The tyranny of coupledom and the arrogance of singletons both receive savagely satirical treatment in The Lobster, the latest provocation from Yorgos Lanthimos, which just won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Greek director of Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) makes his English language debut with this film, continuing his construction of hermetic social situations governed by oppressive laws and rituals, here with a star-studded cast and a larger canvas but more problematic results.
The film takes place in a world in which single people are herded into “hotels” and forced to pair up or otherwise meet an undesirable fate. “The fact that you’ll be turned into an animal if you fail to find a partner within 45 days shouldn’t get you down or upset you,” intones the scarily self-possessed manager (the ubiquitous Olivia Colman) to David (Colin Farrell), who’s just been dumped by his wife and is thus a new “guest” at the venue. It’s David whose progress we follow, as he arrives with his dog (formerly his brother), meets new fellow residents (among them, Ben Whishaw’s “Limping Man” and John C. Reilly’s “Lisping Man”), and attempts to find a match among the women there. Following two violent acts, David escapes, however, seeking refuge in the nearby woods with “the Loners”, an outlaw group who, it turns out, are every bit as hard-line in their views as those from whom David has just fled.
Despite several reservations (notably about the film’s use of voiceover, which is every bit as disastrous as that of Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, and considerably more strident), I was on board with The Lobster for about half of its running time. Lanthimos introduces the hotel’s rules and rituals with skill: corporal punishment for masturbation; plays that illustrate the grave dangers that single people are subject to; and a hilariously awful “mingling” session scored to “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (“Scarlet for me, scarlet for you…”). Through such elements, the movie offers some great critique of binary thinking (neither half-sizes for clothes nor a bisexual option are available at this hotel) and anti-miscegenation views. “A wolf and a pig can never live together,” David is firmly informed.
In ”taking all these behaviours, codes, pressures, norms, and rules that we have and observing them in a more exaggerated way,” as the director puts it, The Lobster succeeds in carrying our culture’s couples-emphasis to entertainingly crazy extremes. At its best, the movie offers a mordantly funny rejoinder both to the kind of rhetoric that tells us that married people will inevitably live longer than single ones, and to a “swipe-right” society that reduces the complexities of human personality to one or two easily identifiable characteristics.
Lanthimos’s talent is for disturbing deadpan augmented by jarring jolts of violence. The tone is often slippery, and it seems appropriate that people laugh at different times during the picture, with some scenes also generating gasps of shock. (Well, did you ever expect to see Colin Farrell kicking a little girl in a movie?) This director loves the bodily and the viscous, and scenes of violence, sex and animal cruelty generate queasy comedy and discordance from the startling opening sequence onwards.
Alas, the movie loses its assurance in the over-extended second half, in which David’s interactions with “the Loners” (led by Lea Seydoux’s dour militant and including Rachel Weisz, deliverer of that God-awful narration, with whom our hero inevitably falls in love) prove rather less effective. It makes sense that Lanthimos wants to balance the satire by illustrating the belligerence of the single “outlaws” too, but there’s a sense that he’s abandoned his early premise before truly exploring it in sufficient detail. (And whoever said that satire should to be “balanced”, anyway?)
As a result, the final section meanders; Lanthimos doesn’t know when to stop, unfortunately, and the movie ultimately produces recoil rather than engagement. It’s possible to detect a sour conservative note to the proceedings, too. The Lobster is never less than distinctive in its look and attitude, but ultimately, for all its shock value and surprises the film ultimately transforms itself into that most conventional of items: a heterosexual-lovers-on-the-lam story.
Louder Than Bombs (dir. Joachim Trier)
Much more satisfying, for this viewer at least, was Louder Than Bombs, another English language debut film, this time from Joachim Trier whose Oslo, August 31st premiered in Un Certain Regard Cannes in 2011. Like Lanthimos, Trier also mobilises the talents of an international cast here, but in the service of a much warmer and more humane kind of eccentricity.
Film: Louder Than Bombs
Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Rachel Brosnahan, Amy Ryan, Gabriel Byrne, David Strathairn, Isabelle Huppert
The movie is concerned with the fallout of the death of a family matriarch. Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is a photojournalist who dies in a car crash, not long after — somewhat reluctantly — giving up her much-cherished profession. Sometime later, she’s to be the subject of a retrospective exhibition and article about her life and work, a happening that forces her family members — husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid) — to confront again a loss that they’ve each dealt with very differently.
Louder Than Bombs has some thematic affinities with Martin Crimp’s 1997 play Attempts On Her Life, which also deconstructed the life and work of an enigmatic female protagonist through the divergent versions of the people who knew her. The film might also be described as the movie that Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children (2014) wanted to be. Unlike Reitman, Trier here succeeds in holding a large-ish group of characters beautifully in balance, and doesn’t resort to using them to make clunky, didactic points.
Yes, the movie flirts with cliché in some character portrayals: the sullen, uncommunicative teen who’s obsessed with online gaming, for instance. But such characterisations receive interesting and unexpected twists, as the movie moves fluidly and elegantly between the protagonists, paying attention to their daily reality but also to their imaginings and dreams. (Those of us who grew up on ‘80s comedies will also thrill to the clip of Frank Perry’s Hello Again  that Trier incorporates at one point, to illustrate the past career of Byrne’s Gene, an ex-actor.)
Fine, nuanced performances from all of the cast are one of the movie’s primary pleasures. What I find most admirable about Louder Than Bombs, though, is its refusal to succumb to easy snark. The writing is witty and sharp, to be sure, but Trier clearly cares about these characters and ensures that we do, too. The movie stirs all sorts of personal feelings, and the mixture of plainness and flourish in its aesthetic creates a fresh, resonant and absorbing family portrait.