Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Lobster (2016)

The Lobster, the new film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos continues his penchant for dark absurdist comedies set within the context of power structures. Take his cult-hit from 2009, the upsetting but strangely funny Dogtooth, in which he explored the notion of parental control by taking it to frightful extremes: If a parent has the freedom to rear their kids as they see fit, how far can they take it, and how and when will the kids find cause to rebel? Humans succumbing to the rigorous constructs of authority tends towards a wolf-pack structure wherein indoctrination is most effective when geared towards a group. A herd of people tend to accept what they are fed at the expense of their need for individuality and liberty. It's a familiar and popular subject in the world of novels and movies, one that is often predicated on the fact that a Neitzchian hero will break away from the pack and prove that before you need people in your life you've got to be free.

Lanthimos touched on this to an extent in Dogtooth, but he tackles it full-on in The Lobster. And just as he found startlingly new ways to look at domestic authority that film, The Lobster offers a version of the dystopian-power-structure-versus-rebellious-hero like we've never quite seen it before.

Colin Farrell, boasting his 'stache and melancholic demeanor from season two of True Detective, plus a hefty gut and pair of slouched shoulders that suggest a "life is boring and sad" mentality, stars as David. Recently left for another man by his wife, he arrives at a hotel/institution where singles gather and have 40 days to find a partner. Success will allow them to re-emerge into society as a happy couple, while failure will result in being turned into an animal of their choice. David picks a lobster because of their lengthy lifespan and the fact that he's a good swimmer. A new friend talks about becoming a parrot, while another relates how his mother was turned into a wolf and how he tried to pick her out amidst other wolves at the zoo. Lanthimos chooses a deadpan tone, somber and serious, funny only in its underlying absurdity. And it works: the film is full of sad people who are looking for love but aren't sure if they'll find it. When life seems painful and difficult, haven't we all at times wished to be a dog or a cat, content and stress-free? On top of that, this is a sort of alternate world where these transfigurations are perfectly normal, hence the utter compliance demonstrated by David (note that his dog was once his human brother).

 Lest you think that's the extent of Lanthimos' world-building, he's actually developed a plethora of additional details: the hotel is not simply built around the simple rubric of find a partner or become an animal, but includes all sorts of other strict rules and punishments (John C. Reilly gets his hand burned in a toaster for masturbating in his room), stupid performances extolling relationships, and extensions of the 40-day deadline by capturing singles who have disappeared into the woods. It all makes for a rich and compelling first half, culminating in David's desperate attempt to find a partner only to break free from the hotel when she mercilessly kills his dog. A shot of the aftermath of this senseless act of violence is borderline tasteless, but it nonetheless follows Lanthimos' penchant for honing in on the kinds of things we see on a screen and then immediately wish we hadn't  (Lanthimos, like Wes Anderson, seems to have adopted a thing for killing off pets with a vicious coldness).

The rest of the film plays out as a wilderness survival love story, as David joins the 'loners' in the drizzly woods, which in their dark brown and green hues aren't that much more comforting than the cold environs of the hotel. The loners, in their firm rejection of the institution, have adopted an even harsher system of control that denies the possibility of couples and demonstrates far more brutal methods of punishment. The problem is that David has fallen in love with a fellow loner, an unnamed woman played by a terrifically understated Rachel Weisz. Weisz narrates the film as well, and at one point relates David's realization that "It is more difficult to pretend that you do have feelings when you don't than to pretend that you don't have feelings when you do." David employs the latter in his first attempt to find a partner, but it fails because he is unable to withhold his emotion when his dog is killed. Ironically, when he's finally found a proper love in Weisz, he also has to "pretend" lest the wilderness people find out.

In case you think The Lobster is too cold and sinister, consider this idea and suddenly it becomes maybe the warmest film Lanthimos has made. Context is everything, never more so than in the movie's final moments, when David prepares a ghastly act of self-mutilation in a diner restroom while his new love waits at their table in anticipation.

In a time when it's tough to find romantic films of any real value, The Lobster shakes the stubbornly dull conventions that define today's love stories on the big screen. He's made something that has the disquieting feel of of a Lars Von Trier film with the heart of Wes Anderson. If you believe a human's capacity to love will allow them to do just about anything, then this is surely one of the best love stories of the decade.

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