More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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13 November (quotation added, 26 December ; link to a new review added, 1 January)
Director Yorgos Lanthimos (and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou) may tell us that they (intend to) subvert the notion of a film having a story with The Lobster (2015) – though they would hardly be the first, in the history of cinema, to set out to do so. Certainly, in the overlong first forty-five minutes¹, they may set up a situation that is relatively internally coherent², but it appears to be as a point of departure and contrast, and, until then, we could be frankly little less concerned or engaged with what is presented³.
For those who prefer a script, here is a link to that of the Pythons' marriage guidance counsellor sketch : https://t.co/it3O8v1Uf1— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) December 14, 2015
In the original t.v. series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Arthur Pewty (Michael Palin) and his wife Deirdre (Carol Cleveland) visiting the marriage guidance counsellor (Eric Idle)), unexpectedly disinhibited behaviour was used to provoke both shock and laughter (partly through shock / embarrassment, partly through incongruity). However, it was never more than a sketch, to which an end – of sorts – was brought (after Pewty has challenged the counsellor and, being told to go away, just does so) : the script has the direction Arthur is then hit in the head with a chicken by a man in a suit of armour.
Fourteen years later, with The Meaning of Life (1983), one essentially has a loosely connected series of sketches (as The Pythons themselves describe it and its genesis in The Pythons' Autobiography By The Pythons (heard via the audio CDs of the interviews)). There, the topic is revisited, as a lesson on sex education to a class of boys abruptly changes gear and (again provoking hilarity, for the reasons given) becomes a practical demonstration of sexual technique⁴.
-> Where John Cleese pulls down a four-poster bed, and starts demonstrating sexual techniques with a woman : https://t.co/s6fvwuUqOi— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) December 13, 2015
Into The Lobster, and - not for the first time - seemingly for no more than a gratuitous laugh (since the scene does not obviously have any bearing on what happens⁵), Lanthimos brings this familiar conceit, and adopts it as the inappropriate behaviour of two so-called loners (Colin Farrell (David) and Rachel Weisz (Short-sighted Woman)). In the film’s initial locale (which proves not to be unique in this regard), it dealt with, amongst other things, punishments for what the regime has decided are crimes, and retribution was both swift and Dante-esquely fitted to the offence : in all of this, a curious acquiescence, and with scant notion of rebellion or refusal. (Later on, as will be explored further, there is no sign that anything is different in another place, with other just as arbitrary prohibitions, and painful practices to secure compliance.)
@Saffronscreen @LobsterFilm It was certainly a film of two halves, but fortunately I liked them both :) I think I would choose Koala.— Paul Morrison (@psmorrison) December 15, 2015
If Farrell and Weisz’s [characters] bizarrely behaving in company has a meaning (beyond a laugh), it is, if not lost, almost submerged. Their trying too hard to look a couple (was Seydoux also meant to be one, with Smiley ?) has now become excessive, but we never did know the conceit behind their needing to be in the company of Seydoux’s parents and play up their status : earlier on, with his flowery speech, Farrell’s character had over-acted (more laughter), but it did not seem to have counted against him, but won him congratulation (though, one must repeat, seemingly purposelessly – what was all this pretence for (other than as a clothes-horse for gags), and to show Farrell better at it than someone else confronted in a shopping-centre).
However, if we do believe the narration (and it is open to question whether we should – please see below), the draconian prohibitions seemed never to have meant anything to Weisz and Farrell (the ‘love story’ that the poster promises ?). Indeed, beyond another joke - albeit, this time, in passing - with the idea of a coded, private language, there actually seems so much freedom (and absence of surveillance or control) that we have scant evidence of needing the elaborate communicative subterfuges of which we are told in the narration (designed, by making Semaphore sound like child’s play, to amuse : as can be seen in this video-clip, linked from the web-site of rottentomatoes.com, @RottenTomatoes).
