Why rules are there to be broken in the world of Yorgos Lanthimos

Control, power and rebellion provide a connective tissue through the strange worlds of Yorgos Lanthimos, from Dogtooth and The Lobster to his new film, The Favourite. Anjana Janardhan, part of our LFF Critics Mentorship Programme, investigates...

23 October 2018

By Anjana Janardhan

The Favourite (2018)

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s universe, there are right ways to do things, and wrong.

The protagonists in his films are often in search of power – pursuing it, withholding it, offering it, playing with it and in some cases appearing to entirely relinquish it to fool their rivals in a convoluted game of cat and mouse.

The characters in his latest film, The Favourite, set in the court of Queen Anne, are no less devious. They pull out all the stops to find acceptance and claim their place in a rigged system of control.

In Lanthimos’s films, the rules can appear arbitrary, sometimes mundane or blatantly useless, but the punishment can be painfully real for those of his players who dare to transgress.

Dogtooth (2009)

In Dogtooth (2009), the patriarch of a suburban family, in a misjudged bid to keep his family ignorant of the outside world, creates an alternative reality governed by his own internal logic. He and his wife bring up their adult son and daughters to have no knowledge of their place in society. He restricts both their interaction with – and understanding of – the world outside the walls of their sprawling home. They have limited means to entertain themselves and resort to testing their own bodies in disturbing games of endurance.

The seemingly airtight bubble is eventually perforated by the introduction of contraband film tapes into the family home. The tapes arm these quasi-adults with the Hollywood lexicon of sex and violence, thereby planting the seed of eventual destruction.

Alps (2011)

The dynamics of power are more insidiously employed in Alps (2011). Here, a business provides mourners with the opportunity to be visited by actors playing the parts of their recently departed loved ones. These stand-in players will live in the homes of their clients, enacting previous scenes and embodying the essence of the departed with carefully researched phrases and behaviours.

The film follows one such actor, a lonely nurse who begins to take her task a little too seriously, improvising ever more intimate scenarios with her clients. Desperate to experience the affection missing in her own life, she descends into murky terrain, testing the boundaries of her professional duties in an attempt to shape herself a life where she’s loved and valued.

The Lobster (2015)

Even the concept of romantic love is up for scrutiny in The Lobster (2015), as Lanthimos explores our anxieties around finding a relationship. In this black comedy, singletons are rounded up and sent to a matchmaking camp, where they are expected to find a partner in 45 days or be transformed into an animal of their choice.

While the aim is to make connections, the rules are strict around interaction. Seeking pleasure outside those rules is banned. Left with little mobility, but responsible for their romantic destinies, the frustrated residents desperately seek alliances to avoid losing their human form. Those who fail to meet the deadline can extend their time by hunting their fellow singletons, gaining a day for each one they’re able to catch.

Two residents manage to bond over their mutual shortsightedness, developing a secret code to communicate in private. They eventually try to break away and engage in increasingly risky behaviour – even disfiguring their own bodies in order to reclaim their autonomy and change the course of their fate.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

In 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it’s an outsider who will infiltrate the apparent solidity of the family unit, working his way into their affections one by one. The patriarch of this family is a respected surgeon. Failing to save one of his patients, he takes a personal interest in the deceased man’s son, Martin. It becomes apparent that the boy is seeking retribution for the loss of his father. Believing the surgeon responsible, he’s looking to redress the balance.

Loss of control manifests in the mysterious paralysis that afflicts the surgeon’s children. Martin warns that more tragedy will beset the family if a sacrifice isn’t made. Despite his meek demeanour, it’s Martin who holds the strings, identifying the cracks in the family’s middle-class façade of perfection.

And so to Lanthimos’s latest offering. The Favourite is set in (a version of) 18th-century England where the reigning monarch, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), is a petulant, insecure and often dotty leader.

Battling gout and the demands of the opposition in parliament, she hides a bundle of insecurities and private grief. Seventeen rabbits live in cages in her bedroom, representing the 17 children she has tragically lost to disease and miscarriage.

The Favourite (2018)

This ruler has everything at her disposal – power, wealth and luxury – yet she can often be found bored out of her mind, shuffling through the vast corridors of her palace. There’s always some unsuspecting page boy to berate for having the audacity to meet her gaze, but even that can get dull.

But she’s not entirely alone. Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), her loyal lady-in-waiting, advises on her wardrobe and daily schedules, but also has the monarch’s ear on everything from the gossip in parliament to domestic taxes and political strategy on the battlefield. She plays puppeteer to her often indecisive employer on matters of diplomatic relations and her disgruntled subjects.

Despite her status, she carries control far beyond her rank. As we soon find out, she’s also the object of the queen’s affections in more ways than one.

But when a new servant (Emma Stone) arrives on the scene, Lady Sarah finds her place threatened. The game widens as she and the usurper scheme, squabble and create devious plans to outdo the other to remain in the queen’s favour.

As in his previous films, Lanthimos’s female characters are strong-willed, decisive and refreshingly unapologetic. They rarely lose their agency, even in their most absurd moments.

In all of these films, Lanthimos questions the societal conventions we learn so early on in our lives to obey. Behind the dark humour, nonsensical setups and sometimes deadly actions, his protagonists are ultimately looking for acceptance and safety in an unstable and often unkind world.

If they can’t be puppeteers themselves, then they can at least tangle up or cut the strings of those who control them.

The setting may be glossier in The Favourite, and the humour more upfront, but the deeper concerns about humanity remain the same.

Co-existence ultimately relies on cooperation, and through the use of dark humour, Lanthimos questions our own sense of fairness, duty to self and how far we might be willing to go to play the game.

We may toe society’s line and tell ourselves that good behaviour will be rewarded, but given the absurd and dangerous actions of those we trusted in power, is disobedience the next logical move?

Lanthimos’s rebellious players endeavour to take control. As shocking as their actions may be, they delight us when they dare to misbehave. They whine, throw tantrums and don’t so much rewrite as satisfyingly stomp on (and discard) society’s rule book governing the games we unwittingly play.

About the London Film Festival Critics’ Mentorship Programme

Six up-and-coming writers from diverse backgrounds were selected out of hundreds who applied for the week-long London Film Festival mentorship scheme. Most of the critics had already blogged and were obsessive cinephiles, but had not been properly paid as journalists. Hoping to kickstart more mainstream careers and contacts, the students were each mentored by a media partner, including Time Out, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, ScreenDaily and The Evening Standard.

The critics attended the early morning press screenings every day, including Wild Rose, Suspiria, The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk, and met afterwards with chief mentor Kate Muir to workshop reviews in various styles – for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine, and some even did a ‘first night’ review, with copy filed within 30 minutes of the screening.

They also wrote comment pieces for their media partners, worked on video and written reviews for the BFI website, and attended the festival’s filmmakers afternoon teas, as well as panels on the lack of diverse critics and breaking the class ceiling in UK film. After work, they networked at a few filmmakers’ parties.

The Guardian’s critic Peter Bradshaw came in for coffee to reveal the professional secrets on covering festivals like Cannes, and Leigh Singer discussed online video reviewing and his work programming the comedy strand at the festival. Three of the critics also appeared on Jason Solomons’ BBC London Film Podcast.

BFI Player logo

Stream new, cult and classic films

A free trial, then just £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try 14 days free

Other things to explore

From the Sight and Sound archive

Elaine May: laughing matters

By Carrie Rickey

Elaine May: laughing matters

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

By Henry K Miller

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema

By Tony Rayns

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema