Saturday, June 11, 2016

There's not enough garlic butter in the world


Is it possible that 2016 might be an even worse year than 2015?  The Lobster affectlessly argues, "Yes."

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Efthymis Fillipou and Yorgos Lanthimos
With Colin Farrell (David), Rachel Weisz (Short-Sighted Woman), Ben Whishaw (Limping Man), John C. Reilly (Lisping Man), Angeliki Papoulia (Heartless Woman), and Lea Seydoux (Loner Leader)

Spoiler alert: mild

As I've grown older and putatively wiser, I've tried not to be such a literalist about the movies: plot holes are not the end of the world; conceptual problems are less important than mood and image; and fables don't have to be rigorously logical constructs.  Then something like The Lobster comes along, and it all comes roaring back.  The best way to approach the film, I guess, is to consider it as a surrealist fantasy that touches upon real human issues, but in the most inhuman way imaginable—that is, every character is deliberately rendered a nearly complete void by the screenplay, the direction, and the actors themselves.  It's a choice that effectively serves as the single real gag this "black comedy" ever offers, which manages to elicit a few laughs here and there before it becomes just about the most tedious fucking thing you could pay money to see.  Personally, I found myself viciously reminded of no less an abomination than After Last Season, which is (as is generally agreed upon by the select few who've ever seen it) possibly the literal worst movie ever made.  The premise also reminded me of Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, the MST3K movie where Raul Julia is forced to relax by having his consciousness placed in the body of an animal.  Overdrawn at the Memory Bank is better-plotted, though.

The Lobster, meanwhile, presents a vision of a cobbled-together neverwhen, where the almighty State has determined that no person shall be single.  Since people do still leave each other, however, the State has created a program to re-couple those without a partner, sending these newly-minted singletons to a hotel in the woods, where they have 45 days to find themselves a new mate, or else they are turned into an animal of their choosing, and released into the wild, where they probably die.  This is where David finds himself when his wife leaves him, and we meet our hero (a paunched up, depressed Colin Farrell) as he checks into the hotel, with his brother Bob in tow.  (Bob, who never found a partner during his tenure at the hotel, has recently been transmogrified into a dog.)  We follow David's misadventures through the Dystopian Dating Game until he finds a potential mate in the form of a bona fide psychopath, but this inevitably goes so poorly that David is forced to flee the hotel, and all the oppression it represents, for the surrounding forest, where he falls in with the survivalist Loners.  Of course, because this is a bleak and half-assed allegory, the Loners, led by a monomaniacal prophetess, are practically just as bad as the State and their hotel, since their leader looks at human cooperation (let alone human coupling) as an unalloyed evil, which she shall stamp out whenever it arises.  It's just David's luck then, that it's amongst the Loners' number that he makes the acquaintance of a woman he might well love, whom we have previously informally met as this film's narrator; and, in the process of subverting the Loner cult's repressive rules, he falls back into all the habits of conventional heteronormativity that put him here in the first place.

I could go on forever about the obscenely terrible conceptual scaffolding that writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filipou invented for their screenplay, amounting to one insanely arbitrary and thoughtless plot point after another, for two increasingly-excruciating hours.  To list every objection would be to recite the whole film.  Yes, I could get into the inscrutability of the program that turns the lonesome into animals, rather than executing them.  (This movie's like an unholy mash-up of All That Heaven Allows and Logan's Run, losing both the coherence and the fun in the process.)  I could get into the fact that everybody, if given 45 days (or a lifetime) to think about it, would probably optimize their choice, which would probably mean choosing either an apex predator or an elephant, and not, say, a peacock.  (The film's title, of course, comes from David's decision to go with a "lobster," because they live about a hundred years, and he likes the ocean.)  I could get into the bizarre hunting scenes, where untrained guests of the hotel are used to hunt the Loners, so that they can properly be processed into animals.  (We later see that there are plenty of Relationship Police in The Lobster.)

