Who the hell does Yorgos Lanthimos think he is?

Bilge Ebiri

Bilge Ebiri on the director’s bizarre and brutal cinematic universe

18 October 2018 08:00

It is a source of both endless joy and infinite bafflement to me that Yorgos Lanthimos has become the king of glamorous festival galas. The Greek director’s latest, The Favourite, starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman, will have its UK premiere as the London Film Festival’s American Express Gala tonight. That follows a string of other notable glitzy events, including its August world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (where it won two big awards) and its presentation as the New York Film Festival’s Opening Night selection last month. All this comes on the heels of Lanthimos’s highly touted and much-talked-about previous two efforts: 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which starred Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, and 2015’s The Lobster, which starred Farrell and Weisz. Both titles premiered at Cannes, won major awards, and then proceeded to gather buzz and acclaim and more star-studded shindigs on the festival circuit.

On one level, none of this should surprise us, because Lanthimos is an excellent director, and these are good movies. (The Lobster, in particular, is something of a masterpiece.) At the same time, his filmography is so distinctively, confrontationally weird that one has to wonder: how has he managed to go from success to success, gathering stars and awards and big fancy black-tie events sponsored by international finance firms, without compromising one iota of his vision? At a time when the industry appears to be in disarray, and independent filmmakers everywhere seem to be angling for the next Marvel or Star Wars gig, this guy is just chugging along making delightfully bizarre mindfucks starring some of the biggest actors on the planet. (His next project will reportedly take him to television, where he’ll direct a mini-series about the Iran-Contra affair, starring Farrell as Lt. Col. Oliver North. What??! How??!)

The Athens-born Lanthimos has been compared to lots of notable filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. But the director he reminds me of most is the great Spaniard Luis Buñuel, whose globe-hopping fifty-year career concluded with a series of very popular, award-winning, and occasionally even star-filled comedies in the Sixties and Seventies that fused his radical surrealism and savage anti-clericalism with side-splitting digs at the ridiculous rituals of bourgeois life.

‘The Favourite’ (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)

Although it’s a period piece and the first of his films that he didn’t co-write, The Favourite feels like pure uncut Lanthimos. It follows Abigail (Stone), the disgraced daughter of a fallen nobleman, as she insinuates herself into the household of the ailing Queen Anne (Colman) during the War of Spanish Succession. Abigail soon finds herself in a slow-boiling rivalry with Lady Sarah (Weisz), the Queen’s chief confidante, advisor and lover, as a tense struggle flares up between them for the monarch’s favor. Think Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) meets All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), with a dose of early Peter Greenaway. There’s a strikingly barbed yet deadpan quality to the characters’ interactions, as well as a serious streak of sadism and debasement. Humiliation is the coin of this realm: beneath all the precise rituals and petty proprieties of this world, the line between power and disgrace remains whisper-thin.

Lanthimos is clearly obsessed with debasement and the complex dynamics revealed by it. You can see it in the very first feature film on which he has sole directing credit, 2005’s enigmatic and haunting Kinetta, in which a woman and a man enact a series of assaults, as prescribed by precise instructions recorded by the man himself. The duo perform these acts coolly, slowly, without much emotional investment. In her downtime, the woman, who works as a hotel maid, practices her part – pretending to be grabbed from behind, or wrapping a towel around her neck and attempting to strangle herself. It’s as if she’s absorbed and consumed her own degradation and victimisation, and now just does it to herself. Kinetta is an odd, quiet, austere little movie, predicated on repetition, as if to underline the viral quality of violence.

With his next feature, Dogtooth (2009), Lanthimos broke through internationally, garnering a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It portrays the life of an insular family where the parents have kept their grown kids in the dark about pretty much every aspect of how the world works. They tell them that ‘a sea is a leather armchair wooden arms,’ that ‘a carbine is a beautiful white bird,’ and that cats are vicious beasts – man’s most natural, fearsome enemy, with a taste for the flesh of children. The kids are kept busy with a series of sadistic endurance tests and bizarre punishments.

‘Dogtooth’ (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

Filming in unassuming, eye-level static shots and utilising a pastel color palette – all pale pinks and yellows and beiges in bright, sunny settings – Lanthimos presents a landscape of twisted domestic bliss. But the manufactured reality begins to fray when sex is introduced. Dad regularly pays a female security guard at his factory to come and pleasure his teenage son. She introduces an element of chaos when she begins to trade sexual favors with the oldest daughter. Mind you, there’s no affection here between the characters. The sex acts are transactional and bizarre, done robotically and usually on all fours, echoing the dog-like acts into which the parents often force their kids. (The title refers to an imaginary tooth that the parents tell the kids they must grow and then lose before they can be considered adults. They will, in other words, never stop being dogs.)

