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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The Atlantic: You saw that the Academy Awards recently held up your 2001 acceptance speech as the Platonic ideal of an Oscar speech. Did you have a reaction?

Soderbergh: Shock and dismay. When that popped up and people started texting me about it, I said, “Oh, it’s too bad I’m not there to tell the story of how that took place.” Well. I was not sober at the time. And I had nothing prepared because I knew I wasn’t going to win [Best Director for Traffic]. I figured Ridley, Ang or Daldry would win. So I was hitting the bar pretty hard, having a great night, feeling super-relaxed because I don’t have to get up there. So the combination of a 0.4 blood alcohol level and lack of preparation resulted in me, in my state of drunkenness crossed with adrenaline surge. I was coherent enough to know that [if I tried to thank everyone], that way lies destruction. So I went the other way. There were some people who appreciated that, and there were some people who really wanted to hear their names said, and I had to apologize to them.
~ Steven Soderbergh

 

“I have made few films in a way. I never made action films. I never made science fiction films. I never made, really, very complicated settings, because I had modest ambitions. I knew they would never trust me to have the budget to do something different, so my mind is more focused on things I know. So they were always mental adventures I wanted to approach and share. Working for cinema with no – not only no money, but also no ambition for money. I was happy and proud [to receive the honorary Oscar] because of that, that [the Academy] could understand what kind of work I have done over 60 years. I stayed faithful to the ideal of sharing emotion, impressions, and mostly because I have so much empathy for other people that I approach people who are not really spoken about. I have 65 years of work in my bag, and when I put the bag down, what comes out? It’s really the desire of finding links and relationships with different kinds of people. I never made a film about the bourgeoisie, about rich people. about nobility. My choices have been to show people that are, in a way, more common and see that each of them has something special and interesting, rare and beautiful. It’s my natural way of looking at people. I didn’t fight my instincts. And maybe that has been appreciated in the famous circle of Hollywood.“

Agnes Varda