In fact, having lovers with their (actually or imagined) unseen ruses is no more unique as a subject of comedy than the Pythonesque excess (and it may actually be from another Python sketch, where the team ridicules romanticism – if not from Woody Allen (doing the same with Russian literature) in Love and Death (1975) ?). For The Telegraph (though seemingly only as an endorsement, not as any review that one can conventionally find), Robbie Collin calls the film ‘dizzyingly funny’, but one has to ask, if so, how much other humour he knows, for the first part of the film, when it is not setting out to shock (which it manages with some skill), is arguably not breaking new ground, but doing no more than stringing together largely unrelated satirical material.
Too much, and not all that interestingly, revolves [the wisdom / content of] adages and truisms such as Alone in a crowd, Love will find a way, Birds of a feather flock together, Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and the film actually spends a lot of its extended opening doing no more than exaggerating, in the form of a rigid hierarchy, how those who are not in a couple can be ostracized (often in ways no less cutting than here, if more subtle). (Although we largely leave this setting behind, there is a foray back, but it also serves no clear purpose : it confronts selected people with the truth, but, at best, this sequence really only seems designed to challenge ourselves, with our on-screen desire for blood and retribution [as Haneke does in Funny Games (1997)], and not to move anything on in structural terms.)
As a point of reference in Lanthimos' films, and not, of course, to say that he (or his co-writer Filippou) has to do the same again, their last feature-film Alps (Alpeis) (2011) (of which a review is, as yet, still incomplete) also gives us the arbitrary assumption and use of power, at times to violent effect, in a reality that resembles ours, but yet is of its own kind. (As one reviewer of The Lobster remarks (Nick Pinkerton – please see below), the world we are introduced to looks very much like our own in the present day—specifically Ireland, where the film was shot.)
Alps works by duration and disturbingly, by playing out a few strands, principally through one central character. What governs those strands, though not incomprehensible on the level of agreed rules (if agreed under threat), defies being accepted or assimilated because of what it demands. There, Lanthimos achieves his aim without additional elements, baffling us not as to those rules per se, but as to what it implies about this world that things are as they are – again, a world recognizably ours, and so it makes us ask, in our disquiet, why it came to be that way.
[This words displayed above are from a review by Neil White (@everyfilmdteled) who, seemingly insufficiently content with the demands of being Editor of The Derby Telegraph (!), every year sets himself a challenge (largely given by his Twitter-name) : to review it for his blog, trying to watch every film released in the UK, and clocking up hundreds in the attempt. He seems to have surprised himself by now warming to Lanthimos…]
Prompted by reviewing Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster (2015), and only thee years overdue, a review of Alps (2011) : https://t.co/41ZgQ7KiwA— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 1, 2016
If artistry does come into this film, it does not consist in an ill-judged and repeated failure to resist the temptation to tell a gag (even in the service of superficially giving The Lobster commercial credentials ?), or even in the ‘unconventional love story’ that the poster wants to promote : that part of the story may be, in terms of the rules that are accepted to apply to forbid it, subversive or transgressive, but one can still effectively ask So what ?, because, despite the blatant reference in the first few minutes, we are not talking of those in the position of a Winston Smith or a Julia.
[As alluded to above, there is underground activity, but scarcely in the same way (since it seems centred more on survival ?), and with no real rationale that the screenplay cares to give. At the same time, an absurdist claim could, of course, be made : to show what one will to challenge perceived notions of reality / rationality… Then one is in the territory of Holy Motors (2012), which, however much it may reference cinematic history, for some has a fairly tenuous basis for what it does, and one which also – much more extensively and explicitly – seeks to include discrete and disparate episodes by means of a very modest (undeveloped ?) linking device.]
Though maybe – just maybe – The Lobster is doing something, and much more subtle, that is to do with what it means to use an authorial voice (of, one has to suggest, doubtful reliability therefore) ? Partly on account of the bipartite nature of the film, the narrator is unplaced for a very long while : during that time, and in a cursorily fleeting way, the voice tells us what the loners, as a category, do that means that they behave indistinguishably and as a group. (It is another gag, this time oral, and at the expense of those who listen to electronic music (though headphones), but the jibe comes, and it goes : except to recur as a visual joke, with people in one place, but dancing separately to what they are listening to, it expendably seems to lack rootedness in the fabric of the whole.)
