Deciphering the Unsettling Characters of Yorgos Lanthimos’s films

Surveying the strange and unusual figures that populate Yorgos Lanthimos’s cinema, ahead of the premiere of his latest film, Kinds of Kindness.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is the master of unsettling thrillers. Although his recent films have swerved away from the visceral, gruesome themes he first became renowned for, the director has maintained his ability to leave audiences feeling uncomfortable, grappling with questions of social norms.

In anticipation of the release of his new film Kinds of Kindness, premiering at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, take a journey through some of the most unnerving characters of Lanthimos’s films.

Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Martin Lang, played by Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Surely Martin Lang, the 16-year-old prophet of doom who brings biblical-level terrors to a family’s doorstep, is King in Lanthimos’s royal court of oddballs? Every time the camera turns to Barry Keoghan, you know he’s about to deliver the most disturbing thing humanly possible, in a voice so emotionally dead, you’d think he’s talking about the weather.

Following the death of his father during open heart surgery, Lang begins obsessively trailing the surgeon, Steven Murphy (played by Colin Farrell), whom he holds responsible. When Murphy’s son is suddenly unable to walk one morning, Lang demands Murphy meet him in the hospital cafeteria, where, with menacing calm, he rapidly descends into a plainly spoken-yet-bone chilling monologue:

“Just as you killed a member of my family, now you gotta kill a member of your family to balance things out, understand? I can’t tell you who to kill, of course, that’s for you to decide. But, if you don’t do it, they will all get sick and die. Bob will die. Kim will die. Your wife will die. One: paralysis of the limbs. Two: refusal of food to the point of starvation. Three: bleeding from the eyes. Four: death…”

Enough!!! The competition is over. Martin Lang wins the prize for Lanthimos’s weirdest little guy.

Léa Seydoux in The Lobster (2015). Copyright Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

Loner Leader, played by Léa Seydoux in The Lobster (2015)

Each of Lanthimos’s films has its own universe with its own sicko logic. In The Lobster, single folk must find a romantic partner before a deadline, or they will be transformed into an animal. But not everybody plays by these rules. There is a group of outcasts which has absconded from society and lives in the wild. The group holds silent discos, but members are forbidden to flirt with one another. They call themselves “The Loners.”

Léa Seydoux plays their leader, the mother of antisocialists. “Any romantic or sexual relations between loners are not permitted,” she gravely warns David (played by Colin Farrell), who has escaped his future as a lobster and come to join them. “And any such acts are punished. Is that clear?” She is brutal yet restrained. Beneath her rain poncho, she is heartless.

Despite the leader’s stern warning, David falls in love with another loner, the Short Sighted Woman (played by Rachel Weisz). Discovering this, Seydoux brings her to a medical appointment on the pretext of curing her vision, but instead has her made blind. When, in retaliation, Weisz’s character tries to kill the leader, she uses another loner as a human shield. It’s one of Seydoux’s best performances, and one of Lanthimos’s most deranged monsters.

Father and Mother, played by Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley in Dogtooth (2009)

An experiment in mind control and brain-washing, Lanthimos hits new levels of absurdity with Dogtooth. Set in a large family compound, a husband and wife live with their three adult children, who haven’t seen outside the confines of the property’s walls.

They’re kept there under the pretense they’re unable to leave until they’ve lost their ‘dog tooth,’ a mythical bodily object that serves false hope. In a bizzare twist (and win for cat haters), the parents perpetuate the story of the outside world as a dangerous place by creating a narrative that cats are killer beasts that murdered their eldest child.

The film lacks in traditional horror tropes such as gore, yet creates an atmosphere of unsettling fear and discomfort by showing the ways in which minds can be warped. Lanthimos’s depiction of the parents as forces who create and maintain a sense of reality by restricting the flow of information is by far some of his most intriguing commentary on how social constructs work.

Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz in 'The Favorite'. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman, in The Favourite (2018)

At first glance, Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman) is perhaps the strangest character in The Favourite. She’s demanding, erratic and unpredictable. However, as the story unfolds and the sad reality of the Queen’s life is revealed, her behavior becomes a more understandable trauma response to the events of her life.

The film, based loosely on the life of England’s Queen Anne, follows an intriguing and, at times, uncomfortably desperate love triangle between her, her close friend Sarah (played by Rachel Weisz) and the status-hungry Abigail (played by Emma Stone). Abigail’s gagging for social status places her in undesirable situations, resulting in perhaps some of the most unsettling scenes. One such instance occurs in the final scene as Abigail unwillingly massages Queen Anne’s leg. A clear power hierarchy in play, although she’s reached the upper echelons of court, she still clammers in desperation to remain at the top.

Several other uncomfortable oddities are splattered throughout the film, offering the classic Lanthimos reprieve of dark humour. However, as the audience learns that the Queen miscarried 17 children, her eccentricities begin to seem more like coping mechanisms than personality quirks. Queen Anne’s emotional response to children playing musical instruments in the courtyard, and the commemoration of her lost children held in her purchase of 17 pet rabbits, illustrate the impact of these traumas on her life.

Ramy Youssef and Emma Stone in 'Poor Things'. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, in Poor Things (2023)

While one might consider the Frankenstein-esque character Bella Baxter to be an obvious choice for the top tier of Lanthimos’s unsettling characters, Baxter is perhaps one of the least complex personalities within his archive.

In simple, non-spoiling terms, Poor Things follows Baxter as she navigates her new life, moving away from her confined bubble and into the world, where she discovers and tries all it has to offer. (Especially sex.)

Obviously, the way in which Baxter’s “new life” begins is odd. However, as a coming-of-age-story, Poor Things contains many typical occurrences and themes, including an exploration of sexual identity, the shattering of naivety, and the revelation of the horrid reality of the world’s workings. Nothing so strange about all that.

More unsettling for viewers is Baxter’s approach to the world, as she is unmoored from social norms and moves through life as if she never learned the ‘right’ way to behave. She is free from both her bubble and society’s rules, prompting viewers to ask themselves the uneasy question of what their lives might be like if they too weren’t so conditioned.

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