In Cannes the pervasive mood of buzz and business really begs for comedy, and Yorgos Lanthimos's English-language debut The Lobster, so far the best film in the competition, was a much-needed intervention of the absurd at the festival. This came additionally as a surprise to me because I've never been a fan of the Greek director of Dogtooth and Alps, preferring instead the work by his producer, Athina Rachel Tsangari, who made Attenburg. But in a festival whose thread of a theme this year of the intrinsic human difficulty of romantic relationships (In the Shadow of Women, My Golden Days, Carol), The Lobster wonderfully refracts these concerns of grave emotional drama into a precise, gimmick-bound dark comedy. Surprisingly touching, it takes adult worries over loneliness, solitude and coupledom and sends them into a perverse alternate world where single people are punished for their social status by being sent to a kind of asylum-cum-spa that re-trains them for relationships—or else they are deemed unpairable and turned into an animal of their choice.
We learn all this after a preface of a woman driving into the countryside and executing one of a pair of donkeys—it is possible the victim was her husband, and possible too he had been "cheating" with the other donkey—through Colin Farrell's schlubby single man, who is escorted to this resort-prison and inducted into its rituals. Lanthimos loves these kinds of nested communities, where a subgroup operates according to rules which for them accentuate and reinforce society's standards and conventions, and for us parody our own world through these starkly surreal and absurd games. The animal transformations, regularized sexual teasing of inmates by staff members (masturbation is strictly forbidden), and the group hunting of solitary social exiles living in the forest are all examples of Lanthimos's technique of directly presenting an alternate world as something accepted as normal by its participants. Everyone's behavior is ridiculous, from the affectless dialog to arbitrary, gag-like details of this world's requirements—for example, everyone has a notable feature, like a limp or short-sightedness, and one needs to find a partner with the same—and obscure punishments: John C. Reilly, in a role welcomely harkening back to his comedic work with Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights, is punished for masturbating by putting his hand in a toaster oven during breakfast and being threatened to be turned into one of the lesser animals.
Unlike in Garrone's awkward Tale of Tales, here English is surprisingly well adapted for the bizarre attitude towards dialog of the same director's Dogtooth and Alps; in this world, words are declarative, functional and often somewhat off-kilter from what is normal, and behavior is stark and presentational. What these characters are doing, how they talk and live would be considered performance art by those around them if those people too didn't subscribe to the notion that this is how one must talk, how one must behave. (In this way, Lantimos follows in the footsteps of David Lynch and Harmony Korine, both of whose work veers close towards video art.) The Lobster is no doubt what our world might look like to an alien visitor.
Indeed, watching the film is like observing some alien game played in front of you, the pleasure derived both from puzzling out the rules and the surprise of what is or is not allowed, how it must be played. This creates a sense of discovery as the film unfolds, as one never knows just when we'll stop being introduced to new restrictions, and new reactions to those restrictions by our characters; but it also makes me wonder just how much pleasure will be missing from the film upon a second or third or fourth viewing. Such game playing with alien rules suggests that the director should perhaps take a turn at re-making The Prisoner, as his films feel so much like prison movies, films made about the world's constraint, society's assumptions and conventions being jailing and bizarre, and how terrible but also wonderful people can act within such confines. While doing target practice at the hotel/prison/re-education camp, one guard remarks that "it is no coincidence that the targets are shaped like single people, not couples," for this is a world that does not tolerate solitude, where the solitary are a band of guerrilla-like forest dwellers who themselves ruthlessly uphold a ruleset to enforce their philosophy. (A typical gag: this band of the solitary love to dance, but they must dance only by themselves, with headphones on, and only to electronic music. A non-sequitur joke in dialog, we later get a cute tableaux of a dozen rebels dancing in the night each alone with themselves.) Even outside the enclosure of the the re-education hotel, the world seems stuck in its own confines.
The Greek director's move to making an English film has understandably removed his shenanigans from the potent context of working within his troubled nation, and certainly while life in the United Kingdom is skewered here the film is after broader rather than more specific satire, that of the codes and conditions for romance and family, the culture of the unmarried and unattached. (The drollness of humor, deeply committed caricatures, and extreme formal precise may make this film quite receptive to a jury headed by the Coen brothers.) These are themes found all over the Festival de Cannes this year, many asking hard questions about how to life and love, but The Lobster does not merely observe. Lanthimos sees direction as a kind of intervention, he steps into the normal world and torques and twists it until the relationships and the story are the stuff of everyday yet as if re-presented, re-acted (or reenacted, as in his debut, Kinetta), taking such conventions to an extreme of silliness, of gravity, of violence. In fact, cinema may in fact confine this artist, the limits of the camera's frame cutting off the interaction of his absurd version of our world from our world; it would not surprise me if he took the kind of video and performance art aspects of his dramas and in fact staged them live, intervening directly into society.
I'm not sure why The Lobster particularly resonated for me while the director's work in the past has not; maybe I'm just no longer as bothered by the upfront gimmick of this approach, its deadpan smirk, its cute hyper-conceptualization. Or perhaps Colin Farrell's soulful eyes and droopy mustache, used so well by Terence Malick and Michael Mann, carried some kind of special charm, combined by woodland isolatee Rachel Weisz's sweet empathy. It is a tremendously handsome picture, and very funny, and I think for all its jokes and provocations there's a real tenderness in its air, a quiet desperation that Farrell and Weisz uphold within their characters that can never be pranked or truly satirized by the director.
I will leave Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Day to a more eloquent critic here with me in Cannes, Gabe Klinger, but I do want to remark on my favorite sequence so far at this festival: a simple walk home between boy and girl. The boy is Quentin Dolmaire's Paul, a sleek-faced, pretty and pensive teenage incarnation of Mathieu Amalric's academic in Desplechin's masterpiece My Sex Life...or How I Got Into An Argument (1996), for which this film is a kind of prequel and epilogue. The girl is Lou Roy-Lecollinet's Esther, with whom Paul in this film and in My Sex Life (where she is played by Emmanuel Devos) will have a relationship as tempestuous as it is full of adoration. This walk home from a party, done during a dawn of pale blue and dusky pinks, is almost like a first date, the dialog tentative and uninteresting, the moments side by side promising but withheld, very young. A low angle shot under a small incline is a direct quotation from the sweet promenade in Mizoguchi's in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (coincidentally being shown later in the festival in the Cannes Classics section), a brief stop at a railway bridge likewise captures this ethereal feeling of the two, this moment, and this scene being at once old and young, artificial and natural, studio cinema and personal cinema. It ends with a kiss so well earned from previous flirtations and from this tender walk in dawn I really thought it one of cinema's great kisses, so imbued by the chemistry of these actors and the attraction of these characters.
At its best, Desplechin's film is rife with such moments that move so fluidly, so at one with narrative propulsion and emotional precision that one hardly watches the drama but rather we simply live as it happens. Yet the film is a memoir of another film, both perhaps intertwined in the director's own life, so who knows what is strictly Paul's and what is Arnaud's or what is the two as one. It takes place in the past, and the director, as is his wont, cuts often and moves the camera a great deal: this is hardly the realism or naturalism usually ascribed to movies. Instead, it is the energy of affect, of feeling and sensibility transformed into storytelling, amorous chemistry and friction, and the capturing of memories made fresh.