Humans are strange creatures with a complex set of emotions. They are often unable to deal with interpersonal relationships, especially with close friends and families. This might lead filmmakers to structure an allegory around this theme every once in a while, and a perfect example is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. In every Lanthimos film, we see his craft of exploiting our inability to deal with social relationships and combined with his ingenuity, this creates a dazzling dystopia. This peculiarity also makes us believe that Lanthimos, who simply does not know how to create straightforward narratives, hates humans.
Yorgos, who grew up and studied in Greece, had no exposure to filmmaking because of the lack of a developed industry in the country. He started making commercials and working on soap operas as a beginner, and then worked on music videos and theatre plays. This also gave him ample opportunity to be experimental with his creations. With his second feature film Kinetta (2005), Lanthimos entered mainstream filmmaking and made it to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Dogtooth (2009), his third film, won him his first Academy Award nomination for a foreign film. And thus, Lanthimos began his career, full of absurdist dystopias which have come to haunt and amaze the average moviegoer today.
Take a very simple plot. A divorced man in his mid-thirties looks for a romantic relationship with a woman. What would he do? He might search around in his professional and personal circles for single women, which is tough. So, he would probably hop on a dating site and begin a tedious journey of waiting and desperation. So far, quite normal. However, in the Lanthimos world of The Lobster (2015), a divorced man in his thirties is sent to a remote island far away from the city. The island hoards a multitude of single people looking for romantic relationships during their stay. But that’s not it – these people only have forty-five days to look for such a partner and develop (or maybe not) a relationship with them so that they can stay happily ever after. If they are unable to do so, they will be turned into an animal of their choice. Here you have a basic human life problem transforming into a gritty and absurd nightmare. When Efthymis Filippou, a close writer friend of Lanthimos who has worked on almost all his films, was asked about The Lobster and its idea, he said, “All our stories begin with observations, situations that already exist. We take these situations, and we exaggerate them, we make them bigger in order to describe more easily the core of our initial thought. The funny thing is that no matter how much we try to exaggerate things, real life is always far more excessive.” Every Lanthimos film usually has a straightforward theme. A family consisting of overbearing parents with a dire need to control their children. A man looking to find a romantic relationship with a woman to avoid turning into an animal. A surgeon’s happy and lively family trying to fight their past demons to save their loved ones. The plots are superficially quite ordinary, but the filmmaker’s creative vision and camera work make them unnerving.
The Lobster (2015); Element Pictures, Scarlet Films, Faliro House Productions, Haut et Court, Lemming Film, Film4 Productions
Yorgos Lanthimos does not want you to have a comfortable watch or a feel-good movie moment and that is sometimes evident right from the opening scenes of his films. In The Lobster, a lady completely unrelated to the rest of the movie is shown driving a car near a countryside farm. At one point, she gets out of the car with a pistol, and shoots a donkey to death. There have been and there can be many theories as to why an animal was killed, but director exposes you to the strong feeling of disgust and wants you to stay the same throughout the movie. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), we are shown an actual open-heart surgery being performed and the human heart beating. For five straight minutes, we are exposed to a live beating heart on screen, and the camera is fixed on it. Such an opening sequence might provoke some viewers or even generate nausea. When asked about it, Lanthimos said there was a whole operation scene that had been planned. The close-up of a beating heart had been the first thing he shot, and when he saw it, he knew he had his whole scene. His ability to remain elusive while depicting crucial shots reflects in the uncanny horror elements in his films. The opening scenes are always an integral part of any Lanthimos film and they set a precedent for the rest of the runtime to be absurd and uncomfortable.
