A WARM AUTUMN day in North London. The saviour of Greek cinema has joined me in a suave, wholemeal café to discuss financial meltdown, aggressive surrealism and the outer orbits of the Academy Awards. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t look like a messiah. He does, it is true, have a beard. But otherwise he comes across more like a quietly spoken university lecturer. He begins to poke his way through his first few answers in beautiful English.
“Well thank you. I studied English at school and I watched a lot of films,” he says. “It’s a language that you actually use, of course. It’s a funny thing. I have gotten so used to speaking about my films in English that I find it hard to speak about them in Greek. I can no longer find the words.”
What a perfect scenario for a Yorgos Lanthimos film: a man who can only express himself effectively in a language that is not his own.
“Yes. I can see that. It’s crazy.”
Now 39, Lanthimos has been making commercials and directing plays for close to 20 years. In 2005, his debut feature, Kinetta, emerged to polite applause in obscure places. But Dogtooth, an off-beam, disturbing drama from 2009, really made the Great God Cinema sit up and pay attention. Concerning a repressive father who forbids his daughters from leaving the house, the picture wallowed in a unique blend of surrealism and targeted menace. The picture won top prize at Un Certain Regard – the alternative strand – at Cannes and went on to secure an Oscar nomination for best picture.
His next appearance in the credits was as producer of an equally odd Greek film entitled Attenberg. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s picture also revelled in peculiar rituals and distorted takes on everyday reality. It looks as if a movement was underway. How long before we all agreed to celebrate the New Greek Brutalism (or whatever)?
“I think that the films were more about friendship,” he says. “I don’t really think it is a movement. But we do share philosophies about cinema. Somewhere in there you can find things that are similar. To be honest, there is no way of doing this in Greece unless one film-maker is helping the other. Your friend makes a film and then you help her make one. It’s necessity.”
Well, fair enough. But Alps, the latest picture from Lanthimos, does nothing to dispel the notion that we are watching the development of a very particular aesthetic. To use the language of science fiction, Alps appears to be set in the same universe as both Attenberg and Dogtooth. It’s a cold place in which even altruistic gestures seem selfserving. The soundtrack never happens upon any soothing beats. The dialogue is as angular as that of Harold Pinter.
The story concerns a group of people who impersonate the dead in order to ease the bereaved past their trauma.