Natasha Stagg sits down with Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth, to discuss his new film Alps.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s films are largely about control. In Dogtooth, nominated for an Oscar in 2009, three adolescents are taught an invented dialect and set of rules by their parents. The two girls and boy are isolated from any outside influence via scare tactics (the cat is described as a beast who would attack a runaway) and false hope (they can leave the house and its fenced-off yard when their canines come out). The resulting atmosphere is game-like, with each act of rebellion more extreme and more juvenile than the last. Even sex is made into a lesson, taught, of course, by the parents, with the aid of one female non-relative. This setup doesn’t help much in distracting from the temptation of incest. Because of this controversial depiction of family-life, Dogtooth’s release worldwide as a subtitled Greek film faced varying degrees of resistance.
Lanthimos’s newest film, Alps (2011), which plays in New York July 13th to the 19th at Cinema Village and will be screened nationwide in later months, deals with a new set of rules. A team called Alps—named for the mountain range’s singularity—services the bereaved by replacing, for a time, the deceased. The leader, a paramedic, names himself Mont Blanc and asks each other group member to adopt a nickname from the Alps. Since the team’s job is to replace loved ones, their attitudes should match the status of the tallest mountains: nothing can match them, and if they were to stand in for any other mountains, their presence would be superior to their predecessors’. The leader also hands out a list of rules, which the film’s audience is not privy to. For fun, says Lanthimos, he and his co-writer, Efthimis Filippou, wrote the rules after the movie was finished, and included this list in screeners. You can find these sprinkled into fan posts and anticipatory trailer reviews all over the Internet now, as Dogtooth’s spare, relentless style and controversial subject matter has earned Lanthimos a much-deserved cult following. Listed below are the fifteen rules, irrelevant to the story’s plot but telling of the creative process.
1. Must declare in advance the things they are unwilling to do by filling out Form 1 (e.g. kissing, lifting weights, traveling, etc.).
2. Must declare in advance the things they are good at by filling out Form 2 (e.g. dancing, waterskiing, discussing, etc.).
3. Must have some basic knowledge of psychology and sociology.
4. Are obliged to support, under all circumstances, the interests of the Alps group.
5. Must respect each other.
6. Have the right to change their nickname only twice. They cannot choose a nickname belonging to another Alps member. The nickname must strictly be the name of a mountain in the Alps, and not something general or irrelevant (e.g. Blonde, Master, Dragon, etc.).
7. Can never talk about Alps activities with non-Alps members.
8. Are obliged to take the Gymnastics Club Test, if necessary.
9. Must be over 14 years of age.
10. Should always be smart, clean, punctual, and in complete control.
11. Must never get emotionally involved with clients, or have intimate relations with them.
12. Cannot change their physical appearance without the Leader’s permission (e.g. dye hair, lose or gain weight, wear colored contact lenses, etc.).
13. Must be able to make convincing facial expressions (sadness, happiness, despair, etc.).
14. Must honor the title of their membership, and be ready to kill or die for it.
15. Must never attack one another, and must believe in teamwork.
– Mont Blanc, Leader of the Alps group, January 2008”
Although rules and limitations have become a theme in Lanthimos’s two major films, they do not create the drama. Rather, the boundlessness of a character’s will stands out as the focus, when every other drive depicted has the intention of breaking it.
The plot is a blurred timeline, punctuated by new characters requesting the help of the desperate actors. The film is broken up by breakdowns and triumphs, peaks and valleys in an otherwise flat, somber landscape. Without giving away too much, someone takes a beating, sexual bribery is suggested, and an actor’s disappointment leads to breaking into and entering a client’s home. It is in these moments of longing that we see true character development despite the limited views we have of each. Most of the time, the men and women of the film are slightly out of frame or in some way obstructed; the premise, too, offers only a partial and obscured view of the film’s world. Each character is either acting as someone we (and they) have never met, or pretending, within a state of trauma, to accept this false version of someone recently passed.
