Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Lobster (****)

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos


Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the most unique storytellers in cinema. His films are tense, funny alternative realities, with sarcastic views of human torment. His 2009 film Dogtooth is one of the most upsetting films that I've ever seen, and it's a testament to Lanthimos and the cast of that film that it still manages to be a brilliant dissection of unnatural human behavior. His latest movie, The Lobster, is his first English-language film, and it stars an international cast of Hollywood actors. Compared to Dogtooth, it has the levity of a Gary Marshall film, but for the many who may be introduced to Lanthimos with The Lobster, they'll get a strikingly funny film, with a number of disturbing moments. It's a marvelous film about the tyranny of love over the human race, the entrapment of society's disdain for lonely people, and the power of passion to overcome daunting odds. The film premiered a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival, and spent 2015 screening internationally at several festivals stacking rave receptions across the globe. Why A24 chose late Spring to unleash this audacious film is unknown. Not that time of year matters, The Lobster is a ingenious movie no matter what the season is. It takes place in a dystopian reality, where only couples are allowed to live in The City, while single people are sent to live in The Hotel. At The Hotel, if these single people are unable to find a mate in forty-five days, they are then transformed into an animal. People have been whittled down into muted, lustless beings who struggle through monotone conversations and live in a constant tension of inferiority. It's not just a stigma to be single, it's a crime.

David (Colin Farrell) is The Lobster's focus, a blatantly ordinary man with a massive pot belly, an unsightly mustache and chronic back pain. When David's wife leaves him for another man - he's heartbroken to learn that the other man also wears glasses - he is taken to The Hotel. He's escorted by Bob, a dog that used to be his brother. Bob didn't make it when he was sent to The Hotel, plagued to a life being pulled on a leash by his brother. The Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) explains the process to David even though he already knows the drill. Existence in The Hotel is a bland, antiseptic routine. All the men wear identical clothing, as do the women. They stay in single rooms, unless they find a match, in which they're moved into a much-coveted double room. The slightest of silver linings, singles get to choose which animal they become if they fail to find a companion. The Hotel Manager asks David, who gives the question a surprising amount of thought. He'd like to be a lobster, and his reasons are pragmatic and useful. It's obviously something he's been thinking about long before he became single. In the first days, David becomes friend with two men. One man (Ben Whishaw) has a crippling limp suffered after he tried to visit his mother who'd been turned into a wolf - the experience did not end well for him. The other man (John C. Reilly) has a goofy lisp, amongst other goofy characteristics. The two men fear that these traits handicap their chances of finding a match, both seemingly desperate to walk about of their Hotel stay successful, their physical humanity intact. David seems much more pensive, resigned. He makes attempts at courtship, but it never feels right. Everyone here is out of practice when it comes to actual love.

The women at The Hotel are no less eccentric. There's one woman (Jessica Barden) who is pretty and kind, but plagued by frequent nosebleeds. Another woman (Ashley Jensen) frequently offers butter biscuits to men, and comes off as the most desperate in a situation where almost everyone's stench of desperation is nauseating. The Hotel's Maid (Ariane Labed) is an efficient, almost robotic worker, who is the only member of the staff who appears sympathetic to the cause of the guests. Then there's the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), a severe woman who has managed to extend her stay at The Hotel through her excellence in hunting. The activity of hunting is one of The Hotel's main activities. Guests are given rifles with tranquilizers and are sent into this world's third setting: The Woods. Only two things live in The Woods, the recently-transformed animals and The Loners, a group of singles who have fled civilization so they can be freely alone. When guests are sent into The Woods to hunt, they shoot at these Loners. The tranq'd Loners are dragged back into the hotel, unconscious, and turned into animals, and the guest is given an extra day for each loner he's able to bring back with him. Most people are only able to extend their stay a few days through hunting, but the Heartless Woman has been able to bring her total to over 150. As David's options dwindle at The Hotel, a startling chain of events brings him into an acquaintance with a Loner (Rachel Weisz) who is short-sighted just like him. This commonality starts the ball rolling on their relationship, but as their bond grows, David begins to see for the first time what true love is actually about. Not that their life is any less complicated, David soon learns that life with The Loners is just as oppressive as at The Hotel. Their leader (Léa Seydoux) enforces a strict non-relationship rule, punished by mutilating violence. At all turns, real love in this universe is subdued, at times forbidden, and David and his new short-sighted love must find ways to make it out alive.