But let's stick with the fundamental problem, which is that the system is so easily gamed that it's kind of impossible to buy David's situation as actually having stakes: if you can leave your spouse, then there isn't any limit to your time—you can rinse and repeat as necessary, even if you do wind up with a really lousy match.  (And yet the gorgeous 20 year old in this movie elects to become a horse, rather than simply going home with Colin Farrell for a month, and trying again another time when there might be more than one man who isn't her dad's age around.  And David, of course, could have gotten with the less-attractive but more-available woman, who brazenly offers him anal sex, because that was something Lanthimos and Fillipou thought would be shocking and amusing.  The Lobster is nothing if not emptily provocative.)

Anyway, this is a blind alley: The Lobster might be a senseless, stupid movie on a literal, cause-and-effect level, but that's exactly what it was made to be, so it's hard to blame anybody for that; and many senseless, stupid movies have managed to be good.  No, the real problems arise from the film's one-note misanthropy (everyone is a conformist moron, even the non-conformists!) and its bleak yet even more godawfully monotone pursuit of its muddled satire.  The Lobster sets out to be a severe look at the way society views human courtship, taking the position that coupledom is a virtual obligation for any human being who wants to exist in the world.  It likewise (presumably) attacks the way we go about courting one another—that is, in desperation, often winding up with people whose prime qualification is that "they are physically present, and they fit one's sexual orientation."  Unless you're bisexual, anyway, since in The Lobster, that status has been recently phased out; this one-line gag may amount to the film's single on-target piece of commentary.

As for everything else, it is a collection of metaphors without referents, rendered as a series of vignettes about people who match themselves together based on the most inane Goddamned qualities—like a propensity for nosebleeds, or near-sightedness—in what I can only imagine is supposed to be a wicked takedown of our modern checklist-based mating.  (Except, you know, checklist mating kind of, well, works.)  It's even more of a pity, too, that The Lobster's lack of success in lampooning dating is exceeded solely by its determination to keep beating its thematic dead horse (or dog) until absolutely nothing is left but undifferentiated crimson meat and a few fragments of identifiable bone.

Now, I'll give it this: the sheer weirdness of it all gives The Lobster an initial impetus that takes a while to peter out; but once David leaves the hotel, which is not even that far into the film, the warped charm evaporates very close to immediately, replaced with an abidingly unpleasant dullness.  You wind up sitting there, thinking about the David Cronenberg version of The Lobster.  Well, that film, at least, would've had the decency to show the awesome Dr. Moreau parts, rather than merely indifferently describe them—in much the same way as everything else is indifferently described, in fact.  Sure, that's a crass, sensationalist impulse on my part, but at least it'd be something.

But I was talking about The Lobster's flailing satire, and how, in deciding that every person in the film would be an automaton, it breaks its own thematic spine, one dourly wacky line read at a time.  If you will, try to remember the last first date you went on.  Awkward as it may or may not have been, you were at least trying to be interesting, weren't you?  The idea, I think, is that these people are burying their emotions all the time; and this, of course, is something we have to do when interacting with, well, anybody.  We don't, however, typically go about it by attempting to be completely unenjoyable.

But in the world of The Lobster, things are different: men and women are so vapid, that you wonder what necessity there is in trying to find a "good" one.  They're all the same boring idiot, after all, differentiated solely by their appearance or, in some cases, a random quasi-disability.  It would seem that sorting would be rather easily accomplished under these circumstances; there aren't any personalities that could clash in the first place.  (One of the "successful" couples is described as having fights—I dare you to actually try to imagine what these fucking cyphers could be fighting about.)  The only exception, I suppose, would be "the Heartless Woman," who's sadistically villainous enough to be (mildly) interesting.  So the best thing you can say about The Lobster in this regard is that Lanthimos puts it all together with a form to match his function: boring, gray, and quite soullessly digital—as well as occasionally abrasive, especially when he leans on a neverending series of atonal music cues in a fashion clearly calculated to bring Kubrick to mind, which means The Lobster made me think about how great it would've been if I were watching any Kubrick movie instead.  I could mildly praise the acting, I suppose: as enervating as it soon becomes, it is also sort of perfect, considering the goals.  (These elements must be what folks must be latching onto when they declare The Lobster some kind of masterpiece.  The content is just too asinine.  But, then, it's not like the form, which is nothing but Challenging, Oddball Indy Film boilerplate, is in any sense the film's savior.)

