“The Lobster” and the Absurd Demonization of Singlehood

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Funny how when we learn that a couple gets engaged or married, we tend to offer them congratulations. That implies that consummating a relationship in such a way is an accomplishment, something that one can achieve through deliberate effort, like a college degree. I believed this at one point in my life, and it led me to treat my interactions with my girl crushes as exams with specific right and wrong answers—as projects that involved contriving both my and the girls’ actions towards a preferred end goal. You can guess how that turned out. I’ve had dating experience since, and learned a critical lesson from it: love is a total crapshoot. It depends far less on what you do and don’t do than on chance, circumstance and coincidence—right place, right time. It happens by itself, and if you think you have to convince someone to love you, it’s not going to happen and you need to move on. It sounds cruel—but is the alternative really better? Our culture perpetuates an idea of singlehood and virginity as evidence of something off, when most would prefer the excitement of romance’s unpredictability to a situation ending in tears and divorce. The wait for The One is more worthwhile than the rush into marriage.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, like many of the great dystopian texts, is set in a society copied from ours, then taken to an extreme logical end. We’d like to insist that this world only exists in the film and we never have to worry about it—until we realize that the world’s social values and contracts mimic our own reality, and we are hypocrites to deny it. Set in an unnamed city-state (shot in Ireland), the story turns around a hotel where the powers that be send single persons and assign them forty-five days to find a spouse, after which those who are still single are transmogrified into animals. They individually get the solace of deciding which animal. No, wait—the attitude towards singles is even more insidious than that. In the forest beyond the hotel, there’s a rebel force called the Loners who commit to celibacy and suppress all sexual interest, and who the city’s unseen poobahs try to decimate by granting the singles one extra day at the hotel for each Loner they hunt down and shoot with a tranquilizer gun. David, played by a chubbier version of Colin Farrell, is our guide through this world. In the film’s first half, he searches for a mate in the hotel and (hilariously) makes little if any progress. In the second half, he is forced to escape the hotel and join the Loners, one of whom is Rachel Weisz, with whom he falls in love. This double irony anchors the film within a theme of reverse psychology. Coercion breeds rebellion, and no dictatorial apparatus, it seems, is too infallible for David to not fuck up just by being in it.

In The Lobster’s universe, first impressions are sacrosanct. Forty-five days go by fast, and the singles are half-encouraged by the careerist hotel manager (Olivia Colman) to not waste time thinking too hard and search for someone that shares just one distinct trait. It helps that most of the characters are boiled down to one definitive, physical aspect. One ostensible friend of David’s (Ben Whishaw) walks with a limp. He spots a girl (Jessica Barden) who looks hot doing a backstroke in a pool, strikes up a chat, and learns that she has a nosebleed issue. He proceeds to induce nosebleeds on himself with ridiculous masochism. She buys it; they elope. David fails to escape this need for cursory connectivity even while he’s with the Loners: his romance with Weisz (David is the film’s only named character) is based on their mutual nearsightedness, and that leads them into trouble. Lanthimos’ direction serves to call even more attention to the stifling, unreadable one-dimensionality of this ensemble. Everyone delivers their lines as if they’re doing a blind first reading of the script: the words come out as blank, monotonous filler, and the people seem to have no present knowledge of who they are and what they’re doing—instinct without introspection. Indeed, Weisz’ literary voiceover narration prompts us to read the film very much as a written text. At one point, she repeats the characters’ dialogue as a novelist would.

This, mind you, is not a weakness of the film but rather a calculated aesthetic choice that pays off in spades, as it reflects how we often perceive others through knee-jerk reactions and snap judgments. As The Lobster filters our intrusive obsession with marital unity through a surrealist smokescreen, its inhabitants are reduced to what they’re like when we first see them, or perhaps to how we’d like to see them for our own conveniences. There’s a pervasive sense of unreliability—a sense that Lanthimos is withholding stuff, and we’re not seeing the full story or its characters for who they really are. And still, we must spend two hours with these people, as married persons must spend time with each other, even if they’ve acted on impulse. (The lush, Villeneuve-like wide-angle photography of Thimios Bakatakis is the one refreshing counterpoint to this minimalist illegibility.) Such an approach relies less on keen acting than on keen (type)casting. The narrative rides roughshod on Farrell’s blasé Irish humor, Weisz’ decisive economy, Whishaw’s bluff British youth, Colman’s officious slime, and Barden’s self-deceptive charm—to say nothing of John C. Reilly’s under-the-radar physicality, and the feminine French steel of Léa Seydoux as the purely diabolical head honcho of the Loners. To see such a motley, unlikely ensemble come together game as they are for this cinematic challenge and pull it off as they do is stunning.

