The Athens-born filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos specializes in existential dark comedies whose characters all hope to affect change in their lives but don’t actually expect to. Not surprisingly, Lanthimos, now working and living in London, has adopted a wait-and-see policy regarding the recent parliamentary elections in Greece. “I really have no clue,” Lanthimos says while laughing a touch nervously in a phone conversation about the release of his excellent new film, Alps (opening Friday, July 13). “Something new needs to happen. Whatever the outcome, it will still be a difficult period for the country. The solutions are still to come, if there are any.”
Coming from anyone else, Lanthimos’s indecision might be an insignificant way of avoiding a touchy subject. But from Lanthimos, a filmmaker whose—to paraphrase him—”exploratory” but pitilessly bleak films are deliberately vague to the point of being obtuse, it means a lot.
In Kinetta (2005), a trio of friends improvise reenactments of murders on camera in order to examine the boundaries of their tenuous three-way relationship. In Dogtooth (2009), twentysomething siblings passively rebel against their father, a man who has taught them to fear the unknown by making their every social interaction a sadistic competition. And now in Alps, a woman questions her place within a troupe of actors that enacts scenes meant to help grieving civilians make peace with dead loved ones.
The 39-year-old writer/director’s politics are as ambivalent as his comedies, which follow self-identified outcasts who consider the rules of social discourse to be arcane rituals. He disorients viewers by dropping right into the thick of the plot and only carefully parceling out who is related to whom and why they’re doing what they do.
No surprise, then, that Lanthimos is cagey when discussing his semi-improvised creative process. He is hyperconscious of how much information his actors are giving away in each scene, regardless of whether a sequence is scripted or made up on the spot. “I know it’s not going to be the same as what’s written on paper,” he says. “Which is why we try to write as little as possible about how they look, about any background story or personal information. I’m not really interested in that. We let the people that are actually in the film bring in a lot of things that we can’t imagine or think beforehand.”
He adds: “It’s basically like an exploration. You get these ideas, these situations, these characters, and let them interact and evolve. Even in the editing, things change.”
Although Kinetta and Dogtooth concern individuals finding their places in groups, Alps charts an individual’s (played by Dogtooth’s Aggeliki Papoulia) struggle to break from her complaisant roles: with her father, with a romantic partner, with her fellow “actors.” “It was a deliberate decision to actually follow and focus more on one person,” Lanthimos says. “In our everyday lives, we inhabit different parts, depending on who we are and where we are and who we’re speaking to and what we want to achieve.”
With this philosophy and drive toward a lack of specificity in mind, it’s also not surprising that Lanthimos was unable to talk in-depth about the various projects he has in the works, including a British period piece whose script he’s rewriting. “It’s quite dangerous to speak about these things at such an early stage,” Lanthimos cautions. “People get confused and offended, and I don’t know what.” As a gesture of good faith on Lanthimos’s part, that kind of caveat is perfunctory. But as a sign of his concerns as an artist, Lanthimos’s wariness is a loaded sign unto itself.