Finally, I had an inkling that I wouldn't like The Lobster walking in: from my foreknowledge of the plot, I suspected (and I was proven entirely right) that its allegory would give no shrift at all to everything that drives real human beings to seek love in their lives.  It drops this concern in favor of all its obscure criticism of the normative society, that wants to hammer all of us into little round holes despite what shape our pegs are, and its criticism of (I guess) the more esoteric strains of individualism that teach that attachment is ideologically impure.  I can speak for no one else, but in my experience these are not exactly the prime concerns of the single person.  (True, relationship baggage, and the attendant self-sabotage, tend to be key components of our romantic lives; but God knows where you'll find any dissection of those in The Lobster.)

If The Lobster attempts any exploration at all of the inner pressures that compel human beings to try to cure their loneliness through sex and romance, it does this only in its final half hour.  And this is a half hour that somehow manages to be a foregone conclusion and ambiguous, all at the same time; and it's a half hour which circles round and round one single, uninteresting plot point for what seems like forever, while random and nonsensical things occur, and while deeply-interiored motivations nominally inform a pair of characters who, as we've seen, are defined by not having any interiority.  It makes me angrier the more I think about it: The Lobster, in its unmistakable arrogance, positions itself as a definitive statement about coupling.  But it has nothing important to say, even if it feels like it has all day to say it.

Score:  0/10


  1. Well, sh*t. There literally couldn't be more difference difference between your review and Tim's review. Obviously, I'm inclined to trust your opinion because the poor bastard loves Tarr Bela flicks, but damn. I feel like I almost NEED to check this one out to see if I split the difference.

    Also, happy blogaversary! Three years since we started and still going strong!

    1. At some point, it hit me like a brick that if Tim's doing a capital-A Art Film, and Tim gives it a 9 or 10/10, there is a better than 50% chance I won't like it. Our tastes are really, really different. Actually, I'm not at all clear on where the praise for The Lobster is coming from; it was obvious to me why everybody loved (e.g.) The Witch, and lo and behold, I loved it too!

      I'd love to say it was as simple as me not liking Art Films--and the phrase does conjure up some really unpleasant associations--but it's not that simple. I mean, you can't love Duke of Burgundy, for example, without being able to appreciate the Pretentious Mode in filmmaking.

      Anyway, it may well be something you've gotta see for yourself. It's the movie of the moment. But I did warn you!

      Thanks for the well-wishes! 1096 days of blogging, my friend!

  2. I doubt you've ever revisited this one and it's been long enough you might not even remember it too well, but nonetheless I submit the reason the movie didn't seem to have anything to say about human courtship is because the movie is in fact not about human courtship at all. The point is that we DON'T treat relationships this way and it'd be ridiculous if we did, and the movie invites us to be vigilant about such false dichotomies and strict adherence to ideologies we might encounter in real life (I reckon bisexual and biracial people could probably find much to relate to here).

    Honestly I thought this was pretty obvious but I'll grant that all the movie's weird quirky shit probably distracted people into missing the forest for the trees. For what it's worth you were well ahead of all the people who heaped praise on the film because they apparently DID see a resemblance to real-life modern courtship (which makes me a little concerned about the state of those folks' relationships and love lives)!

    1. What has stuck in my memory more than the metaphor, whatever it is--and you could absolutely be righter about that than I was--is the dreadful mannered performances that stop being a source of interest about 110 minutes before it's over, yet are maybe what the movie is "about" more than anything else. I dunno, I loved The Favourite, so it's not impossible I could reverse on this if I did rewatch it.

    2. I've never rewatched it either, and after The Killing of a Sacred Deer I figured I'd had enough worlds of robotic depressives for this lifetime. But I do recall appreciating The Lobster even if I didn't necessarily love it or enjoy it - that "Can I be bisexual?" "No" exchange is pretty much the movie in a nutshell.

    3. And it's in the first five minutes, with 120 left to go!