Lanthimos is the Greek auteur behind Dogtooth, an absurdist riff on homeschooling in which two evil parents keep their three children imprisoned in a lifelong farrago of indiscriminate, inaccurate linguistic associations. The Lobster intensifies that film’s mediation of potential real-world interpersonal situations through an uncanny surrealist bent. It is worth noting that Dogtooth had incest, unsimulated fellatio, and a climactic scene of dental gore that puts Marathon Man and Cast Away to shame—and it was nominated for an Oscar. Rest assured, he has not toned down the content for this film, his first major foray into the ultra-consumerist English language frontier. The violence done to human and animal alike is brutal, and the sex is cringe-worthy, and only more so when sterility is attempted. But none of this is gratuitous; all of it has a point—and that Lanthimos successfully plays this as a black comedy throughout vaults it over the top. Fellow hardcore cinema buffs: think Kaurismäki meets Samuel Beckett, but not as glacial. (The film’s funniest set pieces include Whishaw’s nosebleeds, a bullshit farewell letter read by Barden to an old chum who’s reached her last day, a solipsistic dance to electronica held by the Loners, a ludicrously stupid and sexist pro-marriage skit staged by the hotel staff, Farrell’s anti-reaction to a spectacularly failed suicide attempt, one moment where he and Weisz get a tad too cozy, and one moment where a man is asked to rate his wife “on a scale of one to fifteen” and gives the completely wrong answer.) That Lanthimos has gotten so much support from such acting heavyweights on merit alone, despite his serious anti-commerciality, is a testament to his artistic integrity and will to commit to his vision, yet also to his tact and his understanding of human perception and conditioning. Fact: Farrell has already signed onto his next film. This critic can’t wait.

Grade: A+

“The Lobster” and the Absurd Demonization of Singlehood

Review: “eXistenZ”

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is one in a long line of meta-films that uses its Russian-doll texture to dissect cinema as an art form, revealing its conceits and forcing viewers to reckon with what it means to sit down and watch a movie. Building its story around a network of video-game virtual realities, eXistenZ depicts the traditional filmic narrative as a technology in itself, and in that respect, it has a point. The clichés and formulas that go into constructing the plots, scripts and characters of too much of what we see today can be and have been read—rather glibly, I will admit—as “machines,” and it is not difficult to criticize Hollywood in its current incarnation as a “factory,” or an “assembly line.” One of the goals of eXistenZ is to satirize this idea by reconceiving bad films as technology gone awry; shallow characters, absurd genre tropes, clunky dialogue, deer-in-the-headlights non-reactions and preposterous accents are all given a computer-glitch veneer. This is clever, but what the film often forgets is that there’s a human element to art. What it means to look like a riff on bad acting and storytelling comes off as laziness and a lack of inspiration that uses its badness as an excuse to nudge the audience into reflecting on cinema as a construction.

The film opens in an old church, where a Greek chorus of twelve volunteers get in a semicircle onstage to test out eXistenZ, the hot new console from shy, reclusive gaming wunderkind Allegra Gellar (a miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh). I take “Allegra” to be the feminine of allegro, the Italian tempo marking for “lively,” somewhat fast compositions; the name here is a misnomer. Cronenberg moves his stories along at a slow, methodical, deep-rumbling pace, and with this material, he is hampered by it. As the introduction proceeds, a would-be assassin rises screaming “Death to the demoness!”, shoots her in the shoulder and gets dispatched by security guards while chaos consumes the place. At the lumbering pace it goes, it’s hardly convincing; in real life, one imagines, the assassin would be taken down before getting the word “demoness” out of his mouth, and the audience would be even more frantic (Cf. Malcolm X’s death in the Spike Lee biopic). All the actors look stiff-jointed, as if they’re swimming in Drano.