Lanthimos followed Dogtooth up with 2011’s lesser-seen and even more bizarre Alps, one of his most oblique works. It follows a small group that helps grieving people cope with loss by replacing their recently deceased loved ones and (awkwardly) reenacting pivotal moments from their lives. But our heroes soon discover that the memories these family members want to relive are not glorious, happy times, but moments of shame: the discovery of an extra-marital affair, the revelation of a boyfriend in the bedroom, a pissy argument. Whereas previous films showed how power degrades, this time we see how degradation invokes power: do these family members grieve the loss of their loved ones, or the loss of the control they had over those loved ones? And is that sense of having the upper hand what they secretly hope to recapture through these reenactments?

Alps didn’t make much of a dent, but Dogtooth had been enough of a phenomenon that Lanthimos soon made the leap to English-language filmmaking. However, unlike other auteurs who toned down their style and sensibility when they went Hollywood, Lanthimos doubled down on the weirdness, producing his most ambitiously odd work yet. The Lobster posits a world where single people are sent to a resort where they must find a mate within 45 days, lest they be turned into animals. Among the activities they take part in: heading out into the woods in armed teams to hunt down rogue bands of ‘Loners’ – a small, wandering, rag-tag band of singles who refuse to find love.

‘The Lobster’ (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)

It’s a funny set-up for a surreal, dystopian romance. But The Lobster’s true absurdities – and its true dramatic through-lines – lie in the details. Guests at the resort can’t just find any mate; they need to be compatible in fundamental ways, and share specific qualities, all of which seem to turn on acts of cruelty or mortification. One man (Ben Whishaw), in order to romance a woman who constantly gets nosebleeds, secretly pounds his face in order to prompt nosebleeds of his own. Our protagonist, David (Colin Farrell), realising that his time is running out, decides to try and get with a Heartless Woman (that’s how she’s actually described) by pretending not to care for anyone or anything; their ‘meet cute’ occurs when David complains to her about the annoying screams of another woman who has just tried to commit suicide by throwing herself from a third floor window. The Heartless Woman falls for our hero right then and there, but she eventually discovers his ruse when she brutally kills his dog (who was once his brother) and then catches him secretly weeping.

David finds better romantic luck when he escapes the resort and hooks up with the Loners in the forest, where he meets a beautiful woman (Rachel Weisz) with whom he quickly falls in love. But, of course, the Loners have their own very strict rules against mating (how can they be a resistance of singles otherwise?) and dole out vicious punishments to anyone who breaks their code. As retribution for the transgression of love, Weisz’s character is blinded, and David has to decide whether he too will blind himself, so they can be together.

This brings me to another factor of Lanthimos’s cinema – its violence. Sometimes, the brutality comes suddenly. The seemingly placid milieu of Dogtooth, for example, is punctured by acts of shocking, unreal savagery. The Lobster is a romantic comedy of sorts, but the characters’ amorous yearnings are driven by the threat of persecution: at the hotel, you’re punished if you can’t find love, while out among the Loners you’re punished if you do.

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

Meanwhile, the very premise of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is founded on murder. Farrell plays Steven, a successful heart surgeon who is cursed by Mark (Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a patient who died on his operating table. The boy tells Steven that a mysterious illness will eventually consume the man’s entire family – unless Steven willingly kills one family member.

Throughout, Lanthimos demonstrates an impressive mastery of tone. The harsh angles and long silences, along with the actors’ dry delivery of the non-sequitur-laden dialogue, feel of a piece with the ostensibly more comedic Lobster. But Sacred Deer is an existential horror film, thanks in part to its shrieking, atonal soundtrack, and the constant threat of unimaginable, supernatural violence that seems to lurk in every frame.

So where does that leave The Favourite? As with most of his pictures, Lanthimos is again interested in control and debasement. In Queen Anne’s court, where favour with the mercurial monarch becomes everything, Abigail and Sarah will do anything to gain influence. Through their humiliations, they are validated and elevated. It brings to mind a line from Dogtooth. At one point, the abusive and over-protective father in that film visits a dog trainer, who tells him, ‘Every dog is waiting for us to show it how it should behave.’ Is this the truth? Or is it simply a notion which those with authority wish were true?

Either way, maybe that explains Lanthimos’s success, and our fascination with him. Over the years, he has built a bizarre filmic universe in which the main currency is ignorance and humiliation, and where individuals and organisations wield unthinkable levels of power over others. Sound familiar? Maybe the reason why he hasn’t had to water down his absurdist vision yet is because with each passing year, our real world more closely resembles his cinematic one.