The most important thing that sets apart his dystopia from other works, however, is the cinematography. Yorgos has a special connection with his camera, and it deserves a special mention in the credits as an equally important contributor as anyone else. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the protagonist of the film is portrayed as an injured detective with limited mobility, who keeps an eye on all his neighbours through his window. Through the film, Hitchcock made a powerful impact on the voyeuristic use of camerawork using a character. In Lanthimos films, the camera acts as the element through which we, the audience, are watching the story, almost as if the camera is a part of us. There are certain shots like below-the-waist angles, wide angles, or moving drone-mounted camera angles, which impart an eeriness to the environment of the film. The below-the-waist or far-wide angles are inserted specifically to create an imbalance between the audience watching and the characters. Lanthimos wants us to feel that we are not in any way close to the characters on screen. We should feel that there is a certain distance between us and them; between the real and the dystopia. For example, in certain wide-angle shots, the characters are shown to be very small and tiny, which gives us a feeling of spying on them from far away. In other shots that are taken from low angles, we feel as if we are eavesdropping on conversations between these characters. In many other scenes, unique ways have been used in which the camera provokes the audience towards the story. For instance, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, there are some camera angles where we see the characters from a height, or when the camera is wobbly and just allowed to be mounted on a drone. These situations are specifically created to impart fear, panic and visual paranoia amongst the viewers. Lanthimos wants us to feel that the camera is a unique object that acts as a voyeur in the personal lives of the characters; in turn, the camera is nobody but us.
TheKilling of a Sacred Deer (2017); A24, Element Pictures, Film4
An evident distinction between the filmmaker and his peers is the way he uses characters in his movies; the way the characters interact or behave with each other. Lanthimos deliberately uses the dry and deadpan delivery of dialogues to develop comedy in his films. But he detests the word ‘deadpan.’ In an interview, he stated: “What does it even mean? Anytime people see an emotion that is not extremely emotional, they call it deadpan. Most acting is very melodramatic, it’s not what you see in people.” Often, characters in his films speak in long monotones, sounding oddly unaffected by what others feel, interacting in the harshest ways possible. For instance, when the character David (The Lobster) is talking to a woman, she seems quite appalled by the suicide attempt of a fellow inmate at the hotel. But the characters talk about the awful cries of the dying woman and how they wish they would not be able to hear it from their room. This disconnect and sarcasm in the way the characters interact makes the audience feel alienated towards their world. Lanthimos’ films are something that we cannot connect to; we understand that they are created in an alternate world which are mere distortions of our own reality.
So, what makes the filmmaker so special and sets him apart from other directors? There are quite a few other directors who make films with similar absurdist and surrealist angles but still are rather different. Take David Lynch, for instance. Lynch has his own unique ways of portraying horror on screen; using shocking, irrational and atrocious imagery to depict events, or the erratic flow of a story where numerous scenes take place but have no connection to each other, leaving the audience in a frenzy. He tries to alienate his audience from the plot by using absurd imagery of dreams or other elements. We wouldn’t know what is going on or is going to happen later and this suspense is what creates the element of horror. Lynch adds a stream of consciousness and idiosyncratic dream sequences that make us feel like we are hallucinating, and then completely goes off the narrative to another unrelated event. It all builds up throughout the runtime of the film and only in the end can the audience decode what the actual plot was (or sometimes not even that and they leave the theatre just more confused). This unique sub-genre of psychological, neo-noir thriller works very well for directors like Lynch. Lanthimos, on the other hand, gives us the entire story on a platter and then serves us with required elements to induce the horror. We would know what he is trying to depict, but we are kept in the dark as to how he will do it.
Another director that falls under the same category as Lynch is Charlie Kaufman. He has the same non-narrative style of cinema; however, his works are less gory and much more psychological. Of other similar directors I can think of, Ingmar Bergman comes to mind, whose works had a lot of influence on Lanthimos as well. Bergman, in an interview, stated that he intends to use his dreams, rather nightmares, to make films. His works are a representation of his artistic temperament and the manifestations of his nightmares. He uses unconventional camera angles, abrupt cuts, or unexpected sounds or visuals to stunningly portray these dreams. Though Lanthimos’ works take a lot of cues from Bergman, he manages to be unique and diligent in his arena.
I had recently started reading Richard Brautigan’s 1974 work called Hawkline Monster, which is a Gothic Western novel based in early 20th century Oregon, United States. As soon as I heard that Lanthimos was slated to be directing it and reuniting with screenwriter Tony McNamara (The Favourite, 2018) I was automatically drawn towards the plot. The Brautigan novel sounds exactly like the kind of work Lanthimos can excellently adapt into his universe. He was also in talks for adapting a Jim Thompson novel, but as the Coronavirus catastrophe has put a halt to this world, so has it put on these film adaptations. When a director starts making a certain genre of films, the audience expects to consume more of it in their trademark way. We certainly do not know what Lanthimos will give us in his next directorial, but his audience will be rooting for the absurd and surrealist cinema with disturbed characters, and another well-crafted dystopia.