Towards the end of the last decade a number of films emerged from Greece and began to attract buzz on the festival circuit. Films like Attenberg by Athina Rachel Tsangari and Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence were noted for their stark, strange and twisted take on the traditional family unit; with the fracturing of the domestic sphere played as a microcosm for Greek society in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.
Chief among this new wave of directors was Yorgos Lanthimos, along with his co-writer Efthimis Filippou, who exploded into the public consciousness in 2009 with Dogtooth, spearheading a movement critics were swift to pigeonhole as the Greek Weird Wave. It could be argued that it’s more of a ripple, with a sustained surge of notable practitioners failing to emerge; but its leading lights continue to make distinctive challenging art, particularly Lanthimos.
The Athens-born filmmaker began in music videos and commercials before co-directing My Best Friend (2001) with the respected Greek polymath Lakis Lazopoulos. A mainstream sex-comedy, it gave little indication of what was to come from the young director. He followed this in 2005 with the much more experimental Kinetta, in which a trio of oddballs restage the crime scenes of a serial killer. Kinetta played at Toronto and Berlin and while gaining some attention, it was criticised for the almost manically busy handheld camerawork. Perhaps not the most auspicious introduction of a major new talent, but it certainly gave a taste of the ritualistic aspect that permeates his work.
While Lanthimos has made further mockery of the idea of a homogenous new trend in Greek cinema by leaving Greece to make his films, attracting a glittering host of respected actors in the process, Dogtooth remains arguably his most famous work. A calling card of seismic proportions in the independent film world, it gained such a reputation that even the notoriously starchy Academy couldn’t ignore it, awarding it with a nomination for Best Foreign Film.
It’s a comedy, but one that stretches that definition to ruptured elasticity. In a devastating allegory of a sick Greece, three young adults have been kept sheltered from outside influences their entire lives by their parents, particularly their domineering father. Theirs is an existence where, thanks to their parents’ misinformation, cats are dangerous predators, zombies are a type of flower, and planes flying overhead will fall out of the sky into the garden (toy size, thrown by their loving dad).
Lanthimos uses long, static takes, deliberately stilted performances and dialogue, and scenes of perversity and almost unwatchable violence (the “dogtooth” scene will haunt you) to demonstrate the creeping rot at the core of Greek life. Dogtooth won numerous prizes, most notably the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes and instantly propelled Lanthimos into the realms of great European provocateurs like Haneke, Verhoeven and von Trier.
His next film, and, for now, the last in his native language was Alps (2011). Less overtly extreme than its celebrated predecessor, it nevertheless proved more divisive. ‘The Alps’ are a small group of therapists who hire themselves out to the recently-bereaved, taking the place of the departed loved ones for a short while, as an aid to the grieving process. As in Dogtooth, the dialogues they learn to replay on demand to their clients are delivered in a flat monotone, giving the service they provide the air of an empty ritual, a sermon delivered by a priest with wavering faith.
Alps is more opaque than Lanthimos’ previous film, with less overt anger welling through the cracks in its icy surface. It failed to really hit the cultural nerve, but thoroughly established both his distinctive style, and in Ariane Labed and Angeliki Papoulia two actresses who adapted flawlessly to this approach. Both also have the talent to achieve the same deadpan intensity in the English language, as demonstrated in his next film in which they both appear.
The Lobster (2015), to paraphrase that hoary old football cliche, is very much a film of two halves. A dual-bladed absurdist attack on conformity, The Lobster is set in an alternate reality where being single is illegal. Colin Farrell plays David, a man escorted to a hotel full of other singletons and instructed to find a partner within 45 days, or he will be transformed into the animal of his choice (his preference gives the film its title). Again, Lanthimos’ obsession with ritual is indulged in the bizarre rules and regulations of the hotel. When he manages to escape he meets up meets up with the ‘loners’, a band of outlaws who violently enforce the single lifestyle. Despite this, he begins a clandestine relationship with a woman played by Rachel Weisz.
As is now customary, the film proved Marmite, with many complaining that while there are so many ideas crammed into the first half, it doesn’t quite coast through the second on its brilliant momentum. Once again, and unusually for such a studiedly strange film, the Academy rewarded Lanthimos and Filippou with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The Lobster also confirmed that Colin Farrell is exceptional with the right direction.
As such, it’s no surprise that Farrell reunites with Lanthimos for the upcoming The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which sauntered away from Cannes earlier this year with the award for Best Screenplay. A dark psychological horror based on the myth of Iphigenia, to which the title refers, it sees Farrell play a surgeon with a sinister bond to a teenage boy (Barry Keoghan of Dunkirk renown). It’s been pretty much rapturously received [although Callum Petch, our reviewer-at-large at the London Film Festival was a little more lukewarm in his evaluation], and it would be foolish to discount further recognition from the Academy.
Next in the pipeline is The Favourite, a historical biopic which sees Emma Stone playing Abigail Masham, an intimate companion of Queen Anne. Whatever your current view of Lanthimos and his work, it will undoubtedly be fascinating to see what such an idiosyncratic stylist will do with such seemingly standard material. We suspect Lanthimos’ take on the early 18th century will be something to behold.
Are you a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos? Have you seen The Killing of a Sacred Deer? Let me know.