The Lethargic Decline of the Bourgeoisie
by Venia Vergou
Revisiting The Idlers of the Fertile Valley, a film by Nikos Panayotopoulos (1978)
Emerging in the early 70s as a young filmmaker in his thirties who had studied cinema in Athens and Paris, Nikos Panayotopoulos has turned out to be one of the most prolific directors of modern Greek cinema. A restless, persistent and versatile filmmaker, he repeatedly denounces the importance of the plot in a film and celebrates the significance of its ‘atmosphere’. Panayotopoulos not only managed to be selected for the competition of the Locarno Film Festival with only his second feature film, The Idlers of the Fertile Valley, but also to return home with the Golden Leopard. This emblematic Greek film of the 70s was destined to be compared to such acclaimed films as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, directed by the father of cinematic surrealism, Luis Bunuel, in 1972.
“A filmmaker is not a sociologist nor a politician…I make films knowing that no film has any political impact. I just believe that, from time to time, we must raise our voices in order to go against the monopoly of the technocrats”. These were Panayotopoulos’s thoughts published in an interview with the newspaper Eleftherotypia in 1978. Almost thirty years later his beliefs were just as adamant in an interview he gave me about his twelfth film (Dying in Athens, 2006):
I detest films with social sensitivities. The biggest monsters are those who show injustice in their films. What does anyone expect from a film? A story, emotions, ideas? For me, a film is above all atmosphere. A mysterious light that urges me to accept, or not, a story. It is the style. I am willing to be moved by the aesthetics and not by the sentiment caused by a mother mourning her child or by the misbehaviour of an employer to his underpaid workers…To me, art is the reign of ambiguity and doubt.
Panayotopoulos’s obsession with an aesthetic strategy that would allow him to compose a specific atmosphere is clearly visible in The Idlers of the Fertile Valley. From the extraordinary location of the remote villa where the story is set to the eerie blue-tinted walls inside the villa, Panayotopoulos has done his best to create a solid cinematic universe that brilliantly conveys his theme. The conscious retreat of a family (consisting of a father, his three adult sons and a beautiful chambermaid) to a remote villa, which they have just inherited from their deceased uncle, has not, indeed, a complex plot. Based on the novel Les fainéants de la vallée fertile by Albert Cossery (regarded in France as the ‘Voltaire of the Nile’), Nikos Panayotopoulos used this material to visualize a rather straightforward allegory. Determined to spend their lives in the restricted environment of the villa and its natural surroundings, the father has convinced his sons to underestimate the necessity of people working, falling in love and being distracted, either by humans or by nature. Secluded within this imposing but claustrophobic villa, the four men slowly withdraw into themselves. Even the daily ritual of sharing their meals at the family table fades away. The more that nature awakens as the seasons pass, the more they sink into an endless sleep that deprives them of any awareness of time passing. “Does anyone know what month we are in?” the father asks at some point, content with the fact that the family has lost track of time. With the impressive contribution of his cinematographer (Andreas Bellis), Panayotopoulos offers a series of amazing long sequences that sweep up and down the two floors of the villa, where the gradual death of the bourgeoisie is rendered through the excruciating passage of time.
The highest point of absurdity is that while each of the four men isolate themselves in their bedrooms, where they eventually spend their entire days and nights and satisfy all their needs: food, sleep, sex (with the maid), the family ties do not deteriorate. On the contrary, their solidarity against anything to do with the outside world strengthens as their decadence grows. Every time Yannis (Yorgos Dialegmenos), one of the three sons, expresses his wish to leave the house, go to university and perhaps get a job, he sounds like an unwanted cacophony. “What’s the use of going to the University?” his father replies. “You have a home that feeds you and you want to go to work? This idea is nightmarish.” Later on, the dialogue escalates. The father says: “You make us all unhappy,” to which the son counters: “I don’t want to make you unhappy, I just want to work.” The father replies emphatically: “You want to humiliate us.” In a film that aims to visualise our fixation with the corporeal world (rather than the spiritual one), these fragments of dialogue reveal the ideology behind the film.
As we reach the end – and the marching melody of the first symphony by Gustav Mulher sets the tone of the son’s doomed attempt to escape – Panayotopoulos makes his point very clear: because of the sheer inertia of the system within this male dominated society, many badly needed reforms are never introduced. The more we surrender to a deep sleep, the more infected and disfigured the phallus will get. The more we surrender to fear and brainwashing, the less we’ll be able to resist. If people do not WAKE UP, their feet will freeze so they are unable to take a step. This is similar to the point made by Paul Lafargue in his book The Right to be Lazy, nearly one hundred years earlier, in 1883:
In order for the bourgeois to respond to his double social role, that of the non-producer and of the consumer, he should not only transcend his conservative taste, free himself from the habit of labour which he acquired in the last two centuries and to plunge into an unrestrained luxury with gastronomy and orgies; but he should also, to detach from the chain of production a massive number of people in order to find assistants.