When a gifted director ditches their native tongue and starts working in English, it can be a fraught process. For every Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, there’s a Wong Kar-wai or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose career still hasn’t recovered since he parlayed the Oscar triumph of his 2006 drama “The Lives of Others” into the dismal Johnny Depp comedy “The Tourist.”
There are no such problems in “The Lobster,” Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ confident English-language debut — any viewer discomfort is likely to be wholly intentional.
This mordant, surreal comedy is set in an alternate reality where coupledom is compulsory. Those who can’t find a partner are transformed into animals. Filmed in Ireland with an international cast including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux, the movie nonetheless preserves the distinctive flavor of Lanthimos’ earlier Greek-language films, including the Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth.”
It helps that “The Lobster” enlists many familiar faces from those earlier movies. Supporting actresses Angeliki Papoulia and Ariane Labed co-starred in Lanthimos’ previous film, “Alps,” and co-writer Efthymis Filippou, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis and editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis have also collaborated with him in the past.
“I find it always important to keep working with some of the same people that I have worked (with) in the past, in order to develop relationships and be able to grow with them, becoming more creative and efficient in what we do,” Lanthimos tells The Japan Times. “I also find it equally important to create new collaborations and relationships in order to be able to evolve and see things in a different way.”
Lanthimos first came to prominence when “Dogtooth,” his third feature, won the main prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. This tale of a family that had kept their children confined at home for their entire lives is both funny and deeply disquieting.
Working in collaboration with screenwriter Filippou, Lanthimos concocted a kind of austere absurdism in “Dogtooth.” Everything felt a little off, and viewers were left to draw their own conclusions about what the heck was going on. The pair further refined their potent brand of peculiarity in 2012 with “Alps,” which revolved around a group of actors who offer role-playing services to the recently bereaved.
“I’d like people to come to my films with an open mind,” Lanthimos says. “We try to make them in a way that allows different understandings of them, and people tend to have a better time if they let go and don’t insist on expecting to watch what is supposed to be the norm.”
In casting “The Lobster,” Lanthimos stipulated that he would only consider actors who had seen at least one of his films, to ensure that they were already attuned to his unorthodox style. There’s an uncanny quality pervading his work that’s easy to recognize but hard to pin down. One of the most striking traits of his films is the way actors deliver their dialogue in a stiff, hurried fashion that flattens out the emotion, whether they’re discussing sex, death or the average weight of a basketball.
But Lanthimos says he rejects the suggestion that he’s aiming for a deliberately unnatural effect with these line reading.
“All I try to do is to replicate a certain kind of naivety, awkwardness and insecurity familiar to all of us in our everyday lives, since we don’t really know most of the time what we are going to say or do, and how other people are going to react to that.”
Lanthimos prefers to keep his cast as off-balance as his audience. When making “Dogtooth” and “Alps,” he only let his actors read the script once, meaning they had to learn their lines as they were shooting. The director’s frequent use of nonprofessional actors, which continues in “The Lobster,” is another way of breaking the more experienced cast members out of their usual habits — assuming, at least, that they’re willing to play along.
Despite instructing his ensemble to read the screenplay of “The Lobster” only once, he says, “they didn’t listen to me and read it many times and came all prepared, knowing their lines and everything.”
Other directors would probably have been delighted, but not Lanthimos. Is he railing against the method acting approach to characterization, with its emphasis on detailed research when preparing for a role?
“I don’t see how character backstories could help in this particular film that takes place in a made-up world,” he says. “I’m generally not a fan of backstories, because I find they narrow down what the actors and characters emanate and project. The possibilities, as in life, are endless and unknown to most of us.”