Yorgos Lanthimos is the New King of the Surreal
A trifecta of bizarre, and Yorgos is just getting started.
“We don’t know how to make a straightforward comedy or a straightforward thriller or horror film. This is what we know how to do.” – Yorgos Lanthimos via Independent
Every so often a filmmaker comes around that makes an audience viewer question what they are really watching. This generation’s king of the surreal is Yorgos Lanthimos with six feature films now under his belt, and a seventh on its way. Yorgos has managed to perfect his auteur style, but may be creating a divide between his viewers. Using a combination of surreal world building and sleek cinematography, courtesy of Yorgos Lanthimos’ cinematography partner, Thimios Bakatakis, his films are captivating and deeply disturbing. Resonating with the audience, Yorgos treats his films with a careful precision, but they are often regarded as love it or hate it.
A Set of Rules & Punishment
Yorgos has been quoted, saying he flat out doesn’t know how to make a straight forward film, and upon watching his work, it is overtly apparent. Inherently, Yorgos uses a source of conflict derived in the disobeying of a set of rules stating, “Having rules means that sometimes people break them and that means punishment…” This “set of rules” plays an important part in his world building, as the viewer is never able to fully settle into the space the characters inhabit. The rules, much like the film, are not straight forward either, which is perfectly exemplified in his 2015 breakout film, The Lobster. Centered in a Utopian society, The Lobster follows a lonesome man, played by Colin Farrell, in search of love before he is ultimately turned into his choice of animal: a lobster. While grounded in a surreal set of rules, the film goes beyond the plot and stretches its wings to become one of the strangest films I have seen in my life. The characters themselves do no have a solid grasp on the rules at hand, and the results are somewhat disturbing. One of the strangest scenes comes as we are being introduced to this hotel, the characters inhabit.
Colin Farrell’s character is being introduced to a means of curbing sexual desire, as a hotel maid gyrates her body along his. During the same sequence, we are contrasted with a separate set of rules and punishment when John C. Reilly, another hotel patron, is punished for masturbating via his hand being inserted into a powered toaster. Another scene chronicles a woman described as “true evil” as she does not react to a failed suicide attempt, observing a battered woman lying below the structure from which she jumped. This specificity in reaction to this world is what makes Yorgos films feel so surreal, yet grounded. Without meandering about the rules, he presents them as they are, and we, along with the film’s inhabitants, are forced to accept the oddities as they come.
Things get so specific that each couple has a characteristic that they connect on (things like nearsightedness and nosebleeds), no matter how absurd, and the specificity’s provide a commentary on the ridiculousness of dating. A haunting score and uneasy tone almost makes The Lobster feel like a horror film, despite being listed as a comedy. This combination with the film’s themes, illicit a strange emotional response from the viewer. Giving a look into the nature of relationship and the need of acceptance, the film is also strangely human. While it still features Lynchian like dialogue and scenarios, the premise left in the ending leaves the viewer with an important question regarding love: Is it ingrained in our humanity or is it a social construct? The Lobster gives a unique look into how Yorgos treats the worlds of his films, and without rules the protagonists wouldn’t have anything to rebel against. To Yorgos, being the “outsider” holds more weight than adhering to a set standard of rules, and begs the question: Are the actions worth the punishment?
The Oddities of Dialogue
Following The Lobster (2015), Yorgos released a more thrilling version of his works in Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Lacking in much of the black comedy that his 2015 installment had, but still comedic in parts, Killing of a Sacred Deer is much more sinister. The film opens with a heart surgery (that is actually real), as Colin Farrell (who plays the surgeon) meets with a stranger, a much younger man. The film eventually diverts from the mystery, revealing what is actually happening, and it is more disturbing than what any viewer may think. It is revealed midway through the film that Colin Farrell had been drinking before a surgery, and it resulted in the death of this young man’s father. From here, Farrell tries to comfort and spend time with the boy, somewhat as an admission of guilt. The boy presents an ultimatum to Farrell, kill a member of his family, or they will all die. While this provides the driving force for the films narrative, the oddity of this film is derived from the characters, both in dialogue and depiction.
The characters act unreasonably monotone throughout the film and it creates an unnerving tension as they navigate the unraveling situation. As terrible things happen to the family, they all are eerily calm and accepting of what this young man, played by Barry Keoghan, is doing. Unclear in premise, the viewer never really knows how Keoghan’s character is harming the family, but his intention is clear. The interaction between the character’s feels almost like Eraserhead (1977) in nature, as they deliver oddly timed lines in situations that are clearly inappropriate. However, Lanthimos takes the absurdity to the top as Colin Farrell delivers dialogue to his son about a sexual experience with his father, and discusses his daughter’s menstrual cycle at a dinner party.
The deadpan delivery of Colin Farrell, combined with the bizarre dialogue provided by Lanthimos, creates a true auteur vision of the surreal. The film’s cinematography is also slightly different than his other films, featuring more movement and showing that Lanthimos is not seeking to create any specific tone, but having it come naturally through the process. This is the reason all of his films are hard to categorize as far as genre, donning aspects of a thriller, horror and black comedy; Yorgos is merely doing what he knows, catering to the surreal. A sense of family is often an important driving factor in his films and with his first breakout project, Dogtooth (2009), Yorgos was able to lay the foundation for common themes in his films.
The Morales of Family
The film that cast Yorgos Lanthimos into the spotlight came in 2009, with a coming-of-age story that may leave you a bit nauseous. The idea of a father protecting his family is a common theme in both Dogtooth (2009) and Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), and Yorgos plays with this dynamic well. The difference between the two is that in Dogtooth, the “world” that is presented to the characters is one of their own making. The film follows a family that lives alone on the countryside, the father is extremely controlling and the daughters/son are stuck living under his rules until their “dogtooth” falls out. This becomes the driving force behind the daughters’ actions, as they obey this set of “rules” that were created by another character. One can infer that the “dogtooth” will never fall out, thus the siblings will never grow up. The film ultimately acts as a distorted coming-of-age story as the siblings chronicle sexual experience and confusion, learning new words (which are given false definitions by the parents) and of new artwork locked away from them.
However, instead of celebrating the transition into adulthood, the film shows the result of an over controlling parent. An example of this comes in one of the daughter’s first sexual experience, and how that was a result of the father’s actions. This lack of understanding on both ends is a common theme in Yorgos’ work, and often results in a “punishment” of some sort. The film climaxes in a scene that is hard to watch and wraps up the consequences of the parents actions with a blood soaked bow. Grounded in a false reality surrounded by the truth and extremely disturbing, Dogtooth would have never been successful as a film made in the US. However, with the creative drive of Yorgos, the film went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Acting as the antithesis of a coming-of-age story, Dogtooth observes a sect of society that proves sometimes things are not what they seem.
Yorgos Lanthimos is on his way to becoming one of the most iconic filmmakers of this generation, but he is already the king of the surreal. There isn’t another filmmaker that can pull off the work that he is doing, combining the surreal with deadpan dialogue that makes you laugh when you really want to scream. Each varying in execution, Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) and Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) all offer a different lesson as far as morals and family structure goes. Whether you love him or hate him, Yorgos is not going anywhere. Bleeding aesthetic similarities to David Lynch, this is only the beginning for Yorgos as he climbs the ladder further into beautiful obscurity.