Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 26, 2015 6:21 pm 
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Hell is being forced to mate, say they

Greek cinematic provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos delivers his third collaboration with friend and co-writer Efthymis Filippou in The Lobster. It is a funny but also very, very cruel satire on the way society puts pressure on people to live in couples. But does it? Don't they want to live in couples? What's the point, really? Anyway, Lanthemos and Filippou take a premise and then play with it. In their future world those who lack or have lost a mate are sent by The City to The Hotel, really a kind of minimum security prison, where they live under strict rules. Above all they have 45 days to find a mate, and if they fail, are turned into the animal of their choice and cast out into The Woods to survive or be killed. Protagonist David (a paunchy Colin Farrell), sent to The Hotel to find a new mate as a result of a recent divorce, chooses that if he must be turned he will be a lobster because they live 100 years and remain fertile life-long.

From the beginning, when we follow a lady we never see again on a car ride to a field where she shoots a horse, The Lobster is strange, disquieting, and chillingly sure of itself. Somehow Lanthimos seems working with a broader palette here than in Dogtooth or Alps (also done with Filippou), and due, some think, to acquire a wider audience as his austere festival rep grows, and given that this time he's working in English (with a bit of French) and has gathered a name-actor cast (including Léa Seydoux and Rachel Weisz).

Because it's a Hotel whose rules are enigmatic and a film that is artificial I was reminded of Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad. The Lobster is similarly arid -- but without the haunting, rhythmic elegance, of course. In fact this comparison was grasping at straws, because Marienbad is a dreamlike Neverland one might in some fantasy like being lost in, but The City, The Hotel, and The Wood are Orwellian Hells. Or, as Guy Lodge more positively puts it in his Variety review, Lanthimos "takes his ongoing fascination with artificially constructed community to its dizziest, most Buñuelian extreme to date" with The Lobster. Ah yes, Buñuel.

Coupling doesn't seem to happen very often at The Hotel and in two examples we see, they're on desperate false pretenses. Ben Whishaw tries to fake habitual nosebleeds to connect with a young woman with this ailment. David pretends to be completely without emotion to link up with a woman who's utterly cold, but she uncovers his pretense through a deeply nasty gesture. Don't critics who praise this film's sardonic wit not see how profoundly repellent it is?

This is a conceptual game whose crude absurdities indeed are, at first, amusing -- the fact that most people chose to be turned into dogs, for instance. David has arrived with one, which turns out to be his (former) brother. Likewise oddly droll is the fact that couples can only pair off if they share a common fault, like a limp (Ben Whishaw) or a lisp (John C. Reilly), or a lack of any feeling, or a tendency to nosebleeds. Sex is referred to crudely, masturbation forbidden. Preposterously, female Hotel employes come to rooms to fellate "guests" like David with their buttocks.

"Guests" are sent out every day to The Wood with rifles to kill escapees from this system who're called Loners and are led by a stony-faced Léa Seydoux. Loners can't mate or love, but they can have conversations. Living as a Loner in The Wood is the only alternative to coupling or being turned to an animal. David winds up out there and falls in love with Rachel Weisz. The ending is, after all, an abandonment of cold-hearted rule-making in favor of desperate love, and perhaps a last-minute effort to make up for all the preceding nastiness.

I found the world of The Lobster even more off-putting than those of Lanthimos' two previous films. But devotees of puzzle-pictures may enjoy re-watching and pondering the film's many enigmatic incidents whose meanings may grow in retrospect. My feeling is that Filippou and Lanthimos' construction is something they made up as they went along, and internal consistency and overall logic take second place to playful provocation.

The Lobster, 118 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2015 and included in many other international festivals since. Screened for this review as part of the 2015 New York Film Festival. Coming to US theaters as an Alchemy release.

A24 is releasing the film in the US starting May 13, 2016.

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