Understanding the bizarre, deadpan acting style present in Yorgos’ Lanthimos’ filmography.
When our understanding of ‘realism’ changes in cinema, it applies to everything: the writing, the lighting, the cinematography, and the acting. Realism is never an objective truth. For example, if you were to watch the first adaptation made of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford, you might consider it ‘larger than life’. Back in the day, that would’ve been considered nothing more than a dedicated performance. In the later mini-series adaptation with Kate Winslet, the acting is much more understated. Standards for what we perceive as ‘realistic acting’ change. When the Stanislavsky technique started making waves in North America, it changed how screen and theatre actors approached their work. It was not about working outside-in anymore, but inside-out.
Before embarking on an exploration of the acting in Lanthimos’ films, it’s important to define what I mean by ‘realistic’ acting. For me, the term ‘realistic’ is interchangeable with ‘believable’. Although believable in 2017 is different from believable in 1947, just as believable in The Notebook is different from in Hannah Takes The Stairs, there are still some basic traits that characterize ‘good’ acting. Actors that sacrifice believability, sacrifice the delivery of their lines, for their idea of ‘character’ tend to deliver technically sub-par performances. But walking the line between believability and the style of the film that you’re in can be tricky. Although he himself would not claim to impose a style of acting, Yorgos Lanthimos, in both his writing and directing, poses a difficult challenge to actors in his films.
Lanthimos has co-written and directed 5 features, two of which are in English. Despite his relatively small oeuvre, he has developed an unusual acting style. In an interview with John C. Reilly after the release of The Lobster, the actor talked about his experience with the director: “Yorgos’s previous films have a very distinct acting style,” Reilly says. “They’re kind of deadpan and not overly communicative or overly emotional. I tried to honor that. But when I asked Yorgos about it, he was like, ‘Just do what you normally do. Don’t worry about doing some kind of style of acting. Keep it simple. I’ll say something if it’s not working.’” And Yorgos would second that statement. In an interview with “The Globe and Mail”, Lanthimos is asked about how he directs actors and his perceived style of acting:
“I think it’s connected with the style of the writing because I don’t really ever ask them to do anything, I don’t ask them to speak or act in a certain way. It comes down to them understanding the tone of the writing and delivering it in a way that sounds the most natural to them to be saying those words. All I do is encourage them to just say the words, to be there, to do it, and they themselves understand if it’s the right way or the wrong way.”
The admission that he doesn’t instruct his actors to deliver their lines in a specific way comes as a surprise. Part of the reason the acting seems to unnatural is because actors like Colin Farrell and John C. Reilly are typically charismatic performers, so seeing them deliver monotone lines without any pizazz is a little unsettling. The simplicity of their delivery feels almost imposed. In trying to not add to the lines, however, they end up not doing enough. The scene in The Killing of a Sacred Deer in which Kim sings Elli Goulding’s ‘Burn’ to Martin while standing up against a tree is an apt summation of the film. Her matter-of-fact singing is neither vocally impressive nor cringe-inducing: the perfect place for the uncanny to settle in and make a home. As A.O Scott puts it in his review of the film: “this incongruity is the key to the movie, but it’s the key to an empty box.” And yet, out of this monotony emerges a great performance: Nicole Kidman always finds a way to seem natural in an unnatural setting (Dogville). She doesn’t sacrifice her skill or impose anyone else’s ‘style’, but simultaneously manages not to seem out of place within the film’s world.
Though the delivery might be trivial, the subjects and stories which concern Lanthimos are far from. They deal with concepts as grandiose as language, love, and revenge. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, many of the lines underscore a heavy emotional weight, and yet they are performed with nonchalance. It doesn’t feel like the performers’ impulses are bottled up, coming out as monotonous until they explode. And so, there’s a peculiar mismatch between the imposing themes and their delivery. This steadfast dedication to realism is a misunderstanding of what representing the ‘truth’ is. In the same interview with ‘The Globe and Mail”, Lanthimos denies the style of acting in his films as ‘ultra-realistic’:
In film, I like transformation. That goes for the language, for the image, for the performance. I am not interested in representing reality. Actually, I am interested in representing reality but that doesn’t mean a naturalistic approach, which I think is kind of impossible. Even in documentary; documentaries are so staged and the people in them, it is a kind of performance. There are various ways of delivering some kind of truth, so I try to find the style or the way that I find more effective.
But ‘truth’ does not have to be filmed in static wides, or delivered without breadth of affect, just as melodrama does not have to be filmed as a series of tear-stained close-ups. Lanthimos’s strict and sterile style seems to stem from a fear of melodrama, and a misunderstanding of acting. Perhaps Lanthimos is a Brechtian, fearful that his audience won’t be able to think straight if they get too wrapped up in the feeling of it. And yet, his cinema is quite disengaged from social issues. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not class commentary.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ styles of writing and directing set easy traps for his actors to fall into. Although he is not trying to achieve realism, he does not ask his actors to deliver anything other than the lines. And yet, it isn’t just the lines themselves that sound unnatural. Surely, some of it has to do with actors reigning themselves in in order to achieve what they believe is ‘natural’ in relation to the script. Perhaps Lanthimos would fare better if he weren’t directing from his own scripts.