You may have caught Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster (2015) in cinemas at the tail end of last year, an incredibly unique, hyper stylised and expressively muted take on modern romance. In it, Lanthimos strips away the emotional capabilities of his characters, and directs the lead performances into a cold and calculated territory. It is a depiction of the search for love as a bureaucratic process as opposed to a spiritual joining; one defined by strict regulations and with punishment and penalty in store for those who fail. The Lobster reduces the idea of relationships to a necessity rather than a desire, and thus forces us to observe its central message from a completely different angle.

The surgical style of The Lobster is such that it becomes an almost academic approach to romance. The film attempts to explain love from a perspective of format and algorithmic chemistry, an idea increasingly popular in a world of Tinder and OKcupid and though it is a strange and perhaps uncomfortable way to approach the portrayal of love, it is undeniably suitable considering the era that has produced it.

It was this subtle shift in perspective, from romance to 'fauxmance', that allowed for a completely new deconstruction of the conventions of a romantic film, one that revealed the morals of modern matchmaking have evolved far beyond recognition, and it is its director's distinctive approach to filmmaking that we explore today.

Fig i: Dogtooth (2009) Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos


The style of Lanthimos' direction takes our current realities to a logical endpoint. He observes all of life's heartbreak, joy and pleasure through an insistently still camera and a monotonous voice - the dialogue may tell you that these people are happy, but there is rarely a smile to be found.

This muted reality, one that deals in excruciatingly staged actions and an omnipotent camera, was inhabited previously by the characters of Lanthimos' 2009 family drama Dogtooth, a film that explored the surreal existence of a trio of young adult domestic prisoners. It is certainly a divisive style of filmmaking, but it is innovative nonetheless, and again provides us with an alternate experience of spectatorship, ultimately being closer to voyeurism than observation.

Fig ii: Much of the film's imagery denotes the idea of its characters being 'trapped', here expressed by the frame of the window that contains the sister's faces


Minimalism is the theme of the week, and Lanthimos' methodological approach to cinema orbits this concept, as he strips away the layers of emotion, expression and reaction in order to find the bare, skeletal frame of this strange family. These characters operate on an almost instinctual and primitive level and, like the depiction of the characters in The Lobster; it results in an uncomfortably intimate experience.

To quickly outline the plot, a well to do family (one father, one mother, one son and two daughters) live in a secluded estate. For their entire lives, the three children have been unaware that there is a life outside the compound; their parents have kept them unwitting prisoners in their own home, teaching them false information, lying about the world beyond the walls, and conditioning them into a controlled state of consciousness. The Children are only normal in the sense that they are normal within their world.

Very early on Lanthimos employs simplistic imagery to lull his audience into a sense of familiarity, showing us this world as if there is nothing wrong or strange about it, albeit with some aesthetic clues.

Fig iii: The family, with Christina sitting second from left.


In fig iii Lanthimos constructs an incredibly basic symmetrical frame, the mother and father acting as symbolic bookends and boundaries for those in the middle, immediately establishing their control. Christina, an airport worker whom the father employs to have sex with his son, sits alongside the daughters, just about to leave. The aesthetic layout of this frame visually connects the family with elements of normality: The mother sits in front of a white wall, the father a television, whilst the two daughters are contained in the colour block of the curtains. However, Christina sits in front of the open window, where the breeze sends the curtain flowing to the side, signifying at once her freedom from the room's banality and its confinement.

Fig iv: The Family sit around the dinner table, a universal symbol of nuclear family-esque normality.


In fig iv we see a similarly composed frame, both its image and the scene as a wider scope yet again containing hints of irregularity. Here the daughter asks for salt and refers to it as 'telephone' and the empty chair is one reserved for their fictional brother, created to warn them of the dangers of disobedience. The intense ordinary of the setting is juxtaposed by the vast weirdness of the situation, again subconsciously establishing a precedence of reality, and providing false visual affirmation that all is well.

Fig v: The children performing for their parents near the films end


Compare this to the imagery towards the end of the film, where the children now question their reality after Christina's outside influence, and we see a distinct transition. The muted nature of the film's visual style is suddenly full of colour and vibrancy, though the children remain trapped in its confines with awkward, claustrophobic actions. In these previous three examples, Lanthimos constructs an atmosphere of gradually accepted normality. The family's undoubted strangeness is slowly established, and through our observation of their most private moments, such as sexual experimentation, animal murder and self-harm, surreal becomes the norm.

Where Dogtooth's stylistic power comes into play however, is in its most difficult moments. After we have settled into this substitute universe, where oddity is perceived as convention, the film introduces moments of horrific shock before retreating straight back into banality, quick like a viper strike and twice as venomous. Through this technique, combined with the reserved style of the rest of the film, moments such as the following suddenly remind the audience that the reality Lanthimos has presented to them is far from real, and the breakneck speed of the transition is almost unbearable.

Fig vi - The eldest daughter, knocking her own tooth out with a dumbbell


In fig vi we see the result of attempted and unexplained self-dentistry, the film's wildcard moment and the scene in which resides some of the film's most caustic imagery. Again we are presented with visual normality, disrupted by blood, a streak of red against an otherwise immaculate frame.

The style of Lanthimos' work is one that thrives in such moments, with this minimalist to maximalist swap out acting as visceral punctuation against the monotony he deliberately cultivates. It is akin to being drowned and suddenly coming up for air, and carefully designed to impact its audience at maximum velocity.

In both Dogtooth and The Lobster this style has been employed, with these 'alternate universes' seeming strangely familiar before a moment of incredible absurdity occurs and shatters everything you thought you knew about its world.

Even the film's poster (Fig vii) tells us, in typically minimal fashion, that this hot and cold technique is the nature of its film's design. Below, in fig vii, we see in the simple design a breath-taking high and a stomach churning low suddenly emerging from a straightforward uninterrupted reality.

Fig vii: The film's poster