty Little Horses,” which fits squarely in that tradition, feel both mature and slightly out-of-time: a well-made, deeply embedded report from the exhausted end of the last crisis, while we’re in the teething stages of a whole new one.
Unlocking its secrets only gradually, the film begins with scenes of seemingly ordinary, bourgeois life in an expensive-looking modernist-minimalist home in rural Greece. Aliki (Yota Argyropoulou) goes for a morning run in the forested hills nearby, while her husband Petros (Dimitris Lalos) tends to the pleasant backyard pool and tosses a chew toy for the dog. It could almost seem idyllic, if we had not first heard Aliki’s private sobs of anguish, and if we hadn’t noticed the way we are introduced to the couple: from behind, from far away or framed so that their eyes are out of shot.
In this striking start and indeed throughout the film’s languorous 104 minutes, Yannis Fotou’s camerawork is reliably assured and intelligent. In the absence of much in the way of plot or overt drama, a lot of the pleasure comes from parsing his careful images, for how they reveal character or motivation simply through framing and the extensive use of negative space. It’s as though his camera’s cool, faintly sardonic gaze is one the secretly shame-filled characters find hard to meet.
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But then Aliki and Petros seldom look each other in the eyes, either, except when occasionally flirting or having sex, and, as a nasty incident after a dinner party gone sour later proves, not always then. And they rarely talk. Instead, long theatrical silences are broken only by Liesa Van der Aa’s cold, atonal score and the meticulous sound design that finds alienation even in normally cheerful noises like an old movie on TV, or the barking of playful dogs or the toy-town tinkle of a child’s wind-up carousel (a prop that gives the film its oblique title).
The reason for the chilliness that exists between them soon becomes clearer, though it’s never overtly stated. After a rigorous clean-up in the house, the couple drives home — to a much less upscale apartment, where a babysitter is looking after their little boy, Panayiotis (Alexandros Karamouzis). The house in the hills is not theirs, it belongs to Anna (Katerina Didaskalou), a wealthy professional with two excitable German Shepherds, who only stays there occasionally and who employs Petros as a kind of caretaker/handyman. The family recently moved out here from Athens, and all three of them are pining for their previous lives, when Petros had a job in finance, Aliki was a surgical anesthesiologist and Panayiotis had his friends and playmates.
Like many stories of genteel decline, Konstantatos’ script does not deal in abject poverty, but instead depicts a couple whose major loss is in self-confidence, self-image and social standing. They do not appear to be about to starve, but the increasing frequency of their visits to Anna’s, and the increasing recklessness of their fantasy lives there, inviting friends over and letting Panayiotis start to call it home, suggest a subtler sort of desperation. And yet the pristine remove of Konstantatos’ filmmaking does not really let us feel for these people, while the subzero pace makes our visit with them feel longer than it really is.
In an era when “Parasite” somewhat cornered the market on abrasive class satires, and did so in a remarkably entertaining manner, the much more somber and straight-edged “All the Pretty Little Horses” can’t but feel lacking in urgency by comparison. Especially when the film’s slow build turns out to be toward an anti-climax rather than a climax, not something of which one could accuse “Parasite,” nor indeed “Luton,” Konstantatos’ 2013 debut feature which dealt with many of the same themes, and showed much the same controlled formalism, but ended with a bang.
Here, at such a distance from the characters (all of whom are performed to numbed perfection by an excellent cast) it’s hard not to pass judgment on them. Even though their downfall may not be of their own making (or not entirely), nor are they simply victims of an unfair system. Rather, Konstantatos is at pains to suggest Aliki and Petros’ complicity in that system, and that a lot of their current misery comes from wanting back in, rather than learning the most valuable lesson that such a fall from grace can teach us: It was never grace to begin with.