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Yorgos Lanthimos Only Wants to Be Your Problematic ‘Favourite’

The button-pushing master director’s new royal comedy-drama-thriller features a new twist—and some of his old tricks

Element Pictures/Ringer illustration

At one point in The Favourite, Emma Stone violently smashes herself on the nose with a book. This type of facial self-harm has become something of a motif for Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. After showing an actress slapping and strangling herself during rehearsal in his 2005 debut, Kinetta, his signature move emerged in Dogtooth — the violent, memorable Greek film from 2009 that marked Lanthimos as a European director to watch. Facing her bathroom mirror, a desperate young woman (frequent Lanthimos collaborator Angeliki Papoulia) hits herself repeatedly to try to lose her “dogtooth” — actually a regular canine that her gaslighting parents have convinced her she has to outgrow before she can finally leave the house and explore the world. A few years later in the Oscar-nominated The Lobster, Ben Whishaw fakes a chronic nose bleed, while in the climax, Colin Farrell prepares to blind himself with knives for love. For Lanthimos, the end often justifies the most harrowing of means.

This pattern of willful injury parallels the experience of the ever-growing audience that has been following Lanthimos’s work during the past 15 years. Often compared to other contemporary European extremists of the human condition, such as Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke (whose style he sometimes mimics), Lanthimos doesn’t make soothing films. Some critics accuse him of nihilism. But it’s hard to argue with the human truths that his conceptual yet brutal — and, more often than not, brutally articulate — approach digs out, and the relief that his tough love provokes in fans.

The Favourite, which is being touted as an Oscar contender, is almost entirely set in the luxurious 17th-century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), where the monarch and her government live cut off from a dark proletarian reality of poverty and war against the French. This existence in a royal bubble might be full of absurd and diverting entertainment (duck races, tea and cake, target shooting, and verbose, contradictory discussions about exactly what is to be done about the French), but it is also in line with the isolation that Lanthimos’s previous characters have all experienced, often physically and always psychologically. He likes to strand his characters in the middle of nowhere in every way possible.

Lanthimos made his name as an abstract filmmaker, from the Bressonian acting style he usually requires of his performers (The Favourite, with its energetic female ensemble, is something of a departure in that regard) to the limited societies in which they evolve. This conceptual approach could easily be seen as an art cinema gimmick, and it is one in Kinetta, where three protagonists spend their time reenacting and filming bizarrely stoic and audio-described physical arguments between a man and a woman. Their reasons for doing this are never made clear, and Lanthimos himself doesn’t seem to have thought of those motives, revelling instead in the simple, undeniable oddness of his setup.

Kinetta was a false start, but Lanthimos evolved quickly. From Dogtooth onward, his robotic characters have turned into guinea pigs, their stifling environments imagined as intricate cages ruled by survival instincts, power struggles, and repressed humanity. In the case of Lanthimos, the cool — and even cold — view of the world typical of the modern European art film has been justified as more than a rejection of Hollywood sentimentality. There is a method to the borderline sociopathic madness of Lanthimos’s milieus, and therefore, of the characters that populate them too.

The parents in Dogtooth have kept their three children — two girls and a boy — in isolation for a reason: to raise them according to their own rules and thus have power over them. The kids — now close to young adulthood — have learned Greek, but certain common words have been ascribed different meanings (a “pussy” is a very bright light). To keep them from running out into the world, the domineering father has told them terrifying stories about the cat being man’s greatest enemy and planes falling out of the sky; “last one to fall asleep wins” says one sister to the other as they dose themselves with chloroform, a clear metaphor for their dangerously dormant understanding of their situation.

This particular education (or, rather, lack thereof) can explain the stoicism of Dogtooth’s central clan, as well as the reaction of the children when they accidentally encounter reality. Lanthimos has conceived of these fully physically developed adults as blank slates on which their environment rubs off: they have learned by imitation, so when the older daughter (Papoulia) watches a forbidden VHS tape of Rocky, she impersonates Stallone, generating comedy as well as our empathy. Just as her father had taught her to get on all fours and bark when threatened, she has absorbed the behavioral codes of Rocky Balboa and made them her own. She answers to another set of rules now. She has tasted another poison — American pop culture — and it’s only a matter of time before she breaks more of Dad’s rules.

All of Lanthimos’s films play with the ideas of being as acting, and of society as the most intransigent and violent teacher. The titular “Alps” of his 2011 movie is the working alias of a group of men and women — each nicknamed after one of the peaks of the famous Swiss mountain range — offering to impersonate people who had died to help their families mourn, an activity they naturally choose to keep secret and which seems to consume their whole lives. Even if, as in Dogtooth, Hollywood also has its place here (the grieving relatives are asked who the deceased’s favorite American actor was), the codes to be learned are those of conventional family relationships. The nameless nurse (Papoulia again) has to memorize lines that the dead young woman she is posing as would have said to her parents, and behave with the typical warmth — or coldness, or teenage angst — that the girl arguably used to possess. The scenes of her entering the grieving parents’ home and delivering overwritten dialogue recall Kinetta and are strangely oppressive; she must stick to her script and remind those people of their child even as she is just a stranger in their house, and be ready to improvise on whatever directions they give her. Like a clean sponge or a mirror, the nurse absorbs then directly reproduces, without any added value, the prototypical behaviour of a teenage daughter, or a girlfriend, or a mistress, as defined by modern society. There is no room in this exercise for individuality or ambiguity.