As elsewhere – in a distinctively brittle, almost dry, manner – we were told this so matter-of-factly, so unemotionally, that we might have started wondering why any of this is being told at all (and whether whoever the narrator is pictures it to herself as a story that, maybe unwillingly, she believes). Indeed, just after the brief initial scene, and the shot of Farrell over his right shoulder (which very gently telescopes in on him), we hear this voice, telling us what ‘he’ did, and how he chose his brown shoes : only was there the suggestion, right from the off, that this was an adapted short story or novella ?
The Lobster uses that form, and sometimes the voice-over is very present – and not always adding, but, by over-interpreting or even unnecessarily stating what can be seen, it acts to interpose itself between us and the on-screen world, i.e. an alienation technique (Verfremdungseffekt). (Other reviewers have commented on the stiltedness of the characters' speech. [So, for example, Nick Pinkerton (please also see below) writes all of them deliver dialogue in much the same mannered, tin-eared cadence : unvaryingly measured, stilted in tone, unnervingly to-the-point, and devoid of any softening niceties.] However, if one regards those who are speaking as created by, or creatures of, the narrator, that quality is put in another context : it remains, as it ever is, meaningless to talk about 'what really happened', but here the film is well nigh brought into existence by the voice that tells it.)
At other times, though, it is quite absent, and it seems possible that the device may have been abandoned, yet not, for example, with what happened in The Transformation Room : let alone how what, in general terms, is supposed to have happened there took place, we are kept outside the door that we see Farrell go through. The voice's ignorance (of what went on), that of the unknown 'she', becomes ours – but, in the first place, we only know any of this by placing credence in what the voice tells us, and we might wish to reflect on the silence and the lapse of time with which the film concludes…
Of course, the deliberate allusion to Room 101 put one in mind of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but, along with thinking that we are in the dystopian genre³, it is probably a misdirection to see Orwell here any more than to make a connection that, in a way, is just as much there with Animal Farm.
Can gestures towards Orwell, or a Sophoclean sense of justice, blind us (sic) to the effect of the narrative voice in The Lobster (2015) ?— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) December 17, 2015
For those in search of other thoughts :
* This review (from Nick Pinkerton, of Reverse Shot), from which there have been quotations above, may tell too much for those who have not yet seen the film, but is interesting...
* Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian, has some good points to make, but lapses - in the third to the fifth paragraphs of his review - into telling us what happens, rather than why we should be watching. (As, for example, he did with a review of The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (2013)).
* Finally, with the review by Demetrios Matheou (The Arts Desk), we have to bear with his worryingly getting his facts wrong (such as calling Farrell’s character John (not David), and saying that he has been widowed), but it is worth a read.
¹ Except on the level that the film creates a desire, for this scenario in the screenplay not to continue as it is, which is then sated – even if we scarcely welcome what takes its place, or how that resolves…
² By contrast, those who have read in David Eagleman’s small collection Sum : Tales from the Afterlives will know the superlative concision and exactness with which he conceives of numerous different futures.
³ People who only choose to look at the world within the film as dystopian are thereby easily failing to credit that elements of it, at least, operate not only on the level of satire, but also of allegory : does calling this filmed world a dystopia, by imagining it as a possible future, thereby miss its applicability, as a deliberate distortion, to our present social norms, practices and trends (such as our expectations of couples, or of single people, and how they may tend to stay with their own kind) ?
⁴ Other examples surely abound, but Hale and Pace (not a little obsessed with a stereotypically sexual portrayal of Sweden) could not resist confronting a British couple with a Swedish one, being unnecessarily frank.
⁵ * Contains spoilers * If it is what did change anything (and not what, nearer the relevant time, we hear read aloud), we never have any idea, in all honesty, whether there is an ultimate and licensed aim that their Leader (Léa Seydoux), at whose instigation they are acting, when she, they and one other loner (Michael Smiley) make it The City for short periods, pretending that they belong there.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)