Yorgos Lanthimos on the alienation of realism
It’s something of a miracle that Yorgos Lanthimos, 44, has had time to direct all his short films, ads, music videos, experimental theatre productions and six extraordinary feature films, as in the past decade he seems to have also given about nine billion interviews. And the Greek director, launching his new The Killing of a Sacred Deer across the world, doesn’t give terse, gnomic answers, as one might expect from the creator of his severely beautiful and uncompromisingly discomforting cinema. Nor is he the haggard, laboratorial dissector of human frailty that his films evoke. Now living in London and married to actress Ariane Labed, Lanthimos is looking 10 years younger than his age, plump of bearded cheek and relaxed, working his way through a morning of yet more interviews and ready to discuss with laudatory expansiveness the evolution of his particular, peculiar cinema.
“The effort of realism in cinema, most of the time, alienates me. Because it is a construction. For me sometimes it’s just embarrassing, to watch people pretend that they’re in an ‘emotional space’, whatever that is. So I think I have just a different approach to things. Maybe you have an element which appears to be more detached and colder, but then you juxtapose it with very emotional music, or the way you film might make something feel so different. Most of the time you can’t directly feel it; people who are not encased in making films do not go, ‘Oh, this is a high angle! So this is why I feel so…’ ” On the phone from a London morning, he laughs. “But it’s just the whole construction that makes you feel a certain way and it doesn’t have to be so obvious and expositional. Which I hope I never do.”
It seems unlikely: his work, which works its action and protagonists as austerely as a stage play, is notable for its antiseptic coolness and an insistent affectless obliquity that brings on a kind of paradoxical alertness in the viewer. Lanthimos hates the term “deadpan” but his characters speak, as critic Roger Ebert put it, as if reading a love poem in botched translation by a third grader, and of the most mundane things. Two medical men walk out of an operating theatre discussing the straps of their watches. A man is reminded brusquely that he is late in the chore of digging his own grave. A family discusses the loveliness of their own hair at dinner. By spending any screen time at all on such trivia, Lanthimos casts the audience into a space where every item and viewpoint and scene feels hazed with significance and metaphor, so that a young girl singing under a tree feels ominous; a man giving a boy a watch makes you shift in your seat; a youth eating spaghetti makes you imagine murdering him. In an instant, as his films begin, viewers are ejected from their comfortable seat of presumptions and into the realm of an astonishing fable. It was a Greek, Aesop, who told the most famous fables. But his contemporary countryman would never add a moral maxim at the end.
“Anyway,” Lanthimos goes on, “eventually you buy into it and believe it’s real. By putting all these things together you reach a point where you are moved eventually, if its individual part is emotional or sentimental by itself, or you’ve created this emotion just by putting one thing next to another, like a narrative, like someone saying a story.” He speaks fluently, in well composed, slightly repetitive sentences, each subclause satisfactorily landed, each part granted its equivalent. It is reminiscent of the curatorial care evident in his work, the meticulous cinematography by long-time collaborator Thimios Bakatakis, the long steady shots and ample confidence. He, too, takes his time, with the air of one who needn’t fumble for an explanation, but who is interested in considering the question anew. “Interesting”, “question” and “different” are words he uses a lot. And “thing”, a word that in Greek gives us that directorial term, “pragmatic”: in the sense not so much of cynicism but “applied to the real world”.
“We start from wanting to explore a certain situation,” he says. “We observe things around us and we think about conflict and problems and situations. Then we come up with a little story around it and that leads us into developing it further and seeing how complex it can become, and what questions it asks, and is it interesting for us to explore and investigate further. And it’s always about asking questions and not necessarily giving answers, which interests us. We would never make a film to give a solution or preach something or teach something. It’s just human beings, you know, being in this world and trying to make sense of it and exploring various sides of it and going, ‘Huh, what do you think about that?’ ” He laughs, a philosophical chortle from a Greek man who has emerged from a nation with no film industry and who now finds himself with fistfuls of awards and given generous budgets, a choice of international casts and crew, and exceptional creative licence.
Even before 2015’s English-language breakout The Lobster, Lanthimos was already much admired for his Oscar- and British Independent Fim Award-nominated and Cannes-winning Dogtooth (2009) with its cool allegory of social constriction as a family detaches entirely from society to build their own disciplined reality. Alps (2011), in which a group of people impersonate, for a fee, the ordinary dead, was similarly lauded. The riveting discipline of his cinema, with its chilly palettes, wide-angle detachment, oppressed dialogue and astonishing poignancy has made him a magus, alongside Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino, of an invigorated European cinema.
In particular, Lanthimos and his co-writer and friend Efthymis Filippou have matured an admixture of the sinister and the hilarious that tips its hat all at once to the surrealism, minimalism and fascination with dilemma of Lanthimos’s favourites, Buñuel, Bresson and Cassavetes, with a strong nod to Kubrick’s love of wide frightening corridors as well. The weird stories the two men have made, and their sheer unexpectedness, provoke paradoxical reactions. In the insistence on the banal, the whiplashing of sudden ferocity at targets of the tenderest of pathetic human connections, some see misanthropy, even cruelty. Others sense a great compassion, pity for their docile and dejected characters. Even the apparently malevolent ones, such as Barry Keoghan’s teenage curse-caster Martin from The Killing of a Sacred Deer, seem mostly bemused, misguided or complacently genial.