With Dogtooth and Alps both critically acclaimed, Lanthimos headed west: For his first English-language movie, The Lobster, he took advantage of an increased budget and resources to move from minimalism to stylized sci-fi, increasing the surrealism of his oppressive worldview. In The Lobster’s universe, single men and women are confined to a remote hotel and given 45 days to find a mate before being turned into animals by unknown means. The premise suggests forceful speed-dating timed with a ticking bomb, framed by a bizarre arbitrariness that’s often a joke in and of itself: In one of the film’s smartest moments, we learn that the hotel no longer offers a bisexual option after having found the many possibilities it opens up too difficult to manage. This idea of a violent, dangerous dystopia returns in Lanthimos’s similarly Farrell-starring follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Here, the ruthless laws of life take on a (Greek) mythical dimension — its plot is inspired by the story of Iphigenia. Set in a large, unnamed American city rendered strangely claustrophobic by the director’s Kubrickian use of interiors, The Killing of a Sacred Deer sees Farrell and Nicole Kidman as a married couple unexpectedly having to conform to the mysterious rules of retribution announced by a prophetic and terrifying young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who knows something about Farrell’s character that the rest of them don’t.

Farrell’s stilted acting in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is purposeful: In both movies, he seems to be buckling under the weight of choices that he’s either unprepared or unwilling to make. Lanthimos loves deadly ultimatums — the time limit of The Lobster; the Sophie’s Choice of Sacred Deer; the alternative between decapitation and other, more painful forms of death in The Favourite. These function as conceptual tools for Lanthimos to force the moment to its crisis, to quote T.S. Eliot. Death tends to bring things into perspective, and in the severe contexts the filmmaker creates, it turns life into a fight for your life. Service workers often occupy special places in his films because of their supposed total lack of emotion and neutral commitment to helping the system: the nurse in Alps, the maid in The Lobster, and Farrell’s doctor in The Killing of a Sacred Deer are central to their stories because of their dedication to their ascribed roles. But in the face of capital punishment, even they end up being in it for themselves: Everyone, from the sibling rivals of Dogtooth to The Lobster’s lonely hotel guests, will do anything to be the Favourite. Lanthimos can’t be accused of nihilism as much as of brutal realism, revealing as he does how society, with its hardwired rules, makes the knowledge of our own mortality — a.k.a., the human condition — a perpetual, bloody, and solitary struggle.

Lanthimos’s interest in tyranny has resulted in a cold, controlled filmmaking style — like his characters, he adapts to his milieu — but he’s not redundant: Dogtooth’s restrained framing has been replaced in The Favourite by an overstuffed aesthetic composed of unflattering close-ups, exaggerated angles, and an omnipresent fisheye lens. It’s a contrast to the clinical and barren world of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but the effect is the same: a disquieting feeling of oppression. Lanthimos’s total and uncompromising embrace of harshness, however, is precisely why the few (but crucial) moments when his characters break out of their roles and reach out to others are easy to miss — and why they’re so important. The solidarity of two female characters in Alps — one offering to help the other with a dance routine — is in opposition to the group’s authoritarian leader, while The Lobster gradually reveals the humanity that even the toughest of social climates can’t eradicate. In the end, and after having received some much-needed help from the maid, David chooses Weisz’s “Short-Sighted Woman” over a “Heartless” one — a choice that feels like a happy ending despite its risk.

The first Lanthimos movie I saw when studying film at university was Dogtooth, and despite its groundbreaking role in launching the Greek New Wave, I disliked it. Its Un Certain Regard award in Cannes, then its Oscar nomination, helped bring to the fore this series of Greek films, which challenged authority, from their very independent productions to their antisocial themes, and were directed by filmmakers also including Athina Rachel Tsangari, whose film Attenberg stars Lanthimos. Dogtooth seemed to me — and, to an extent, still does — to be too facile an exercise in provocation and calculated punkiness. Worse still, its depiction of human nature had no traces of humanity: The mechanical acting felt arbitrary and the older daughter’s rebellion was unconvincing. But after exploring his entire filmography, I realize now that this arbitrariness was precisely the point: Lanthimos imposes his vision, first to echo the unshakable intolerance of the world, but then also to reveal how humanity is just as irrepressible. The nurse in Alps may be imitating a dead daughter for money, but ultimately, she longs for the genuine warmth of a father because her own has always ignored her.

If Lanthimos still occasionally loses his compassionate touch for the sake of existential dilemmas (The Killing of a Sacred Deer might be his most disappointing effort after Kinetta), he continues with each new film to test his belief in both the cruelty of organized society and the goodness that lies (dormant) within people. Lanthimos’s cinema, in that sense, is deeply and heartbreakingly honest, rather than cruel or nihilistic — and honesty is the mystery at the core of The Favourite’s power plays.

The queen is, by definition, literally the society she lives in with her court; but as the maker of all the rules of her world, can she hope for anyone to meet her with anything other than calculated subservience? Any claims that the film is misogynist, by the way, should be offset by how naturally it treats the idea of female authority: Within this particular context where such authority isn’t as uncommon as it is in our world, Lanthimos’s worldview may be harsh, but it’s not so easily gendered. Because his characters are always trying to please — and because women here don’t have to say sorry all the time — it’s hard to identify genuine kindness or respect in The Favourite. Or, for that matter, in Lanthimos’s films in general — and yet I keep looking. Even if I want to fight back, or SMDH Dogtooth-style, maybe if I keep submitting to his rules, he will once again extend a helping hand and, eventually, even become my favourite.