By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: The Lobster

It’s not that The Lobster is particularly difficult to crack—it’s that there just may not be enough meat inside once you do.

The Lobster_0

It’s the kind of film that’s expected from Yorgos Lanthimos, the cinematically unkind filmmaker who brought us 2009’s Dogtooth. Lanthimos’ tendencies are to subvert the norm and to make you squirm, and in his Competition debut he succeeds in a number of ways. So if that’s what The Lobster is pinching at, then so be it—but be wary if this film is touted as something deeper than the shallow bisque it stews in.

The premise—hell, the logline—is enough to pack the Lumière to the gills at 8:30 AM, because The Lobster is a real beast of an idea: in an alternate dystopia, men and women who remain Alone (capital A) are eventually sentenced to be transformed into an animal, mostly of their choosing, if they can’t find a mate in time. We’re centered around David (Colin Farrell), a man with a flat personality who joins a “hotel” complete with seminars and junior high dances to encourage romantic encounters—or fake them entirely.

Ever wondered why there’s so many dogs running around? The film answers that by suggesting it’s the default (read: basic) option for people to give up and become pooches, which is one of the few really great ideas that the film teases out over two hours. Except those ideas become played out by around the 45-minute mark, which is another way of saying for a while there, I was having a great time watching a normcore/dad-mode Colin Farrell play romantic Hunger Games with women he has zero or sub-zero chemistry with. 45 days to find a mate? What do you do? What do you do on your last day as a human? Don’t spend it copulating or running around the field—those are things you can do as an animal. Spend it reading high literature, or in one case, spend it watching Stand By Me, an “excellent film.”

There are some laughs here, and definitely a couple grins. Like when asked what animal he would want to become if he fails to find a partner, David replies with the title of the film, and moments like these the script is winking at its most apparent. But the crustacean as a visual image is a motif that’s expressed a little too enthusiastically for it to be nuanced or subtle, and when the film leaves its shell and enters a third act where we meet a rebellious Léa Seydoux and our mysterious narrator (Rachel Weisz), the off-putting brine comes to a boil. The film mostly falls apart.

In fact, it’s the austerity and punishment of Lanthimos’ black comedy or dark drama that is too cute and bizarre for its own good. It’s entertaining and brow-raising for about the same amount of time as the premise holds. The result: an exercise in alienating an audience, with an ending that is eager to isolate the squeamish in the crowd and laugh at them. Mission accomplished.

I reject the idea that the last thirty minutes are too strange for me, or that I missed the point. (Realistically, I don’t think anything is stranger than the film’s initial hook.) It’s that it becomes visually dull and excruciatingly awkward in a way that isn’t as clever as Lanthimos thinks it is. I read not a week ago that many chefs believe stunning or attempting to stab a lobster while you’re cooking it will release chemicals that ruins the taste. Maybe, in the writing phase somewhere, something similar happened: this auteur had a live one, but in wrestling it to the screen, the meat somehow became spoiled.

 

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas