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Friday, May 20, 2016

Interview: The Cult of Yorgos Lanthimos

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2016 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster - A24 FILMS
  • A24 Films
  • Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster
Seven years ago, I joined a cult.

The Greek film director Yorgos Lanthimos is the enigmatic leader. I started to follow him after the release of his second film Dogtooth. I momentarily lost faith with his third, Alps, which felt colder and even more severe. He was scrutinizing a hermetically sealed world with a microscope and it felt like a dead end. With the release of The Lobster, his first English language film, Lanthimos has transformed that narrow point of view into one that includes a great rush of humanity. It’s an evolutionary leap in his artistic life.

The new film stars Colin Farrell, who, despite a rounder belly and a wilted mustache, remains reliably magnetic. The more he ages past the cockiness of his man-boy phase, the more gravitas he brings to his performances. He and Rachel Weisz, along with a host of brilliant supporting actors, inhabit a bent society that’s related, perpendicularly, to the one in Orwell’s 1984.

Someone — The Government? — enforces a set of rules about everyone’s domestic arrangements. To be an active member of society, you must have a spouse. If you find yourself alone again, for any reason including divorce, death or desertion, you will be taken away for an existential trial of sorts at a resort hotel on the other side of the looking glass. Does the premise sound arcane? Wait, there’s more.

Once the strip search is over there, you have 45 days to find a new partner. If you don’t, you’ll undergo a Kafkaesque metamorphosis into the animal of your choosing. For the inhabitants of this universe, a disturbed god seems to have invented a strange list of commandments to obey. When Lanthimos and his wife, the actress Ariane Labed, recently presented the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I started the interview by asking about the meaning of a song “Apo Mesa Pethamenos” used in a slow motion hunting scene. 
click to enlarge Ariane Labed and Colin Farrell in The Lobster - A24 FILMS
  • A24 Films
  • Ariane Labed and Colin Farrell in The Lobster

Lanthimos explained, “The title means dead on the inside and alive on the outside, which sums up a certain state of mind that some of the people are in. It clashed with the silliness and ridiculousness of the situation [on screen]. It made the scene not only just funny, but also melancholic and brutal. It created the necessary level of contradiction for all these different feelings.” If you can embrace the absurd pairing of beauty and brutality in The Lobster, the film feels less obscure. At times.

The movie opens with an unexplained nightmare. A woman, who we never see again, drives down a country road in the pouring rain only to shoot a donkey. The imagery instantly sets an unsettling tone. Why does he include this and other examples of randomized barbarity? Lanthimos dissembling replied: “I never know what to say about that. It's one of the elements that exist within our world. There's cruelty, there's violence, there is love, there's romanticism, there's tenderness, there's everything. I don't know where this sensibility comes from really but it's just a way that I know how to include all of those things in what we do.”

Lanthimos’ movies not only adhere to but also bow down to established strictures of order. One of his great successes as a filmmaker is to point out the tension between the helpful rules that stave off chaos and the harmful ones that human irrationality defies, such as our effort to love. He added, “It was necessary starting with the idea that you'll set up a world, whenever you become single, you're taken somewhere to find a mate. In order for the story to function in a slightly different environment, we created a stronger conflict to reveal the absurdity of something we consider normal, to shed some light on it.” In The Lobster’s case, the pressure to never be alone, to marry, to procreate.
click to enlarge Rachel Weisz in The Lobster - A24 FILMS
  • A24 Films
  • Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

The film ends by stretching one idea — love is blindness — to its final resting place. It’s a sly nod to Sophocles, his fellow Greek, and a complete inversion of the romantic comedy’s happy ending. According to Lanthimos, “It was the original ending. It was just about the moment. Rachel is there waiting for Colin and you don't know what the outcome of that would be.”

Under extreme duress, the two lovers find a way to be together. However, instead of amplifying the acts of violence we’ve already witnessed, the denouement is a model of perfect tension and restraint. In person, as in the worlds he dreams up, Lanthimos keeps the mystery of his narratives intact (“Off the record, I won't tell you anything.”). I, and many others like me, will remain abiding disciples of his singular, well-ordered universe, bewildered yet satisfied with his vision of finding comfort in the dark. 

The Lobster opens May 20 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Embarcadero Center Cinema.


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