We get the sense that everyone is fighting to emerge from a self-imposed shell, to break out of one role or another. Whether the desires of the characters are sexual, success-driven, or simply emerge from loneliness, pain must accrue before catharsis.
Natasha Stagg Has including violence in your films made presenting them to an international audience more difficult?
Yorgos Lanthimos People are offended for any type of reason, and different reasons depending on who it is. To me, violence isn’t anything different; like love, like laughter, it’s part of our nature, our lives. It’s there, so I don’t shy away from it. Whenever it’s mentioned, I have nothing special to say about it. It’s there, because everything is there.
NS So, it’s not necessarily a statement?
YL The whole film is a statement. It’s many different statements. I’m just saying that I don’t know why violence should take a more elevated place in the film. To me, it functions like everything else. I don’t think that the violence is the more controversial thing in the work. Why isn’t incest more controversial than violence? In the UK, the most controversial thing was killing a cat. It would not even have been screened if we didn’t sign a paper that said we didn’t kill a cat for real. It’s funny. I don’t think violence is specifically foreign to us, so why pay more attention to it?
NS What role do artistic limitations play in your life and in your work?
YL Every film has limitations, every life has limitations, and my films are no different in this way.
NS Does the mood of this film and of Dogtooth reflect the mood of Greece? Does the financial crisis play a role, however subtle, in these projects?
YL The only thing I can say about that is that obviously, when you come up with what you want to do and start making the film, there is no way of avoiding the state or the feel of the country creeping into the film in many different ways. But it’s not a starting point for us, and that’s why I could do films anywhere in the world and I am going to try to make films in different parts of the world. You start with something specific and concrete and then you place this idea in a world and it starts drawing things from there. Culture, language, landscape, all these things come into the film and make it something much more than what it was when you started thinking about it and writing it and designing it. So, in that sense, my country and where I grew up and all these experiences that I have from there are somewhat reflected in the films, but they are not films that are happening because of that or comment on that or are inspired by that.
It makes sense that people want to associate the work with where it comes from, and it is associated. It’s a Greek film, it comes from Greece, it speaks Greek. But there is the extra thing that it has to be about the situation now, and that it has to be about that crisis. But no, it’s not about that. It never was. Of course it’s there, it’s obvious. The people, the way they are dressed, their houses. The way we made the film—we made it with no money at all, so it’s obvious, we are in Greece. And I don’t want to not include it.
NS What’s your next big project?
YL We’re developing three or four films at the same time, so they’re being written now, but I just figured out that when you make a film the proper way, like, now I’m trying to make them in English, and in the UK, there’s a lot of development time you need to invest. They don’t just happen in a day, like we can make them in Greece, where we have no money and no one to actually be involved and stall things, so I just find time to start different projects while I’m waiting for one of them to start being filmed. I’m setting up all these different things and I don’t have a clue which will be the first to happen. It’s like a race. They all have the possibility of being financed just because they’re going to be made in English and in the UK. Maybe we’ll discover that they won’t come out, so we’ll have to try a different country and a different language.
NS Do you think we’ll see some recurring themes?
YL Every new thing is just that, a new thing. We start from zero, but I guess it happens subconsciously that certain ideas or themes creep in. There are things that you think about more than other things, so they become part of what you do, but it’s not like we consciously say, There’s this thing that we definitely want to keep exploring. Just by writing it, and by making the choices that we make for every film, certain things can appear now and then again, but these aren’t things that are thought out beforehand.
NS And the characters? Who or what are they based on?
YL I think they are fragments. I don’t think we work in such a way, basing things in reality. We just try to come up with how things work, how conflicts come about, how these things that we think about can be made into narrative questions. So, it’s mostly about trying to achieve that, instead of coming up with characters or storylines.
Alps will run from June 13th to June 19th at New York’s Cinema Village and will be screened nationwide in the coming months.
Natasha Stagg writes for The Brooklyn Rail, Dis Magazine, and other publications.