“I don’t know,” Martin shrugs, even as he implacably oversees the destruction of Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman’s innocent family. “It just seems like the closest thing I can think of to justice.” Like any good heir of European philosophy, Lanthimos emphasises that his films are never about absolutes or clear morals, but much more interested in raising questions. He may set his cinema in suburban homes, modern hospitals and ageing hotels, but he is working with the savage and inscrutable reality of myth. Apparently prosaic scenarios gleam with allegory as well as floor-cleaner. His protagonists – bourgeois, inoffensive, oblivious, such as Farrell’s fleshy middle-aged men – are given pulverising choices, such as whether to suffer so as to share suffering with a soulmate, or to sacrifice a loved one in order to save the others. “I do appreciate when I’m not considered an idiot,” Lanthimos explains, “and I’m not being preached at, if that’s the right word, and I’m not being told what to think and how to feel and what’s good and what’s bad, what’s wrong and what’s right. I really have a reaction against those kinds of things. But it’s not necessarily that I like films that are metaphors in general. I just like when something is made in a way that intrigues me and engages me and makes me think about other things.”
Many viewers are also tickled by the preposterousness of a work such as The Lobster and its nifty satire on the violence of social pressures. Anyone who uses Beethoven’s and Shostakovich’s string quartets as accompaniment to scenes of a chintzy hotel where a couple forms a conjugal bond by one of them pretending to be unmoved by the pretended choking death of the other in a jacuzzi is a person in full grasp of both the comedic – no, really – and the original. In that film, single people are obliged by law to couple up within a short hotel stay, earning extensions through hunting expeditions for rogue “loners” in the woods, or be matter-of-factly turned into animals. In a virtuoso bit of world-building, audiences become accustomed to this scenario within minutes, so that the hotel manager congratulating Colin Farrell on his putative choice of a crustacean identity seems both funny and normal. The humour in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is more illicit, hovering somewhere in the Psycho-like musical score’s melodramatics and the horrible bathos of a paralysed child dragging himself across a clean kitchen floor to show off his obedient new haircut.
Music, a feature of only his two most recent films, is a major element in both the pathos and humour, but in the Lanthimos rubric, only as incongruity. “Before, I just couldn’t figure out why you’d use music to just underline the same thing that’s happening in a scene, and navigate people to a very specific way of thinking and feeling. I love music, but whenever I tried to use it in a film I always felt that it only limited every scene, and the general tone. You couldn’t really associate the scene with more than any one thing; it just became a very restricted thing. And then The Lobster was the first time I managed to use music in a way that it brought something different to the film. If I used it, I wanted music to be really present.” The score features Shostakovich, Schnittke and Stravinsky, and places its sonorous strings and melodramatic jarring chords at exquisite pulse-points of the action. The effect is both solemn and hilarious as well as ingenious, such as when characters are informed of another humiliating hotel rule and in the following digestive pause a giant Teutonic or Stalinist-era chord slams down. “I don’t like to take myself too seriously or the film that I make to be too self-serious. So I hope I find ways of using music in a way that creates this other tonality. Then you have something different in your hands.”
He plays it a little disingenuous: the predatory tracking camera shots of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and the use of the literally shining Kubrickean corridors are admitted to only as improvisations according to circumstances or instinct. For all the philosophical laissez-faire, he seems very tightly in control of his directorial authority, ruthlessly flinging the audience from exhaling reprieve to a scene where someone bites a hole in their own arm. “The difficult thing is that you can’t really control how people feel when they’re watching a film, because people are so different and they understand things so differently. You can only construct this thing according to your own understanding and perception of things. It’s a different person who watches it; it just depends so much on who they are, what their education is like or their background or experiences in life, or how much they’ve been exposed to films or other forms of art or entertainment.”
Does he make his unnerving fables for himself, in the end, or his audience’s entertainment? “It’s not like I make them for myself,” he says as the publicist begins hurrying him off the phone. “It’s just about exposing these things and saying, ‘We don’t have a clue’, and, ‘Yeah, isn’t it strange to feel this way about certain things and not being able to answer them with conviction?’ That interests me as a feeling. I’m trying to create that. I do want other people to enjoy it, but I cannot make it by thinking how that will happen. I can only make it by thinking what I find most interesting. It’s the only compass you can have when you’re making a film like that.”
He and Filippou have a routine of gestating a new project while still editing the previous work, so in Lanthimos’s head already a new interesting question is forming, some shining shadow, some new family’s security to be dismembered. “Don’t be scared,” says The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Martin through a bloodied mouth. “It’s just a metaphor.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 11, 2017 as "Yorgos is as good as mine". Subscribe here.