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“How do you even act in something like this? It was so bizarre. There’s no human reference that I know of to go, ‘Oh, I remember when something like that happened to me before.’ It’s so out there.”–Colin Farrel on acting in The Lobster
PLOT: In a future dystopia, every adult must be in a mandatory romantic relationship or they are sent to a state-run hotel to find a mate within 45 days, to be turned into an animal of their choice if they fail. David is a short-sighted architect whose wife leaves him for another man, necessitating his visit to the hotel with his dog (formerly brother) Bob. He tries to find a legitimate match, pretend to fall in love with another resident, or failing either of those options, to escape to the forest where a small band of renegade singles live.
This is Greek Giorgos Lanthimos’s first English language feature film.
Writer Efthymis Filippou has co-written Giorgos Lanthimos’s last three features (the other two are the Certified Weird Dogtooth and Alps), and actress Aggeliki Papoulia has had a prominent role in each.
The Lobster won the Jury Prize (essentially, third place) at Cannes in 2015 (Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan won the Palme D’or, while the holocaust drama and future Academy Award winner Son of Saul took the Grand Prix).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: This is a tough one, because—the beautiful photography of the County Kerry countryside and the classical elegance of the Parknasilla Resort notwithstanding—The Lobster‘s bizarre situations and crazy concepts hit harder than its imagery does. I considered the scene where the woman shoots a donkey in a field, or a subtle scene where the Loner Leader and the Maid are sitting in the forest and a two-humped camel casually saunters by in the background. Ultimately, I chose David and short-sighted woman’s wildly inappropriate makeout scene, which supplies one of this very drily hilarious movie’s biggest belly laughs.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Donkey assassination; Heimlich theater; psychopath trial relationship
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Lobster is Giorgos Lanthimos’s idea of a romantic comedy: a cruel farce with bizarre but relentlessly consistent logic, enacted by a cast who show no emotions. Really, it’s more of a romantic horror/comedy. The style represents one of my favorite types of weird movies: one that takes the world we know, changes one or two of the basic rules, and then runs all the way with its premise to a bizarre conclusion dictated by its world’s rejigged logic.
PLOT: A group of four people act as stand-ins for deceased loved ones to help families with the grieving process.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alps feels like a faint echo of director Lanthimos‘ surprise (and Certified Weird) hit debut, Dogtooth. It has weaknesses typical of a sophomore effort: stylistically, it doesn’t distinguish itself from its predecessor, and conceptually it seems second tier, like an idea that was passed over and saved for later.
COMMENTS: There is a plot to Alps, but it’s secondary. This movie is more of a mood. The mood is muted anguish. If you were to watch Alps without reading the one-sentence synopsis, you would go through the early stages of the film baffled by the odd and strained relationships of the characters to each other; even armed with knowledge of the premise, there are moments in the story when you will question what’s “reality” and what’s an act. The slow-developing narrative concerns people who serve as emotional prostitutes for the bereaved, and (predictably) the strange and intense job (or hobby, since the actors’ motivations are never made clear) eventually takes a psychic toll on the chief protagonist. The story doesn’t develop in a particularly interesting way, however; Lanthimos’ interest is more in creating an alienated mise-en-scene than in telling a story about the emotional toll of being a stand-in for deceased loved ones. Alps features flat-affect characters who respond to tragedy with mundane conversation about coffee mugs and lamp taxonomies, awkward hugs and gawky lovemaking, framing that’s deliberately off, with chopped off heads and characters speaking from off-screen, out of focus backgrounds, bilious lighting, and other unnerving effects that, piled on top of each other one after another, create a growing sense of existential nausea. Almost all conversations are clipped and nearly emotionless, but often interrupted by odd behavior—as when the nurse tries to play tennis with a nearly comatose patient or the gymnast suddenly strips topless and stretches her leg above her head while talking to her coach. Aggeliki Papoulia alone of the cast allowed to show any real emotion, and then only pain and desperate despair at the very end. Every character has a perpetual look of buried sadness, and the surrogate loved ones, who perform their substitutions like amateur robots, can hardly supply any comfort to the bereaved when they have no warmth or passion in their own lives. Alps presents us with a depressing, autistic world, where the possibility of a human connection is a bitter joke. But… how does all this social anomie among the living connect back to the movie’s ostensible theme of grief? Is this movie about the way the living remember the dead, or is it about the living dead? In Dogtooth, the isolated children had a reason for acting relentlessly odd, and that movie had a metaphorical conceit that gave it form. Alps radiates a shapeless pessimism that is especially nasty because it has no cause or focus. Where Dogtooth was like a smack in the molar with a brick, Alps is like a throbbing toothache that won’t go away.
