Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 Top Ten List #9 The Lobster

THE LOBSTER                     A-                
Greece  Netherlands  Ireland  Great Britain  France  (118 mi)  2015  d:  Yorgos Lanthimos

From Greece, the same country that gave us Costa-Gavras’s brilliant political exposé Z (1969), showing the demise of a military junta during absurdly repressive times, the country again is in deep economic turmoil over its national debt, where the abruptly changing insecurity of life in that society simply does not resemble anywhere else in the rest of the world, causing this Greek filmmaker at least to take a completely unique worldview.  Evoking the depths of Greek tragedy with a true artistic realization, Yorgos Lanthimos invents an absurdly bleak universe that is such an extreme form of dark comedy that it appears to exist in its own universe, where it’s often hard to equate how it mirrors our own world.  Unsettling, to say the least, demonstrating a kind of scathing sarcasm that hasn’t really been seen since Terry Gilliam’s nightmarish BRAZIL (1985), the film has a power to enthrall but also confuse, as it lends itself to no easy answers.  Like the best David Lynch films, the director would be hard pressed to find any critic that actually understands specifically what the director was trying to achieve, though from an audience standpoint, it’s not like anything else you’ll see all year.  Weirdly reminiscent of LORD OF THE FLIES (1990) for adults, the starkness of the situation calls upon a completely new societal order, where nothing is as it seems, but exists in the bizarre logic of the moment, told exclusively through deadpan humor, surrealistic flourish, and completely absurd events.  At the center is a subversive rebellion against conformity, where characters are forced to accept the most peculiar set of rules as the norm, and then carry out their daily routines within the appalling restrictions of those imposed standards, each weirder than the next, where the outer shell capitulates willingly, showing no sign of aversion, while the inner being is profoundly disturbed, but can’t show it, as the entire film evolves around the core idea of pretending to fit in.  David, Colin Farrell in his most unglamorous role, plays a pot-bellied, middle aged, ordinary man with no outstanding attributes, whose wife of eleven years has just dumped him, where in this society it’s a crime to be single, so he’s sent to a “home” for recovery, a rehabilitation hotel with strict rules and the most ominous consequences.  Here he has 45 days to find an acceptable mate or he will be transformed into an animal of his choice, while accompanying him on his journey is Bob, his brother turned into a dog, transformed years ago from a previous visit to this same recovery home.   

Described as an “unconventional love story,” the film is set in the near future where being single is considered a crime, so people’s lives depend on finding a partner.  While the hotel establishment resembles a health spa, it’s more appropriately a cruel and sadistic prison with draconian regulations that are strictly enforced, where the rules are accepted without question, as if this has been a longstanding tradition, including morning visits from a maid, Ariane Labed (the director’s wife), who nakedly straddles David’s lap until he gets an erection before abruptly departing, leaving him in a state of permanent dissatisfaction, where there isn’t the slightest hint of love or happiness anywhere to be found, instead residents cower in fear at the inevitable, willing to accept the slightest hint of compatibility as a sign of true love.  Couples are drawn together by an exaggerated notion of having something in common, using physical attributes as “defining characteristics,” where both are left-handed, walk with a limp, have a speech impediment, or are subject to nose bleeds, etc, a seemingly random or arbitrary trait, where people are so desperate to be accepted that they attribute maximum importance to seemingly insignificant details.  For David, it’s his nearsightedness, for his friend Robert (John C. Reilly), it’s his lisp, while John (Ben Whishaw) walks with a limp, as they seek to find a partner who matches their own personal characteristic.  Part of the intrigue of the film is the novel use of originality, where they have literally created a futuristic Brave New World that exists in its own peculiar mathematical certainty, but makes little sense.  Being stuck in the absolutism of this Kafkaesque totalitarian world is the fate of each character, where no background information explains how society arrived at this point, yet the lifeless and banal quality of their lives is matched by a musical soundtrack that is wrenchingly emotional, including Beethoven String Quartet No 1 in F major, Op 18, No 1 Adagio ... YouTube (8:34), which recurs throughout like a musical motif, becoming a parody of what’s missing.  Also featured is the equally rare and obscure, yet extremely stylized romanticism provided by Sophia Loren and Tonis Maroudas singing “What Is This Thing They Call Love,” Sophia Loren, Tonis Maroudas - Ti 'ne afto pou to lene agapi (1957 ... YouTube (2:26) from BOY ON A DOLPHIN (1957).  The film is narrated by the voice of Rachel Weisz, an unseen character that doesn’t appear until well into the second half of the film, who speaks in a halting voice, with no voice inflection, never sure of herself, as no one, not even the narrator, is capable of actually expressing themselves clearly, instead everything is communicated in strict robotic deadpan without ever showing an ounce of emotion.  While this conveys an amateurish feel, as if actors never really rehearsed their lines, it’s part of Lanthimos establishing a totally “new” world that is both haunting and ridiculous, provoking outright laughter at times, adding bizarre twists that are weird and increasingly uncomfortable, tapping into an extreme degree of pain and anguish.

With the arrival of new guests, the coolly efficient hotel manager (Olivia Colman) speaks with uncanny ease, “The fact that you will be transformed into an animal should not alarm you,” as she and her partner (Garry Mountaine) provide pop songs and inane skits for the identically dressed hotel guests advocating the advantages of couples, Something`s Gotten Hold Of My Heart - The Lobster - YouTube (4:08), while the throbbing electrical sounds resembling a fire alarm signals it’s time for The Hunt, extraordinary scenes when the residents are bussed into a nearby forest to hunt down escapees and other individuals called Loners with tranquilizer darts, gaining an extra day for every captive delivered, dramatically elevated to a slow motion operatic montage shot by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, Apo Mesa Pethamenos - Danai (The Lobster OST - HD Video ... YouTube (3:06).  One of the guests, a ruthless misanthrope who is easily the hotel’s most unpleasant resident known as the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), takes sadistic relish in bagging record numbers of hunt victims, each targeted for animal transformation and returned back to the forest.  The sinister nature underlying each and every scene only grows more chilling, where there’s a lot going on under the surface, most of it indescribably dark and cruel, like being stuck in a Grimm fairy tale.  When David finally escapes to the forest, he discovers yet another rebellious society of wandering outcasts run by the tyrannical rule of Loner Leader Léa Seydoux (couldn’t help but wonder how she became the leader), a terrifying force of evil who inflicts her own ridiculous set of rules, where touching, kissing, and falling in love is forbidden, punishable by mutilation, so they survive like hidden guerilla fighters.  It’s here that David meets his soul mate, the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), but they are unable to express affection, so they develop a coded sign language designed to hide their true feelings from others.  “When we turn our heads to the left, it means I love you more than anything in the world, and when we turn our heads to the right, it means Watch out, we’re in danger.  We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up I love you more than anything in the world with Watch out, we’re in danger. Inexplicably, the Loner Leader and a randomly chosen partner lead David and his chosen partner on covert visits to the City, ostensibly to visit her parents (both play classical guitar), where she invents a life and a career, as the City is run by an equally arcane set of rules, with police on the lookout for non-married individuals who are subject to arrest.  Shrewdly written by Lanthimos and his frequent co-writer Efthymis Filippou, exhibiting a more accomplished sense of overall direction, where one can’t help but be a bit wonderstruck by all the perplexing, unanswered questions, the film draws heavily upon existentialism and the theater of the absurd, where the specter of liberation or conformity shadows every scene, creating a thought provoking and oddly moving experience where romance remains undefined and continually under construction, even by the end, which couldn’t be more disturbingly ambiguous.

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