Over the last ten years, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose credits include The Favourite, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, has persistently carved out a place for himself as one of the most distinctive and peculiar directors working today. In the following conversation, Timothy Lawrence and Joshua Gibbs delve into Lanthimos’ eccentric vision.
LAWRENCE: When we were composing best-of-the-decade lists near the end of 2019, not one, not two, but all three of Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language films from the 2010s made both of our top 50 lists. One of them (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) came very close to cracking my top ten. Yet as we start this conversation, I am struck all over again by how strange this is. Lanthimos’ films hardly seem like they would appeal to either of us. In his short documentary Why Beauty Matters, Roger Scruton says, “Art once made a cult of beauty. Now we have a cult of ugliness instead… Sometimes the intention is to shock us, but what is shocking the first time around is boring and vacuous when repeated. This makes art into an elaborate joke, though one that by now has ceased to be funny.” At first glance, Lanthimos’ deliberately unpleasant films, with their mordant humor, jarring moments of violence, off-kilter framing, and stilted dialogue, seem like prime targets for Scruton’s criticism. Is Lanthimos worshipping at the altar of ugliness, or is he doing something else? What on earth draws us to this man’s bizarrely distorted vision?
GIBBS: The work of Yorgos Lanthimos is pretty far outside my wheelhouse, I’ll admit. At the same time, Lanthimos is entirely unlike, say, Tim Burton. Burton loves strange, wacky, ugly things. Burton loves to make heroes out of outsiders because he doesn’t like society – and he doesn’t like society because society has the power (or the responsibility) to make things normal and Burton hates normal things. Lanthimos, on the other hand, often depicts people who are hanging out on the border between weird and normal, are anxious to reach a state of stability, but are not entirely certain that normality is worth the sacrifices they’ll have to make to reach it. Tim Burton’s work appeals to the sort of person who wishes every day was Halloween. A movie like The Lobster, on the other hand, is really about the horrors of loneliness and the even greater horrors we are willing to endure to escape it. Lanthimos isn’t interested in vindicating the bizarre and the outlandish, which is more the work of Burton, John Water, Gregg Araki, Terry Gilliam, and so forth.
There are a few places in Scruton’s work where he says a work of art can be so beautiful that it’s out of place. It’s one of his criticisms of Fauré’s Requiem, which famously omits the terrors of the Deus Irae. For my money, Lanthimos doesn’t make a “cult of ugliness,” but presents the uncanniness of modernity from a somewhat satirical standpoint and is thus able to describe ugliness without increasing the ugliness of the world (which I don’t think Burton, Waters, and Araki were capable of).
At the same time, his work doesn’t ever really center on redemption, does it?
LAWRENCE: That distinction – describing ugliness without increasing it – is crucial, and very helpful. It is also an extremely difficult trick to pull off, and I always waffle on where to draw the line. A few years ago, I was much more confident in justifying, say, The Wolf of Wall Street as a “cautionary tale” or Kingsman: The Secret Service as a “satire”; nowadays, I am less certain of those judgments. Merely depicting anything in a movie grants it a kind of power, no matter how much a filmmaker tries to diminish that power with “self-awareness” or “auto-critique” or what have you. That said, I’m pretty much convinced by your claim that Lanthimos pulls it off. I can hardly imagine a person watching Dogtooth and thinking Lanthimos approves of anything he puts on the screen. His films do not even invite your sympathy, your vicarious participation, the way most movies do. Instead, Lanthimos almost always locks the viewer into the perspective of a detached observer; the worlds he shows us seem so alien I could almost believe him a visitor from outer space, filing perplexed reports on human behavior. His satire is just that ruthless, though at the same time, it does not come across as smug, glib, self-righteous, like Jojo Rabbit marketing itself as an “Anti-Hate Satire.” Lanthimos may be looking down on his subjects, but I imagine him shaking his head in sad bemusement while he does so.
You’re certainly right that Lanthimos isn’t interested in vindicating oddness. Generally speaking, the characters in his films are normal people who are trapped in oppressively abnormal systems. Look no further than the hero of The Lobster, who is not a Burton-esque weirdo played by Johnny Depp but a painfully normal sad sack. At the same time, Lanthimos doesn’t seem to have a terribly high opinion of normalcy. There’s something of Hobbes’ political thought in his films: man’s bestial tendencies make the state of nature an awful place, so society must resort to no less awful measures to cow those tendencies. The Lobster presents two distinct worlds – one that prizes normalcy and one that prizes oddness – and in the end, it is hard to say which is worse. That said, insofar as Lanthimos excites our sympathy for his characters, he does so by drawing attention to what is commonplace about them. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Colin Farrell in The Lobster because he has shed his movie-star looks and is now a slightly tubby fellow with a droopy mustache and round glasses. He is sympathetic because he seems normal; he is sympathetic because he could be me.
As far as redemption goes, I am often reminded of Pope John Paul II’s claim that “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” I am not entirely satisfied with this as an apologia, though, for it too easily becomes a Get Out of Jail Free card that allows me to watch Suicide Squad or Game of Thrones because they are indirectly giving voice to some nebulous “desire for redemption.” Moreover, as much pity as I have for Colin Farrell in The Lobster or the trio of appallingly selfish harpies tearing apart each other’s souls in The Favourite, I am not really convinced that making us long for redemption by highlighting its conspicuous absence is a priority for Lanthimos. In fact, I think his best film is the one that (at least on first glance) seems most markedly disinterested in redemption of any kind, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
What do you think of Lanthimos’ perspective on human beings? Does he love them, mourn for them, want better for them? Or is he merely offering an unusually precise, unsparing arraignment of their depravities? And what do you think of The Killing of a Sacred Deer in particular?
