Friday, June 17, 2016

I Only Have Eyes For You

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015?)

The most intriguing, if not the only, experiment in The Lobster is the one carried out by the film’s dedicated and celebrity-heavy team of actors. The film’s tweaks to reality have already given ample room for critical commentary on the subject of monogamy, marriage, and post-modern narcissism. Atop this narrative is the conceit that no character should act as if this reality were an alteration of any basic human condition. The rules are just given, no behavior suggests otherwise, and ground from which any judgement could be made is, consequently, shaky. A generous amount of beats have fun with this experiment: Olivia Coleman’s character claims Derick’s choice of animal metamorphosis is “excellent,” like it’s a dish on a menu; a person who is said to have “no feelings at all” conforms to the description with violent perfection. All the actors behave with a bizarre, unspoken unity of knowledge.
It is a commendable feat to act in a world that has been knocked  just slightly off-kilter. The Lobster doesn’t necessarily take place in the future, but it does borrow a little from sci-fi for the sake of one central piece of technology. One is pretty much obliged, despite the lack of traditional bureaucratic accoutrements, to call this environment “Kafkaesque.” Derick (Colin Farrell) has recently divorced his wife and comes to a country resort hotel so that he can be paired up within the required 45 day limit, after which he will be transformed “into an animal of his choice.” Lanthimos draws out a lot of straightforward humor from the entire scenario of life-and-death being played out through leisure activities that are very familiar  to nursing home patients, excepting the nightly excursion outside the hotel where all the residents, armed with tranquilizer guns, hunt for the escaped “loners” (one captured loner adds a day to your stay). Midway through, the film dips into a more morbid corner and stops allowing purely “fun” black humor seep through the cracks. And, even though you might expect it to peter out in contemplation, the film ends on a tense note.
If Lanthimos sends us out of this film with visions of Oedipus, he does so in order to reconcile the glaring contradictions that the central love story presents to the viewer.It turns out that Loners have their own strict rules about the single life that are broken at great, great cost. So the film is set up to engage two pillars of a familiar dialectic: on the one hand, oppressive coupling, on the other, an uncoupling so conscious that it becomes its own headphone-wearing prison. Unfortunately, the story speeds right into the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s love interest character (she really isn’t anything else). It isn’t as if Lanthimos doesn’t know how to make his characters tick with each other; we are afraid for these lovers in peril, but scenes of tension are interspersed with those that go straight for the sentiment of “indie romance.” The latter feel wildly out of place. I’m not convinced the world can present a  solution to its problems in the form of its first target institution. The final scene, which I’ve been trying to discuss without spoilers for a while now, sort of gives a quick fix to this problem by twisting the love plot into the revelation of one final, subtly articulated psychological norm. The difficult path The Lobster takes is trying to double-team us with a conceptual fact and a character moment at once. It’s something that many “masters” of the form have done (I’m thinking of Kubrick moreso than Lynch, Hitchcock moreso than Kaufman, though Kaufman’s weaker stuff works this way), it’s hard to pull off, and I don’t know if I like that strategy anyway. It smacks of pretentious commitment to doing too much in one movie. All the same, the idea that attachments in this world are rigidly ingrained through the sharing of a single “flaw” is a very interesting take on the whole Oedipus complex and the dark side of narcissism.
It’s the events leading up to this - the haplessly inevitable love story, the cruel lonerism of the jungle - that reward even as they expose the holes in Lanthimos’ plot.  When we’re in the hotel, the images and editing feel unsure about how disoriented they want to make us. I understand that the late capitalist banality of the hotel was the point, but I feel as if more interesting images could have been drawn from it. Or perhaps I was distracted by the abundance of celebrities: seeing Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw in one frame, all while on constant lookout for a face to match Rachel Weisz’s narration, makes the film feel a bit overstuffed. Farrell, whose character has the most to do, is the best thing happening in this movie. He has the most to do, granted, but he goes above and beyond the call of duty.  And I want to give Lea Seydoux credit for playing the reverse, sadistic side of Olivia Colman’s excellent bureaucrat; she knows how to wear an evil turtleneck like the best bond villain.
I’m not fully convinced that The Lobster has as significant a target as it thinks it does. All these things that happen must be significant, but the film analyzes to the point that it can’t put any pieces together, despite some desperate attempts at its conclusion, in this messy comedy of remarriage. Some critics of this movie more or less sentence it detention for having a bad attitude. I don’t think the coldness is the problem here,  as the actors really throw life into the comedy, but the eagerness to take something apart without explaining what it was in the first place. Is that my job? Because that’s tiring.


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