Spotlight: Yorgos Lanthimos
The New European
Our culture correspondent VIV GROSKOP profiles the greek director - described variously as part of film's 'Weird Wave' and the cinematic answer to Kafka - who Hollywood is taking to heart
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is the new darling of Hollywood. His latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, stars Colin Farrell, an actor he has worked with before, as Steven, a heart surgeon married to a beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman).
When things go wrong on the operating table for one of his patients, Steven takes an interest in his patient's bereaved teenage son, Martin (Barry Keoghan), only to find that Martin has his own ideas about how he is going to get revenge for his father's death. The film is winning rave reviews and further burnishing Lanthimos' reputation.
He had been flirting with international success for a few years with his first films Kinetta, Alps and Dogtooth, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2009. Then, finally in 2015 his film The Lobster, starring Farrell and Rachel Weisz, found the global audience he was looking for.
The Lobster is a surreal story about a world where singletons go to a hotel to find love. If they fail to find 'the one' without an allotted period of 45 days, they get turned into an animal. (At least it's an animal of their choice. Generous.) The hero, David (Farrell), decides that he wants to be a lobster because it lives for a very long time. It won an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
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Lanthimos has said that his choice of casting Farrell again was not intentional from the outset, but once the project was written, it was obvious that he was the one to play the surgeon. And the director relished working with an actor for a second time because 'next time, things are easier and you can go further'. The film is also getting attention as it features – as Martin's mother – Alicia Silverstone, an actress who deserves to find more prominent roles.
Its release has caused an outpouring of enthusiasm in the higher-brow reaches of the American press. The Atlantic writes of Lanthimos' 'long, expository sentences with a flat, affected monotone' (sell it hard!) and his 'taste for macabre plotting'. Francine Prose wrote in the New York Review that his work is 'strange and original' but somehow 'reflects the culture in which we live.'
Born in Athens in 1973, Lanthimos studied at Hellenic Cinema and Television School Stavrakos in Athens. He first went into video direction, working with Greek dance companies. After expanding his work into music videos, short films and experimental theatre, he was one of the team working on the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
As he moved into feature films, his work soon came to the attention of a wider European audience with Dogtooth winning a major prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival before going on to be nominated for an Oscar.
Dogtooth is the story of a mother and father bringing up three teenage children in Athens' suburban middle class – whilst isolated from everyone and everything around them. 'The parents create and edit their family's reality,' explains Francine Prose, 'When the kids wonder about the planes buzzing overhead, the parents arrange to have toy planes plop into their back yard.'
His work is experimental, weird and unexpected. So much so that he is often referred to as part of the so-called 'Greek Weird Wave'. In much the same way that Pedro Almodovar is seen as having made over Spanish cinema, Lanthimos is credited with the renaissance of Greek movie-making.
The Lobster was his first English language film. And the current outing, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is only likely to cement his reputation. His next, due out in 2018, will be The Favourite, set in 18th century England in the court of Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman). Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and the secret lover of the queen. When a newcomer arrives at the court (Abigail, played by La La Land's Emma Stone), the long-standing relationship between the two women is threatened.
Weisz has described it in interviews as a reworking of the themes in the great Bette Davis film All About Eve. Although more conventional-sounding than many of Lanthimos' films, she said it still had his hallmarks as a director: 'There's no-one like him. He gets you into a certain tone. He's very unique. Very unique.'
His universe is often described as 'absurdist dystopian black comedy'. What he cares about, though, is being surprising and original whilst being aware of how cine-literate modern audiences are. We have all seen so many films – what can really surprise us?
'I'm striving to make something different,' he told Bomb magazine, 'But not for the sake of making something different. Obviously, we have all these images and influences, most of which can be completely unconscious. And I'm trying to honour that but at the same time doing something similar.
'It's very common to explain films by comparing them to other films. That's how people understand films, I think, or are able to talk about them.'
Lanthimos has said he wants his film to go 'straight to the subconscious'. He isn't afraid to tackle dark themes. He says of the topic of adolescent revenge in The Killing of a Sacred Deer: 'I think the initial thoughts were around the oddity of a very young person (Martin) trying to get revenge over something an older person has done. And that kind of dynamic, that a teenager can actually terrorise someone grown-up and mature.'
His films have been labelled as the cinematic answer to Kafka and he is clearly pleased not to be pigeonholed as Greek. He would rather be seen as having international influences. 'I'm obviously Greek but I made this film [The Lobster] in English and – well, I don't know what the film's ethnicity is – it was shot in Ireland.
'The cast is from all around the world, which was intentional because the whole story just felt right being something contemporary and close to the societies that we live in, that I live in.'
He wants, however, to stay close to his roots: 'I came into a new place trying to create the circumstances to make films almost the same way that I used to in Greece, only with a bit more support. You create the scale of the film and surround yourself with people who know you as a filmmaker, who will maintain the essence of your previous work.'
It seems like he won't be lacking in support from now on.
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