The Lobster is gifted with a stunning ensemble of actors, one that 2016 will have a hard time trying to match. Led by Farrell who shows once again just how valuable an actor he can be in any role given. The deglamming of the usually debonair Farrell adds to the film's off-kilter experience, but it's in David's smallest details that Farrell finds the most in this performance. His obsession with finding a near-sighted woman, his constant discomfort with his back, the overall defeatedness. Across from him, Rachel Weisz is heartbreaking as the short-sighted Loner who more than anyone else in the film faces the oppressive forces in this world with a bravery unique to most of its inhabitants. It's over an hour into the film before Weisz even arrives. By this time, the film has been craving this much-needed heart, a character not so bogged down by the existential weight of this world's rules and laws. Both Colman and Seydoux are terrific as opposite ends of the world's power struggle. Colman is stiff, performative, often hilarious as the Hotel Manager doing her best to showcase the benefits of this bizarre love system. She explains to new couples that if any trouble should arise, a child will be assigned. "That usually helps," she explains. As the Loner Leader, Seydoux is cunning and depraved, with heavy bags under her eyes. Her style is more militant, uncaring. The young French actress has proven adept at a variety of roles - she was even a Bond girl last year - but in The Lobster, she shows her touch with posterity. Both Colman and Seydoux carry the burden of legitimizing the absurdity of this existence, and both actresses accomplish this with great clarity. Whishaw and Reilly have parts designed for comic relief, but the two veteran actors are superb here as well, knowing how to take a seemingly one-note character and make it something much more. Dogtooth alumni Papoulia is ferocious here, as a black-hearted woman who may secretly be looking for love, but would never admit it.

But The Lobster's true strength is its screenplay, which provides this cast with such rich material to work with. Written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou (the pair also wrote Dogtooth), the construction of this universe is so complete and so unique. Its take on realist science fiction is unlike anything I've seen in a film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another masterful but original take on the crippling, necessary pain that love inflicts on humanity. Despite the numerous unnerving moments, The Lobster's story is still rooted in a poignant view of love, which separates it from Dogtooth's brutality. The two films paint a portrait of human existence as bleak and unfair, but while Dogtooth's cynicism is backbreaking, The Lobster is unafraid to soften its blows. This aspect is most apparent in its second half when the relationship between David and the short-sighted woman really begins to bloom. Formalistically, The Lobster is sparse. Lanthimos does not do much in the way of camera movement, but his dynamism as a director comes from his use of negative space and putting his actors in unusual marks. There are several moments where actors are asked to stand right in front of the action, or in front of another actor that's speaking. These are simple, deliberate choices that Lanthimos employs to keep the audience off balance, to keep reminding us just how off base these situations are. Even in The Lobster's lighter moments, Lanthimos refuses to let the viewer get comfortable. Meanwhile, the film's editing (editor, Yorgos Mavropsaridis) is fluid, with several sequences of crosscutting, outlaying the film with wondrous moments of humor and revelation. And the film's humor should not be understated. A black comedy, yes, but this is absolutely one of the funniest movies that will come out this year, even if its a humor born out of pain and loneliness.

