Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Lobster (Movie Review)

The Lobster is a dark utopia/dystopia movie from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. If you've seen it, or don't plan to ever see it but you have a keen interest in what it's all about, this is for you.

If you haven't seen it but it's on your to-do list, click away, because this is full of spoilers.

The Lobster tells the story of David (Colin Farrell), a lonely man in his mid-40s whose wife has left him for another man. David's tale, narrated by a woman we'll meet much later, takes place in a utopian/dystopian society structured on a rigid system of mandatory marriage, with dire consequences for single people. All single adults are compulsorily sent to The Hotel, an institution where they are expected to meet and marry a mate within 45 days. David arrives at the Hotel with a shaggy dog that he introduces as his brother. This is when we learn the fate of anyone still single after 45 days. They're transformed into an animal of their choosing, called a "second chance" animal. Second chance, meaning that they failed to pair up with another person, but maybe they'll have more luck as an animal. David already knows that he will choose to become a lobster. He explains his choice to the Hotel owner during his admittance interview.
"Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much."
If you're a Hotel resident, you can get additional days added to your alloted 45, and that's primarily based on your rate of success during after-dark field trips hunting Loners. Loners are single people hiding in the woods. Along with an allotment of identical clothing, including the same dress for every woman to wear to eerily joyless weekly dances, all Hotel residents recieve the same black hunting coat to hang on the same peg along with same hunting rifle in their rooms. It shoots tranquilizer darts.

Through David and the other Hotel residents, we come to understand that this system is generally accepted, so we, too, must accept this reality. Accept that being single is against the rules. Accept that the Loners are criminals and you need to hunt them down and bring them to the Hotel. Accept that you are required to match your spouse in ways that you and I consider astonishingly superficial. A limping man who can't find another Hotel resident with a limp does find a woman who gets frequent, sudden nosebleeds, so he slams himself in the nose regularly in order to "match" her, marry her, and escape the trip to animal room. Accept, even, that there's this room where humans are transformed into beasts of the land, sky and sea. As a constant reminder, animals are casually roaming the grounds and the woods. A peacock, a wild boar, lots of dogs. A young blonde woman that David meets by the pool is unapologetically critical of his thinning hair, and she is overly fond of her own long, luxurious locks. Once her 45 days are up, there's a pony with long, luxurious blonde mane and tail.

Though this bizarre reality is neither explained nor challenged, it is justified by the Hotel owners at daily assemblies. They give cautionary lectures about the dangers of being single, and Hotel staff woodenly perform skits. One skit demonstrates that a woman walking alone will most certainly be raped, but she's safe walking with her husband. David questions the institutional policies only once. In order to maximize the sexual desire of the men so that they'll be suitably aggressive in their pursuit of a wife, every night an attractive French maid lifts her skirt and grinds against him until he's fully erect. The maid comments on David's relative hardness compared to last night. David quietly mumbles that this nightly ritual is cruel. Masturbation is strictly prohibited and the punishment for getting caught is painful and public.

We are conditioned as audience members to root for a story's protagonist, especially when he or she is an honest, brave rebel, a noble hero whose role is to challenge injustice and lead an alliance that will unseat corrupt and wrongheaded rulers. When the citizenry is oppressed by the power elite that strips free will and stamps out individuality, he's David versus Goliath. But this David is pale, shy and bespectacled. He's not the most sparkling conversationalist. His unremarkable face is fixed in a gloomy, hangdog expression. He's tubby around the middle. He's nobody, he's anybody.

Near the end of his 45 days, desperate to escape becoming a lobster, David feigns being a cold-hearted sociopath in order to match a marginally attractive woman who is a truly cold-hearted sociopath.

***Last Chance. Spoilers.***

David tries, but cannot hide his shock and grief when his mentally unhinged new wife wakes him from a sound sleep, drenched in blood after she's kicked his brother to death. Caught expressing an emotion, he's outed. He doesn't match her at all. She taunts him, grabs hold of him and starts to pull him towards the Hotel owners' room to tell them that he's a fraud. He'll be turned into a lobster immediately. He breaks free of her grip and runs. After a cartoonish chase through the Hotel, the French maid helps him knock out the killer wife with a tranquilizer dart. The maid is a spy for the Loners. She helps him drag the crazy wife to the animal room, where he turns her into an animal and then escapes, finding refuge in the woods, where he joins the Loners.

What animal does David's wife become? We don't know. That's because the narrator doesn't know. She is one of the Loners, a raven-haired nearsighted woman (Rachel Weisz). Up until David escapes to the woods, this whole story has been told to us by the narrator, based on what David has told her, and he never told her what animal is his former wife.

Though he's escaped The Hotel, we quickly find out it's a frying pan/fire situation. The Loner leader is French, she's beautiful, she's authoritative and she's another sociopath. Under her rule there is mandatory singleness in the woods, and it's just as exacting and ruthless as the marriage law. Even two people dancing together is strictly forbidden. Sexual contact carries consquences worse than being turned into an animal. One of the Loners has a bloodied bandage over his mouth, and the narrator tells of the Red Kiss -- mutilation of the mouths of people caught kissing. She speaks in a shuddering tone of the Red Intercourse. The Loner leader coldly orders every Loner to find a good spot and dig their own grave. If a Loner gets injured, they shouldn't expect to be helped. They should just go straight to their grave, lie in it and cover themselves with dirt. Make it deep enough, and cover yourself with enough dirt so that the dogs don't eat your face.

