Monday, May 23, 2016

New movie review: The Lobster

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz go on the run in writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos' excellent The Lobster.

We should be past the point in human history where any of us believes there is one way for a person to live his life. We should be, but we are not. The loudest among us in fact want very much to dictate rules for how we act, speak, create, love, and in a larger sense exist. Some embrace these mandates as gospel, while others rebel, lash out, and decry the whole system. This push and pull is like an ideological tug of war in which no one wins but those shouting the commands. In truth, we should all probably just drop the damn rope.

In The Lobster, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos depicts a world drained of passion, expression, and choice. Its inhabitants are offered just one option, a single guiding path for their lives, and if they fail to remain on this path, a whole other oppressive structure awaits. The Lobster is a bold statement about the ways in which we let systems control us through fear, humiliation, and the threat of violence or worse. Because Lanthimos is a visionary filmmaker and singular storyteller, the film is also a darkly comic fable about a hotel where people are transformed into animals.

The rules of this world are established economically and matter-of-factly. To live in this society, you must have a romantic partner. If you do not have a partner – regardless of the reason, be it death, divorce, or lack of interest – you must register at the hotel, which operates like a cross between a singles cruise and a totalitarian re-education center. Those people who find their match are returned to The City to live out their days together. Those who do not meet someone in 45 days are transformed into the animal of their choosing.

Colin Farrell, here sapped of his usual roguish charm and dashing good looks, plays David, a schlumpy architect whose wife leaves him for another man. The first question he asks is whether the man is near-sighted, and we will soon find out why this question preoccupies him at this devastating moment. When he arrives at the hotel, accompanied by his brother, Bob, who has been transformed into a dog, he meets the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), the Limping Man (Ben Wishaw), the Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), and the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia).

Each of these people is identified by a single defining trait, both by the world at large and by their own consent. On their first night in the hotel, they must introduce themselves by their defining feature, and it becomes clear that in matchmaking, they will live or die (or rather, transmogrify) by whether they find another person with whom they share this trait.

We see people try to connect, some desperately, some earnestly, but most unsuccessfully. There is a sense of resignation in all of them. None wants to be turned into an animal, but they have been sapped of their ability to seek happiness in romance. In a world where the options are pair or perish, there is little time for passion, joy or love.

John C. Reilly, Ben Wishaw, and Farrell in The Lobster
Indeed, the Limping Man, believing himself unlikely to find a woman with a limp – there was one, but it turned out just to be a sprained ankle, he says dejectedly – decides to lie to the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and claim he, too, is beset by bloody-nose fits. He resigns himself to bashing his face against walls and countertops several times daily for the rest of his life to achieve the illusion, thinking this better than the alternative.

In between these scenes of desperation, we get bracingly humorous insights into the ethos of this society. The hotel guests gather for demonstrations, hosted by the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman), of how life is so much better for a couple. These include: A man eats alone and is seen to choke and die, but when seen eating with a partner, she is able to save his life. Also, a woman walks alone and is attacked by a rapist, but when she walks with a partner, the would-be rapist does nothing.

These lessons are presented dryly and accepted without question. We get a sense of a world without human emotion, and it begins to seem that in a place where becoming a wild animal is the worst fate that can befall you, even acting like a human being might be considered too beastly. After David’s own attempt at deception fails and he is forced to escape the hotel and live in the woods, Lanthimos shows us the beastly side of human nature.

He joins a group known as the Loners, who have rejected the rules of the system. They live as a pack in the woods and are hunted by guests of the hotel – each Loner caught represents an extra day in the hotel before being transformed. They live, for all intents and purposes, like the animals they would be turned into anyway. This is not the reprieve David might have hoped for, and he quickly realizes the Loners are as militant about not coupling as the rest of their society is about coupling.

Romantic liaisons among Loners are punished in creatively gruesome ways such as the Red Kiss (you do not want to know) and the Red Intercourse (do not ask). This poses a problem when David at long last meets the woman he believes could be his partner, the Nearsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Escapees from one totalitarian regime, their love is now forbidden by the only other system available to them.

All of this is executed gorgeously by Lanthimos and delivered wonderfully by the actors, whose purposefully wooden performances are more expressive than at first they appear. The stylistic choices – such as Lanthimos’ often-flat shot setups and the actors’ stilted line deliveries, among much else – are perfectly in keeping with the thematic investigations of the film.

As David and the Nearsighted Woman become emotionally more involved, their world opens up. They are capable of more together than they were apart, which is a seeming endorsement of the state’s rules, but it is not. Their love, their passion, and their commitment can only exist outside the systems the world would impose on them. They have dropped the rope on which they tugged and run from it. In this world though, there is another rope, tied tightly around the neck, and it is this noose from which they must escape to find happiness, love, and freedom.

See it? Yes.

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