GIBBS: Lanthimos views human beings the way Sophocles viewed them. He does not think them absurd, but he thinks of them as self-contradictory on a fundamental level. For Sophocles, man was caught between his physical and spiritual natures: the physical made sport of the spiritual. Sophocles wanted some way for man to resolve the contradiction between his spiritual and physical natures. He never found it, though. Sophocles seems to pity man, or just himself, but in order to truly love mankind one must be capable of adopting a perspective which is transhuman. One of the reasons Christianity is capable of producing artists which surpass the Greeks and Romans is that Christianity offers a somewhat objective standpoint from which one can consider humanity as an outsider. The Christian conception of man is fuller, more varied, more diverse than the Greek conception.
While Lanthimos doesn’t strike me as a Christian, he has nonetheless ambiently absorbed a little of that Christian objectivity, which means he’s a bit like a half-converted Sophocles. He’s a Sophocles who has seen what’s on the other side.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a film I still do not have much to say about. It went way over my head. What impressed me about it – and all of Lanthimos’s films – is that all the uncanny business in the story segues neatly into a completely ordinary drama. Despite the unexplainable curse of “balance” which Martin imposes on Steven, Steven botched Martin’s father’s surgery for entirely understandable reasons: he was drunk. The curse isn’t imposed because Steven has unwittingly transgressed some sacred boundary. There’s nothing particularly uncanny about a drunk surgeon’s hand slipping. Lanthimos has a way of bringing the uncanny to bear on the rational in unexpected, disturbing ways… but I also think the uncanny appears in a believable fashion.
To what extent is Lanthimos concerned with believability? Does it not seem he has a curious, uneven relationship with verisimilitude?
LAWRENCE: I have seen Killing of a Sacred Deer about once a year since its release, but still share your bafflement; I cannot quantify why I find it so transfixing. Among its many mysteries, it is some sort of Christmas movie, with the prominent choral performance of Carol of the Bells, though the conclusion is set to Bach’s St. Matthäus Passion, which is more of a Lenten thing. Given the ultimate fate of Stephen’s son, perhaps the best slot on the church calendar for the film would be the Feast of the Holy Innocents. All this to say, there may be something to your claim about Lanthimos’ “half-Christian objectivity.” The Killing of a Sacred Deer has its roots in Greek tragedy – the title is taken from the myth of Agamemnon and Iphigenia – yet, as you say, its perspective is not quite Sophoclean. The image from the film that is etched most deeply in my memory is likely the shot looking down at Bob, Stephen’s son, collapsing in the hospital lobby – a visual choice that seems to clue us into the transhuman perspective you describe.
When I think of Sacred Deer, I am reminded of Chesterton’s description (in Orthodoxy) of the “deadly fates” and “despotic gods” of paganism, and his assertion that ancients and moderns both view existence as fundamentally miserable: “when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say ‘enlightened’ they mean darkened with incurable despair.” Over and against the full vision of the Christian perspective, Chestertonian madness – a narrow, contracted vision of the world – is the thread that links paganism and enlightened modernity. Lanthimos seems to intuit this link, and he also seems to have a rare ability to step outside these contracted cosmos and reveal them for what they are. Circling back to your point about believability, the uncanny elements of his films arise out of modern man’s attempts to control the world. Consider the family home in Dogtooth or the hotel in The Lobster: in his attempts to impose order on nature, man mutilates it. (The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an outlier, or an inverse: it concerns a supernatural intrusion into a man’s carefully ordered world, over which he wrongly believes he wields complete control.) As moderns, we take for granted that nature is raw material which we can shape as we like, and so when Lanthimos exposes this hubris for what it is, his worlds suddenly seem both strange and eminently realistic.
Looking over the last several films in Lanthimos’ filmography, what do you make of the fact that Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer make a trilogy of animal-themed titles? My first thought returns to Sophocles, and his conception of man as half-god, half-beast…
And, looking ahead at the next project on Lanthimos’ slate, an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which we’ve both read recently – what makes this such an excitingly apt pairing of director and material?
GIBBS: Knowing what to make of Lanthimos’ animal fixation is tough. Even after the trilogy, The Favourite could easily have been entitled The Rabbits. And when he adapts My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I can imagine Lanthimos making quite a bit of Ping Xi’s stuffed animal art. But the whole animal thing is tough because it’s quite perverse, but it’s perverse in a pagan sort of way, so it can’t be written off as mere kink or weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness.
In Chesterton’s biography of Francis of Assisi, he claims the Middle Ages were a time of purgation. Everybody had to go without. With the way he describes the Middle Ages, I think Chesterton might mark their start with Theodosius closing down theaters and ending the Olympic games at the end of the 4th century. That’s where the purgation began. Games and plays had become too tainted by the gods to be enjoyed in good conscience by Christians. Chesterton also claims that nature itself was tainted by the gods and that the asceticism and fasting which typified the Middle Ages cleansed the earth of the devils that tyrannized men through the worship of nature.
All that to say, Lanthimos is either not convinced the devils have truly been purged from nature, or he thinks they have returned. I don’t think he is quite wicked enough to try to get them back, though.
The reason why Yorgos Lanthimos’ films cut so deep is that he doesn’t think the real story of the world is technology, progress, enlightenment, wokeness, and so forth, but something more powerful and more sinister which is lurking beneath the façades which have a lot of people distracted and pacified. I return to his films because he is a man who says with confidence, “Let me show you what is actually on the line.”