As Dogtooth turns ten, a look at the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, an awards-season ‘Favourite’

Baradwaj Rangan

Jan 17, 2019 15:22:06 IST

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write about Yorgos Lanthimos — and the time is right now, what with Dogtooth turning ten and The Favourite becoming an awards-season favourite. In an Indiewire piece, Eric Kohn summed up the Lanthimos phenomenon thus: “Not since the emergence of Lars Von Trier has a filmmaker managed to disturb and thrill audiences in equal measures while broadening his profile at the same time.” It’s hard to disagree. There really hasn’t been such a weird filmmaker in ages, and he’s shaking up the art-house circuit just as it was beginning to look and feel very similar. By the time Dogtooth broke out at Cannes, in 2009, the time was ripe for a bold, eccentric filmmaker whose films were worth watching not just for what they said but how they said those things.

What versus how, substance versus style: this evaluative criterion applies to every filmmaker, mainstream and art-house. But Lanthimos is so out there, that the form is what you see first. Consider this situation, from The Lobster, which won the Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is what John (Ben Whishaw) says to a young girl who’s like a daughter: “A basketball weighs between 550 and 650 grams. Did you know that? The weight’s different for men’s and women’s games, but that’s roughly how much it weighs. Do you know how much a volleyball weighs?” Now, there’s nothing odd about what is being said. People do talk about basketball and volleyball, even if not always with this kind of obsessive detail. What makes it odd is John’s tone: it’s flat, as though he’s reading off a sheet of paper, a cross between a manager’s dictation to his stenographer and the voice of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Lobster was my introduction to Lanthimos. It’s my favourite film of his. I was so invested in it that the inconclusive ending left me wanting to throw something at the screen. Dogtooth leaves you hanging at the end, too, but I wasn’t half as mad — probably because it’s much more cold and formal (though equally fascinating). Lanthimos, for those as yet uninitiated, creates strange, alienating scenarios. I haven’t seen Kinetta (2005), but in Dogtooth, a fascistic father keeps his three grown-up children from being exposed to the outside world. In Alps, people assume the roles of the dead, to help grieving relatives. (The highlight is a sex scene that turns a bereaved husband’s grief into high comedy; Lanthimos is a sadist, and he’s not apologetic about it.) In The Lobster, we’re flung into a dystopia where unpartnered people are given a specific time to find a mate, failing which they will be turned into an animal of their choosing.

Even the films that are set in familiar worlds look and sound unfamiliar. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, we are in a contemporary society, but one where curses take effect. In The Favourite, we are amidst the royals of 18th-century England, but there’s also a duck named Horatio, chapter titles like “I Dreamed I Stabbed You in the Eye”, and Emma Stone barrelling down the palace corridors, yelling, “F*ck, f*ck, f*ck!” (The film plays like a game-of-thrones version of All About Eve.) The auditions for The Favourite sound like something from a Lanthimos movie. Indiewire reported that Emma Stone was asked to pant like she was giving birth while reading the lines. Nicholas Hoult was asked to hum while the person he was with said their lines, and “had to imagine force fields around the room and sculpt them into things.” Hoult said, “I’m not sure how it affects the performance.” Lanthimos said, “I have no idea either.” This deadpan declaration is pure Lanthimos.

Style is a strange thing. We demand it of filmmakers, and yet, flinch when it curdles into mannerism. Whether it’s David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick, or Woody Allen (imagine how revolutionary the loose, seemingly improvisatory style of Annie Hall must have felt in the 1970s), we just need a scene (or image or line) or two to say it’s their movie, but if the material (the substance) doesn’t match up, we tire of it. We’ve experienced this in some of the lesser Allen films. All that remains is the signature, and the filmmaker stands exposed. When I saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, at Cannes, I thought Lanthimos had used up all his tricks. I thought he stood exposed.

I hated the film then. (A second viewing, a few months later, has made me warm up to it, though only a bit.)  The Lobster had a reason for its mannered form. It was a satire on our absurd mating rituals, the pressure to find the mythical creature called “The One” who’s a perfect match in every way — and the style fit perfectly. Sacred Deer, on the other hand, is not a “concept movie”, and the absurdity (a scene revolves around Colin Farrell’s body hair; see clip below) sticks out — it feels mechanical, not organic. Lanthimos makes stunning use of location: the humans are dwarfed by cavernous rooms, huge skies. But despite this cosmic sense of space, the story isn’t universal. It’s constricted. It plays like a more evolved psycho-thriller, Cape Fear for the Ozu-Bresson set.

That’s why The Favourite feels so good. It’s funny, ribald and sad, and thanks to the material, the director snaps out of the sameness — the robotic line readings, the jangly-eerie scores — that was threatening to suffocate his work. The emotional sadism hasn’t disappeared entirely. One of the early scenes invites us to laugh at a woman who has muddied herself after falling out of a horse carriage. (A man inside pinched her buttocks when she was trying to step out.) But for a change, the woman feels like a real person and not a pawn on the Lanthimos chessboard. The Favourite is a fabulous film, but I suspect the reason so much love is being showered on it is also due to the relief that one of our most interesting filmmakers isn’t a one-trick pony. I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Jan 17, 2019 15:22:06 IST