“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).” — Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
What of Yorgos Lanthimos’s heart? It is swollen, grotesque, filling up with blood like the wounds of Queen Anne in The Favourite. It is wrapped with barbed wire, punctured as if by a dart like those of the hunters in The Lobster. It is alive again, as if from the dead, but a facsimile, a performance, like what the actor does in Alps. It is known by another word, like “cat” or “wolf” or “party,” as in Dogtooth. It is exposed, objectified, scrutinized, nearly pressed up against the lens, like in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Much has been made of the Greek director’s taste for debasement, his cruel thought experiments, his manipulative scenarios, his little terrarium with ants he will gleefully subject to the burn of a magnifying glass as they scurry against a system built against them. One might suggest he has no heart, that his idiosyncratic sadism is only that: a sort of sadism. Whether he’s throwing Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw into a society that turns compulsory monogamy into a mandatory life, or recreating bereavement to snip off reconciliation of grief, or disrupting a nice doctor’s family, or deconstructing family and society with language, or letting Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone duke it out for power—one thing is clear, and quite the contrary to much of the criticism against him: His heart is there, in every frame, ready to be maimed for your (dis)pleasure.
Isn’t it there from the beginning of The Lobster anyways? Weisz’s flat affect in narration makes Colin Farrell’s lead, David, seem more pitiable. His response to the hotel manager’s (Olivia Colman) question of what animal he would like to be is wrought with sadness, a kind of pathetic, wallowy tone that anyone who has had their heart broken can recognize. “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years…” David slouches on the edge of the bed, too depressed for good posture, and his deadpan delivery nonetheless betrays ache. He sounds like he would like to die. If Lanthimos’s trademark, his culled-together words as line readings devoid of emotion, suggests that his characters are, on the contrary, filled with emotion, that conventional expressions of sadness, anger, depression, fear, ambition, loss, grief, confusion, fury and love are inadequate. David almost sounds like defeat.
The bodies of Lanthimos’ films look defeated, too. Broken. In The Lobster, Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man slams his face into a desk, breaking his nose to replicate the spontaneous nosebleeds of the woman with whom he wants to pair up. The bodies of the Murphy children in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, played by Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic, gradually fail, left to crawl on the floor. What will their parents (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman) do? Or the Queen in The Favourite, lying on her back, her leg inflamed with gout, her body and her mind vulnerable, with only Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to protect her: Is that love?
And yet, even when brittle or bruised, they’re bodies still move, still run. As characters dance in The Favourite, warmth and affection and love and trust lurk behind each sweep of the leg. The hotel guests of The Lobster run through the woods to catch the Loners dressed in ponchos, skittering around trees and rocks and trying to aim their darts in the hopes it will buy them more time to find love, as if it’s a treasure the hotel manager is hiding. The gymnast nurse of Alps uses her physical body and its wide-ranging movements to investigate the stress and pain it (her body and love, a body and when it feels love) can endure. To test its limits, as it were.
“Love has limits,” Lady Sarah tells Queen Anne, to which the Queen retorts, “It should not.” Is that not the question that exists within the core of Lanthimos’s body of work: What are the limits of love in the world? A cynic could read that these characters are merely test subjects as the director watches from behind a two-way mirror, pushing his creations as far as they can go to see what will happen when love is taken away, or weaponized, hung in front of them like a carrot or a key. What happens when the characters are pushed to their limits? What happens when love is disrupted? Does love, in all of its permutations, have limits? Should it?
What will characters do for one another, or what will they do for love? When an intruder, a ghost of the past sins of the father, comes into the house to threaten the Murphy family, they do what they must to protect “familial love,” a concept inextricable from the sense of class and status that such a structure gives them. What exactly is love to Abigail, Lady Sarah and Queen Anne, and how does it function? Angeliki Papoulia, the Nurse in Alps who “plays” dead family members for the benefit of the surviving relatives, could be the epitome of love—or just its approximation. The patriarch of the family in Dogtooth contorts love, wields it as something unattainable.
If one gets the unpleasant, visceral sense that Lanthimos puppeteers his characters to the worst possible conclusion, or to, at least, the one scenario which in which they are most exposed, that might be because he believes that’s how love functions: not limiting (or not limiting) those who love, but revealing the limits or limitlessness of the humans who use it, have it, take it, give it, sheath it, sharpen it, resurrect it, kill it, transcend it. Love, and sex, is too overwhelming and frightening, painful and glorious to be reduced by the failure of language. So Lanthimos carefully uses and manipulates both spoken and filmic language. Because knowing how to talk about love is knowing how to talk about yourself and your identity. The hardest thing for his characters to do is to talk about love.