If you want to know what it’s like to feel suicidal in Eastern Europe today, try watching a triple feature of the New Weird Greek canon: start with Dogtooth, follow up with Attenberg(starring Labed as an alienated, asexual woman with a dying dad), and use this one as the final nail in the coffin.
PLOT: A strange young woman tries to cope with her father’s impending death and her disgust at human sexuality with the help of her equally odd but extremely promiscuous best friend.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because you can use the first scene, which begins with the least erotic lesbian kiss ever put on screen and ends with the two girls dropping on all fours and hissing at each other like cats in heat, to clear any unwanted squares out of the room.
COMMENTS: “If ever there was a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla,” proclaims Sir David Attenborough from the TV screen—but that’s only because he never met Marina. The conceit in this study of the ineffable otherness of others is that we watch Marina and her friend Bella as if we’re watching a nature documentary about creatures whose rituals we can only dimly grasp, but not entirely understand. To remind us of that fact, the pair will break into weird dances of their own invention, or suddenly slip into animalistic hissing, spitting, and primal chest pounding. Yet, despite these alienating narrative techniques, we still manage to sympathize with strange Marina, thanks to Ariane Labed’s affectingly melancholy performance and confident direction which manages to keep the uncomfortably absurd from sliding into the merely laughable (as many commentators have pointed out, the girls’ dances are reminiscent of outtakes from Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, only with more crotch-grabbing). Even when the movie avoids experimentation and plays it straight, Marina is one odd bird. She believes herself to be asexual but forces herself to practice French kissing with her best friend, and eventually to seduce a visiting engineer (played by Dogtooth director Lanthimos). The resulting sex scenes are so painfully awkward they make losing your virginity on prom night a model of erotic smoothness by comparison. Marina’s deepest relationship is with her cancer-stricken father. There’s a naturalness and comfortableness to their conversations; it comes across that she’s been in the habit of confessing her bizarre thoughts—like the fact that she imagines her father naked, but without a penis—to him for years, and he’s been in the habit of gently steering her opinions into more conventional channels. When he dies, who will constrain her deranged imagination? If normality and integration into society is the goal for Marina, however, then her only friend Bella is a bad influence, encouraging her in her apparent dream of becoming an avant-garde choreographer for Martians. Bella’s very existence, and her devotion to Marina, is something of a mystery in Attenberg. She is Marina’s mirror image, reversed along the sexuality axis: where Marina imagines fathers without penises, Bella dreams of a forest of phalluses, then worries that “seeing genitals in your sleep is a bad omen.” Attenberg is at its best when it’s spying on these intriguing creatures and their shocking individuality. In those few occasions where it widens its lens to suggest a wider sociopolitical metaphor, as when the dying father pontificates about the death of the twentieth century, Greece’s future, and “petit-bourgeois hysteria,” we politely indulge the discourse as we would the observations of any dying man who’s being used as a director’s mouthpiece, but secretly wish Marina and Bella would get back to dancing like circus monkeys hopped up on fermented bananas. Although “normal” movie audiences will find the casual, naturalistic surrealism of Attenberg insufferable, around here we see it as a case where an infusion of welcome weirdness spices up what otherwise might have been a dreary drama about a disaffected daughter and her dying dad.
First with Dogtooth, and now with Attenberg, it appears that the economic and social crisis in Greece has put national filmmakers in a weird mood; or, at least, that’s what The Guardian believes. Regardless, Greek drama hasn’t achieved this level of weirdness since they were making up stories about guys ripping out their eyes because they accidentally had sex with their moms.