That David and the nearsighed woman fall in love is inevitable. For starters, conditioned to find a spouse based on commonalities, they're both in need of glasses, though hers are long lost. She and David take a lot of chances as they carry out their secret affair amongst the Loners. On supply runs into The City, the Loner leader pairs them together to pose as a married couple, which they exploit by passionately kissing and groping in full view of the other Loners. Back in the woods, they develop an elaborate system of not-at-all subtle charades so that they can communicate from a distance.

The secret lovers are found out. The diabolical Loner leader tricks the nearsighted woman into accompanying her into The City for corrective surgery for her nearsightedness. It's a ruse. She's blinded as punishment for breaking the rules. At first she tries to hide her blindness from David, but that lasts about five minutes. When he finds out, he digs deep for courage and heroically bests the cruel Loner leader, immobilizing her and leaving her in his own shallow grave that she'd made him dig. He doesn't cover her face with dirt.

Before the scene cuts to David and his blind lover running towards The City, we see the Loner leader lying in the shallow grave. Some dogs approach and begin circling her. David gets a strange look on his face...did he turn his crazy dog-killing wife into a dog? Is that her? He seems pretty sure the Loner leader is doomed, so it is possible that he recognizes one of the approaching dogs as fully capable of dispassionate face-eating.

In the final scene, the runaway couple sit across from each other in a restaurant. They are free, they got out, surely they can get far enough away, get new identities, get married. But this is not a "happily ever after" story.

David asks the waiter for a steak knife. "I'll be right back," he tells her. In the men's room, David stands at the mirror, sharp knife point an inch from his eye. She waits for a long time. He doesn't come. Cut to black.

A great deal of the discussion about The Lobster hinges on this ending. If you love the movie, you are okay with this ending. If you hate the movie, cutting to black with no resolve seals its fate for you.

One might think the whole situation makes no sense. If they're both blind, how will they manage? Isn't it better if he can see, so they can both get away? He has already proven, back in the woods, that he's kind and patient and willing to help her and guide her. But that's what makes sense in the world you and I occupy. In this world, you have to match your spouse, so he needs to be blind. In this world, you don't get approval to be together unless you match.

Here is what we know. We know you have to match, not what's in your heart, soul or mind, but match in ways such as limping, lisping, nosebleeds, nearsightedness, even diabolical heartlessness.

We also know the dire importance of sacrificing yourself for the person you claim to love. This is set up earlier, when the Loners carry out a blitz attack on the Hotel. It's a siege they've been planning for months. The Loner leader carries a comically huge handgun. But the attack isn't violent. It's psychological. For his part, David accosts the nosebleed couple, revealing to the woman that her husband is a faker. While he's doing that, the Hotel owners are being forced to prove they love each other. The Loner leader makes the husband choose shooting his wife or saving himself. He saves himself. The gun isn't even loaded, but the silence between the stunned Hotel owners is, and the Loners depart with mission accomplished.

We also know what happens when an adult is found alone. On one of the supply runs to The City, cops stop David and demand to see his papers proving he isn't single. An older woman is also stopped. While David is rescued by his nearsighted secret lover who arrives at his side just in time to convincingly play the role of his wife, the older woman isn't so lucky. She gets forced to her knees, she's about to be hauled off to the Hotel.

So what happens? Based on what we know? David does not come back from the men's room. He does not thrust the steak knife into his eyes. He can't do it. But he also can't go back and face her, having failed as a man. He saves himself, a cowardly and unforgiveable act. If he loves her enough, he'll do it. Does he consider why, if she loves him, she'd let him blind himself and in such a painful, bloody way?

Found alone at the restaurant with no papers and unable to make her way back to the woods, our narrator is most certainly arrested. Through her deadened quality of tone and the story's past tense, she's telling this whole tale to the Hotel owners during her admittance interview.

Though there's an outside chance that David made it back to the woods to eke out an existence with the remaining Loners, it is far more likely that he's been arrested and turned into a lobster. The movie isn't called "The Loner Who Got Away."

The brilliance of The Lobster is its understated resoluteness in its portrayal of an uncompromising lifestyle holocaust. It normalizes decent people hunted and punished for the crime of having the wrong marital status, while dangerous criminals are pretty safe as long as they're married.

Being asked to simply accept this strange truth puts The Lobster in league with stories like The Handmaid's Tale, Divergent, Brave New World and The Hunger Games, but it'll also find a fan base among those who appreciate writings of the absurd and satire.

The fact that we're not given any history about how long this strict societal framework has been in place is a sign that it's been a long time, maybe always. We don't know for sure because there's no Morpheus to explain, there's no Kyle Reese, no scrolling screed at the start to tell us who are the oppressors and who are the rebel alliance. That lack of explanation is deliberate. It points up our own mainstream society's absurd norms. In The Lobster, the mainstream legislates against being single. Is it so different from leaders legislating the right and wrong lifestyle for you and me? The "family values" platform pushes the doctrine that same-sex togetherness is an abomination. If they could mandate a hetero lifestyle, don't you think they would? And if they could "cure" homosexuality through some transformative device, wouldn't they put one in every hospital?

For that matter, isn't there a stigma attached to over-40 single men and women? Why the different income tax rules for single versus married? Why do women need to pick from salutations on those online registration forms, but men get to always be Mr.?

Shining a bright, harsh light on man's inhumanity towards fellow man is what absurdism, satire and the dystopic genres seek to do, and this movie nails it. From the moment David shows up at The Hotel calmly leading his brother on a leash, The Lobster wraps the audience in the icy embrace of this uncompromising reality. It's unnerving, twisted and strange, but rife with amplified themes that deal with the rampant absurdity we encounter every day in our comparatively "normal" lives.