For the past decade, a filmmaker from Greece has been making some of the best and most surprising movies in the world. Now he’s about to reach a new level with audiences in the US, thanks to THE FAVOURITE.
Yorgos Lanthimos is known for unsettling and compelling movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and THE LOBSTER. He’s been directing videos, commercials, and television since the early 1990s, but his 2009 movie DOGTOOTH, about a drastically warped family, got the attention of the film world in a big way. Characters in his movies speak strangely and act in even more unusual manners — but they also have real dramatic power.
As we anticipate THE FAVOURITE, which follows two cousins trying to win the attention of Queen Anne of Britain, let’s look back at the brilliant movies of Yorgos Lanthimos.
Not since David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD has a movie so perfectly announced the new and strange talents of a director. In DOGTOOTH, a husband and wife keep their children locked away from the world. They teach the kids incorrect names for things, and tell them cats are the most dangerous animals in the world.
Eventually, the outside world starts to intrude on the home through sex and movies. As the kids experience new parts of life, without having been prepared for them, the family situation gets quietly out of control. DOGTOOTH is freaky and uncomfortable, in part because Lanthimos makes it feel exceptionally real. His situations are strange, but his filmmaking is controlled and almost invitingly dreamy. This movie gets graphic, but most of its power comes from showing how power can be abused, and how even good intentions can be twisted into something nightmarish.
(This wasn’t the first film from Lanthimos — he co-directed MY BEST FRIEND in 2001, and made the experimental feature KINETTA in 2005 — but it was the point where his voice was really heard for the first time.)
The follow-up to DOGTOOTH is kind of a reversal of it. This film is based on an idea that seems empathetic, even generous. A nurse attends families who have lost people they love, but she does so in a very unusual way. She and a group called The Alps are paid to role-play as the recently deceased, to help families work through their grief. The Alps can play your lost brother or lover; they’ll act out whatever memories you want.
Uncertainty runs through the film as we try to figure out what relationships are real, and which ones are being played out. The story and characters are as cold as the mountains they’re named after. Just because they’re playing out roles doesn’t always mean they can have the feelings required to make them feel real. Meanwhile, what does the nurse want for herself? This mysterious movie is not as obviously messed-up as DOGTOOTH, but it has an understated oddity that will stay with you.
All the films by Lanthimos have currents of black comedy. Five years after ALPS, in 2015, Lanthimos returned with his funniest and most unusual film.
In THE LOBSTER, single adults have to find partners within six weeks, or be turned into animals. Colin Farrell plays David, whose wife has left him. If he has to be an animal, he’d like to be a lobster. The society has other strange rules. People can only pair up if they have a trait in common, so one man hits himself in the nose so he can pair off with a woman who suffers nosebleeds. A militia-like group of militant loners lives in the woods, but they have just as many arbitrary-seeming rules about human contact as the society they escaped.
THE LOBSTER is just as odd and surprising as it sounds. As with his prior films Lanthimos shoots in a matter-of-fact style that makes the story seem whole, and Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, as one of the loners, offer approachable reference points. And while the concept sounds outlandish on paper, the film’s story becomes a brilliant satire on dating and romance. You’ll be surprised at how true to life this very unreal story can feel.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Farrell worked with Lanthimos a second time for this 2017 movie, starring as Steven, a surgeon who is forced to reckon with a past failing. The surgeon develops a friendship with Martin, a young man played to frightening perfection by Barry Keoghan. Steven tells his family that Martin’s father had died in a car accident years earlier, and he is helping the boy deal with grief and living without a father. The truth is different, and much darker.
Martin’s father is dead, yes, and he believes Steven is responsible. So Martin does what you or I would do: he curses Steven, saying that he must kill one of his own family members, or else everyone in Steven’s family will die, beginning with his youngest child. The story turns into a giant moral and ethical problem that would throw the cast of THE GOOD PLACE into a total fit. But it’s a brilliant concept for an existential thriller, and Lanthimos and his cast (which also includes Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy, and Sunny Suljic) explore every bleak corner of the demented idea.
Now we’re ready for the latest film from Lanthimos! This is his most mainstream movie yet, but it’s not exactly PBS fare. It’s the 18th-century story of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who relies on a friend, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), to help govern. That situation is threatened when Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) shows up at Court. Abigail wants to be the Queen’s favored companion, and the competition between Sarah and Abigail gets fierce, fast.