Calling The Lobster Lanthimos' crossover into English-language films may be a stretch. I'm not sure his style will ever be able to have a true crossover, at least not in the States. There's a reason a show like Black Mirror works in the UK but has only a cult following across the ocean. But this is a much more complete cinematic experience than Dogtooth, and while that film was an incredible, if harrowing, film, The Lobster is more in touch with the human condition. Even the film's alien qualities come from a truly humane place. At its core, even with its otherworldly aspects, The Lobster has the tenants of our greatest satires, and its hard to satirize something that hasn't been done before. We've laughed about man's greed, violence, intolerance, but when's the last time a film so ruthlessly aimed its sword at love? Calling into question its relevance, its high placement in our souls. Only Eternal Sunshine can claim to be as bold in its view of romance, but that film wasn't nearly as scathing as The Lobster, so assured in the blackness of human behavior. Eternal Sunshine saw love as hopeless charm in the void of existential dread, but The Lobster sees it as a piercing threat, undoing what little strength that men may have. People are killed, tortured, turned into animals. Yes, the penetrating sadness throughout The Lobster hums thoroughly throughout the film, and yet, the film still manages to be so funny. This astonishing balance is a cinematic miracle. Lanthimos may be another one of those brilliant filmmakers - like, say, Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier - who's only able to make torturous examinations on the inevitable doom of humanity. But he will always have this film, which is spirited and bombastic, and despite its inauspicious outlook, manages to say that there are moments that make life worth living. Watching The Lobster is one of those moments.

1 comment:

Tele Gram said...

After combing back through your reviews this year, I had to come back to this one to leave a comment. It was unavoidable. I have a feeling that “The Lobster” will be your favorite film of the year.
Walking out of the theater after I saw "The Lobster" (with my significant other, as one ought to) left me with much less than the many thoughts and feelings you took home, savored, and expressed in this review. I can only describe what I received as a kind of white void, a ringing in the ear or lingering pain in the eye that doesn't really go away but you learn to ignore. It was born out of a small disturbance that grew as the film progressed and then continued after it abruptly ended. I learned I couldn’t really ignore it, so I had to write.
I'll use "Eternal Sunshine" as a counter-example, since I know that film's writing/acting/cinematography, etc. you hold in high regard and, curiously, use to show what notch "The Lobster" now holds in place for you.
"Eternal Sunshine" draws the boundary of its narrative around our world and then introduces a magical element (Lacunae) in order to talk about a relationship and experience of love, which in a way, isn't really of this world, or, is rare enough that despite having the means of wiping the memory of love away the substance of it can remain. In "The Lobster" the dystopian future (or present?) in which the narrative takes place is never given a boundary. I kept asking myself in the theater "Where are we?" - and not because people were turning into animals. There was the child that was assigned to Ben Whishaw’s character and her passing of a knife to him when Colin Farrell’s character exposes his lie of nosebleeds. What was her investment in this mock relationship and how are children in this world which mandates marriage of paired adults who have a likeness in some attribute (bum leg, nosebleed, near-sightedness, etc.)? People becoming animals via some kind of dark technology is a kind of magical element like Lacunae. But unlike in "Eternal Sunshine," people weren't falling in love in spite of this technology. I know Lanthimos is Greek - does this turn "The Lobster" into an upside-down adaptation of Aesop's Fables without any irony or humor to accompany it? No, but people were becoming animals for the lack of love. I laughed a little too, but that kind of nervous laughter that breaks a silence that continues to thicken and thicken. I emphatically disagree that this was a funny movie, even seen as a black comedy, it wasn’t a very funny one. I soon learned I wasn't anywhere by the end of the film and wasn't sure where I'd been to. A very engrossing place, but a very empty one, which in the end becomes terrible to bear.
The film itself is a kind of magic trick rather than a spell or form of technology. You think you're watching a film about love but it's actually a film about the absence of it - not even about the absurdity of love, like "Why should this even exist, this painful thing?" - just waving fingers, that end up with the middle one in your face. We can look to Orwell's "1984" as a better example of love trying and failing to exist in a dystopian world (and I do think Farrell's character fails in the same way Hurt's did in the 1984 version).
That first scene of "The Lobster" set the whole tone of the film for me: no mercy, point-blank shot to a donkey's head.