dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
These movies from this Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, like Dogtooth, Alps and now The Lobster – I question whether they are movies to be enjoyed, or movies to be endured / survived.
They’re definitely strange, that’s for sure. Being able to say “there’s nothing else out there quite like it” can be used as much as a compliment as it can as a complaint.
I have watched too many movies in my life, and too much television, and what that means is that, just like everyone else, I can sometimes be energised by watching something completely out of left field, but I can just as equally be left confused and bemused by something so fundamentally odd that my mind can’t quite latch on to it.
I like to think that I kinda ‘got’ what was going on with Dogtooth – a strange flick where a very strange set of Greek parents bring up their kids in absolute isolation, warping their sense of language, sex, the world, everything – but having watched The Lobster, it’s more than likely that I was completely wrong about that flick. As for this flick, well, I have no idea.
This is Lanthimos’s first flick in English with a broad international cast (though there are no Australians for once: What gives? Couldn’t you get one of the cheaper Hemsworths or something?) with Colin Farrell as the lead character. This lead character is a very sad man who speaks in a halting way defined by his sad sackness. The thing is, though, whatever feelings he may or may not have because of his wife leaving him, he lives in a very strange world that looks like ours, but which possesses some key, some might say utterly unbelievable, differences).
In this strange world, it is something of a crime to be single. People walking on their own at shopping centres are routinely stopped by police and questioned as to their relationship status. People have to prove they are in couples, or they are in trouble.
This trouble manifests itself as some sort of government-enforced program where people are quarantined away from the rest of the population if, for whatever reason, they find themselves single.
Does that sound so far fetched? Well, yes. But when you consider the monstrous lengths people, especially those in couples, and the media go to in order to enforce the default conformity that People Who Aren’t In Couples Are Less Than Worthless, well, maybe that’s the origin of where the absurdist premise comes from.
It’s hard to know. The flick is so weird, so concertedly, mundanely weird that it’s hard to say.
David (Farrell) is being interviewed about himself and why he’s single at the start of the flick. He has a dog with him. The dog is his brother, who was recently a guest at this particular establishment. David is told by the manager (the great Olivia Colman) that he has 45 days to become a worthwhile member of society again. He can only do this by becoming a couple with one of the other single people at the establishment currently.
If he has no luck within the 45 days, well, he gets to be transformed by some process into an animal of his choosing. Which animal? Well, he chooses the creature of the title. Why? Because…
Do you really need a reason? That’s not even the weirdest thing in the flick. The weirdest thing in the flick is the way is the way the director gets a bunch of pretty well known and decent actors in a flick, and then gets them to underact deliberately. It’s not even an attempt to get them to exhibit “realism”, or to underplay it as if they were ‘regular’ people, whatever that means. It’s like many of them are deliberately acting like bad actors.
It’s hard to articulate, but you have to see it to believe it. There are some scenes where David is saying stuff, and he comes across like a kid telling a bullshit story that they’re trying to pass off unconvincingly at the truth “And then a crocodile came and tore me apart, and my legs went this way, and my head went that way”, and it’s all deliberate. It makes for a very disconcerting experience.
It’s the oddest thing – no, there are far more odd things just aching to come along. Some of the other sad sacks at the hotel have singular traits that define them. I don’t mean that they have one quirk or one aspect to their personalities or anything: I mean there is a guy who has a limp (Ben Whishaw), and that defines anything and everything that he can aspire to in a relationship. He desperately needs a woman who has a limp as well (and not just a temporary one), or they cannot form a relationship, and if that doesn’t happen, he’ll be turned into a porcupine or an amoeba or something.
His solution, since there are no lucky ladies with a limp? He sees a girl who has nose bleeds, so he regularly punches himself in the face or whacks his head into the wall or on the table in order to induce nose bleeds.
Alleluia, he is Saved! Or doomed, I can’t remember. The perhaps point is that people’s ideas regarding compatibility in relationships is silly or arbitrary or combinations thereof, but maybe it’s just weird for weirdness’s sake.
David sees a woman who he thinks he might like, but everyone warns him that she is the most Heartless Woman in the World (Angeliki Papoulia). He sees her during one of the seemingly daily Singles Hunts, where they storm the surrounding forest and shoot single people who almost got away with tranquiliser darts. She routinely bags the most Singles (which earns her extra days grace at the hotel). Naturally, she’d be great for him. To entice her, he pretends to be completely callous towards anyone around them, whether they’re suffering or not. He keeps escalating this by going beyond callousness, and into wishing great harm to everyone and anyone, all the while in that unconvincing insecure schoolboy voice.
She seems to buy it, but as a final test kicks his brother to death just to see his reaction.
I guess this is a comedy? A black comedy about the absurdity of relationships, the compromises people make, the insane expectations they have for themselves and each other?
Perhaps. Most of the time I just found myself marvelling at how utterly odd everything was, and neither in a good or a bad way. I would note scenes in which people were talking, with some oddly placed animal in the background, knowing full well that the animal is meant to be someone who’s already ‘failed’ at coupledom and been relegated to animal status, but also not caring.
Through the help of a seemingly sympathetic maid at the hotel, who seems to be playing all sides against each other (Ariane Labed, who also, along with Angeliki Papoulia, played the sisters in Dogtooth, and who is great here, probably giving the best performance), David ends up in the surrounding forest as a sort of Loner Rebel. They are ruthlessly led by Lea Seydoux, who has no time for emotion or sex or anything for anyone. People among the loners who have sex with each other or care about anything are punished in horrific ways.
Naturally, this is the place to fall in love with one of the other Loners, played by Rachel Weisz. If she has defining characteristics, it’s that she acts in that oddly affected way that most of the others do, deliberately giving off-putting performances which must be like mother’s milk / crack to this director.
The development of their relationship is sweet, or at least I wish I could call it sweet. They develop a sign language of their own in order to tell each other how much they love each other, or how badly they want to fuck each other’s brains out. But she loves rabbit, it’s her favourite food, and any other guy including David could get her a rabbit, hypothetically.
There’s more, leading to a sweet / horrifying / perplexing ending which perhaps is saying that people who think compatibility in a relationship is the sole determinant of whether two people can get along based on something pretty naff is a form of self-inflicted blindness, but hey, maybe I’m not smart enough to appreciate the subtle nuances of everything that was going on. I don’t actually think for a second that the flick was operating on any highfalutin level of philosophical complexity, because it seems like it really, really wants to get far more mileage out of tremendous absurdity rather than make any profound points about anything.
That absurdity, that taking of what should be familiar and mundane, and turning it stupidly surreal and disturbing clearly is deliberate on everyone’s part. It’s just that, well, it didn’t really resonate with me that much. I’m still thinking about it days or weeks later, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed watching it.
It was, all the same, a curious and bewildering way to spend two hours, that’s for sure.
6 times the animal I would chose to be turned into is an exact replica of myself out of 10
“But, even then, you must be careful; you need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd” – well I’m glad that’s settled – The Lobster.