As someone who loves and hates science fiction almost as much as he loves and hates art house film, I am uncharacteristically excited by the work of Yorgos Lanthimos. In fact, the only director who work intrigues me as much as that of Lanthimos is that of Athina Rachel Tsangari and she produced Lanthimos’ early works in return for his producing hers. Together, these Greek directors are in the process of creating something entirely new in European film and all I can really say is that it’s about damn time.
Lanthimos spent the 1990s directing adverts and music videos as well as working with experimental theatre troupes. Part of the team responsible for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Lanthimos stepped up to directing features with a mainstream sex comedy that was never really seen outside of Greece. The change came in 2005 when Lanthimos directed an experimental film entitled Kinetta, which was nominated for an award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Kinetta is not a great film and arguably not the best place to start when trying to get to grips with Lanthimos’ body of work but it does feature the same troubled relationship with reality as Lanthimos’ later films.
Set amidst the concrete tower blocks and sun-drenched parking lots of a holiday resort, the film revolves around a group of eccentrics who search for meaning by re-staging and filming the crimes of a local serial killer. Shot with a hand-held camera in a way that serves only to draw the audience’s attention to the artificiality of the film’s viewpoint, Kinetta creates a few memorable images only to lose them in a sea of puzzling characters, truncated narratives and a thematic package that never quite manages to find its own shape. Neither surreal enough to be allegorical nor sufficiently grounded to shed much light on questions of identity, the film seems to sit between a number of different and incompatible ontological registers.
It is easy to see why Dogtooth is the film that brought Lanthimos to a the attention of a global audience. Released at a time when the collapse of the Greek economy was just beginning, the film uses surrealistic imagery and science fictional themes to explore inter-generational conflict and the idea of Greece as a country where the young are held captive by the dreams and nightmares of their parents. Built around the conceit of a world-within-a-world that takes the power dynamics of childhood and projects them out onto a world whose political settlement had been revealed as a complete fantasy, Dogtooth solves Kinetta’s troubled relationship between fiction and reality by framing fantasy as something that can be both imposed and escaped.
Lanthimos’ follow-up film Alps took a different and considerably less successful approach to the tension between fiction and reality. Set in the real world, the film revolves around a group of misfits who rent themselves out to grieving families as a way of giving them a few extra days or weeks with the deceased. As in Kinetta, Lanthimos draws our attention to the arbitrariness of everyday life through the medium of bad acting. The group may be hired to play the deceased but their inability to either imitate the dead or deliver a line of dialogue with real sentiment drives home the idea that human lives are little more than collections of empty rituals. In fact, when one of the group begins adding to her role by fostering real relationships and making important decisions, her employers are outraged: This is not the daughter we were expecting! The reason that Alps does not work as well as Dogtooth is that rather than associating the film’s surreal imagery with a world-within-a-world, Lanthimos associates it with grief and the social transgressions born of heightened emotional states. The problem here is that while audiences can relate to the idea of childhood as a place where parents impose ridiculous ideas upon their children, the idea of people doing ridiculous and surreal things because they are upset seems somewhat unrealistic and lacking in satirical focus. Alps did not work because Lanthimos tried to resolve the tension between reality and fiction in purely psychological terms and, as in Kinetta, his surrealist methods tend to become less effective the closer his films get to conventional realism.
Lanthimos’ latest film The Lobster takes an entirely different approach to the troubled relationship between reality and fiction. Where Kinetta, Alps, and Dogtooth seemed to scurry back and forth along a spectrum that reaches from the realistic to the psychologically expressionistic, The Lobster does away with the real world in favour of a science-fictional conceit that might best be described as The Hunger Games for sexually-repressed single people.