Allegra is rescued by officer Ted Pikul (the usually reliable Jude Law), who takes out the bullet and hides her in a motel. Filmed in rural parts of Ontario on a $15-million budget, eXistenZ does not quite achieve a plausible science-fiction environment, limiting itself as it does to the church, cheap motels, a skiing chalet, a trout farm, a mall that looks obviously in-studio, a dated van, and a dated gas station/garage—and when I say “dated,” I mean dated even by present standards. Yes, I get that the future will still have its undeveloped backwoods, and yes, I get that Allegra, with the fatwa on her head, would want to hold demo sessions far removed from urban metropolises. Even then, the mismatch is jarring, and I was left wondering how the hell such a vibrant gaming culture found its way into north Ontario (Cf. the way Kubrick suggested the future with just some judicious location choices in A Clockwork Orange). There’s still some gnarly world-building to make up for that, thankfully: the two-headed reptiles, the guns made of bones (with teeth for bullets), the pulsing fleshy gaming pods, and of course the vaginal bio-ports (a classic Cronenberg motif) inserted just above the tailbone, into which the pods’ umbilical cords go.

Allegra needs to enter her game to make sure it survived the assassination attempt, and she needs Ted to join her. Much fuss is spent on how Ted is a hesitant gaming virgin who needs his bio-port installed. The two head to a gas station attendant (Willem Dafoe, a rare breed of actor who will do pretty much anything) who installs pods on the side with what looks like an uber-industrial gas canister. He seems to worship Allegra, then turns on her. The film takes way too long to get us into the eXistenZ universe, and when it does, that’s when the acting starts getting very deliberately ham-fisted. Exhibit A: the scene in which Allegra and Ted discover that their characters share an intense sexual attraction. It is beside the point that this ruins the male-female friendship that is so often ruined in movies when the filmmakers give in to the temptation to have their lead actor and actress shag each other. Notice how Law and Leigh go back and forth between two modes of acting—them figuring out their characters, and their characters walking the walk to first base. A more authentic situation would have a liminal phase in between, in which the boundaries between personas are tested and muddled, but the actors, talented as I know they are, don’t bother with this. Exhibit B: in a Chinese restaurant, Law eats a cooked twin reptile and builds a gun out of its skeleton. He claims that it tastes disgusting and that he’s fighting his character’s urge to eat it and construct the gun but he’s failing poorly. Law’s poor acting shows no evidence of a genuine struggle, though; the whole time, we watch him merely tearing reptile flesh off the bone as if it were a tasty buffalo wing, and talking casually about the horror of it.

I could go on, and if I started now about the parts where the characters turn into frozen bodies shouting icy-venomous villainous platitudes, I wouldn’t stop. Granted, there are some strong performances on the sidelines: Ian Holm as a Russian surgeon focused on fixing diseased and wounded pods; Callum Keith Rennie, juggling multiple roles as seamlessly as one would expect Law and Leigh to; Oscar Hsu, doing all he can as a stereotyped Chinese waiter; and Sarah Polley, doing all she can in her very limited screen time. But that’s not enough to push this film above water. At the point when it ought to be devolving into disturbing incoherence, the story instead devolves into a somewhat straightforward shoot-‘em-up, ending with an inexplicable betrayal, followed by an absolute cop-out of a twist that negates the whole film, which itself turns out to be a lame false ending. Making a meta-film that lampoons cinema is not an excuse for subpar acting and a subpar story; there are great meta-films (Bergman’s Persona, for one) that have stripped cinema bare while retaining great performances and refusing to toss story to the wind. I’m on a downward trajectory with Cronenberg. First, I watched A History of Violence, which is a masterpiece; then Eastern Promises, which is fine; then Dead Ringers, which is masterful right up until its lackluster ending; then this, which is a disappointment. Someone please tell me which of his I should watch next.

Grade: C

Review: “eXistenZ”