'The Lobster' director Yorgos Lanthimos is back at Cannes with 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer,' a darkly comedic thriller.
When a subversive art house director makes $15 million at the global box office, it's cause for celebration. Last year, Yorgos Lanthimos did just that: The Lobster saw the Greek director building upon the singular absurdist style of his breakout film, Dogtooth, to hilarious effect. At Cannes this year with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos' focus is less on satirizing social mores than on creating deep psychological unease—the kind that atmospheric horror aficionados will revel in, while mainstream audiences might prove less tolerant.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer takes its title from the Greek myth of Iphigenia. After accidentally killing a sacred deer, Agamemnon is forced to make a difficult choice: either sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods, or halt the invasion of Troy. Lanthimos puts Colin Farrell's character, a cardiovascular surgeon, in a similar dilemma when the disgruntled son of a patient who died on the operating table (a terrifying Barry Keoghan) insinuates himself into the surgeon's family—with murderous consequences.
"A lot of times, his direction was, 'Please do nothing.' That's very difficult to do as an actor." —Nicole Kidman
"I read the script and was hypnotized," said Nicole Kidman, who plays Farrell's wife, at the film's press conference in Cannes. Lanthimos brought that hypnotic quality to the screen with a corrosive blend of clinical horror and dark humor. "Yorgos would always say, 'Nicole, you’ve gotta understand the tone—it’s a comedy,'" Kidman recalled.
"This is a comedy, and I believe that," Lanthimos echoed. While this sentiment will certainly not be shared by everyone—The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a horrifying watch, after all—Lanthimos directed his actors with the building blocks of comedy. Beginning with the audition stage, the director emphasized physicality and encouraged his actors to strip away the layers of performance they might usually bring to dramatic roles.
"In my audition, I had to do weird stuff," said Raffey Cassidy, who plays Farrell and Kidman's teenage daughter.
"Yorgos made me audition without moving my legs," added Sunny Suljic, who plays the family's son. "I had to pull myself up on the couch, and I was super confused why I was doing that."
"[On set], a lot of it was about abandoning analysis," Kidman said. "Yorgos said to forget all preparation—to just come in and be. A lot of times, his direction was, 'Please do nothing.' That's very difficult to do as an actor."
"I don’t like being too analytical about how I make my movies," said Lanthimos. "I try to work very physically with my actors, doing exercises and games and silly things around what’s happening. I try to approach it from an unconscious level, be silly, and not take ourselves too seriously."
This unique combination of physicality and dialed-down performance produces an eerie, dissonant effect. The actors speak in a stilted monotone while their bodies exist on another plane entirely, reacting to the invisible currents of the deranged world they live in.
"I try not to talk to actors about performance directly," Lanthimos said of his process.
"You ask him and question and he’ll shrug and go, 'Hmm,'" Kidman said. "It’s very freeing. It takes away any sense of urgency or desire to please… all of that evaporates, which is a good place to work from. But it’s bizarre, particularly when I’d just come off doing a play."
"With Nicole, I just made sounds," Lanthimos said, producing a grunt by way of example.
"In my audition, I had to do weird stuff." —Raffey Cassidy
The camera also mirrors this tension between stillness and horror percolating just below the surface. Thimios Bakatakis' cinematography is intermittently cold and kinetic. It stalks the corridors of the hospital and family mansion with a Kubrickian affinity for long, slow-moving tracking shots.
"I always try to make visual choices that are related to the material," Lanthimos said. "I felt this film needed to have a sense of something other being there. The camera became mobile, following people around, creeping in, observing from above."
For Kidman, who has four films playing at Cannes this year, Lanthimos' unorthodox approach to directing was the reason to sign on to the project in the first place. "I try to take risks and be bold and open and support filmmakers I believe in," she said. "I try to act as though I’m 21-years-old and still starting my career. I want to support people who are trying different things or who have a unique filmmaking style."
The risk paid off. "I called Yorgos after watching the film and said, 'I've not seen anything like it,'" said Kidman.
Even Lanthimos' most dedicated fans will surely agree.