Saturday, November 7, 2015

AFI Fest '15 Review: "The Lobster"

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Runtime: 118 minutes

Without any notable visual flourishes, The Lobster does what so many films set in the near (or far) future fail to do even with massive budgets: create an instantly convincing, wholly immersive world. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), making his English language debut, has outdone himself with his break from his homeland and native tongue. Absurd, strange, blackly funny, and even oddly touching, The Lobster will most certainly be an acquired taste. Those who can get on Lanthimos' wavelength, however, are in for one hell of a treat as the film makes the rounds at festivals ahead of its currently TBD American release next year.

The end of a relationship, especially one that lasts for more than a decade, is always painful. But there isn't much time to wallow in newfound loneliness in the world of The Lobster, as we quickly learn from following newly single David (Colin Farrell, heavily de-glammed). In accordance with current government laws (setting is undefined, though signs point to French Canadian territory), David is carted off to a sleek countryside resort, where he will be given 45 days to find a new mate. If he fails, he will be turned into an animal, albeit one of his choosing (in David's case: the film's titular crustacean). 

Unfolding with a level of deadpan that would make Wes Anderson envious, The Lobster's chief strength, among many, is how maintains its tricky tone over the course of two taut hours. From a pacing standpoint, this is easily the most polished of Lanthimos' films, which prevents one from falling out of touch with the uncompromising idiosyncrasies. The Lobster's second half breaks the narrative out of a delightfully repetitive cycle, yet manages to maintain and build upon the successes of the beginning. Just when you think that Lanthimos is getting too lost in his own vision, Yorgos Mavropsaridis' editing keeps things moving with laser-cutter precision, all without disrupting the deliberate flow of the story. All other technical aspects are similarly excellent, especially the green and beige-hued photography of Thimios Bakatakis and the discordant soundtrack that mixes pop songs with jolting string pieces.

Lanthimos reigns all of this in beautifully from the director's chair, with plenty of crisply-assembled passages composed of stealthily compelling shots with little or no camera movement. For as much time as the film spends at the singles' resort/internment camp, Lanthimos always finds new visual alleys to drag one further down the rabbit hole. Even the most mundane hotel hallway comes loaded with bizarro uncertainty in the world of The Lobster, which prides itself on subverting the ordinary by underlining it with hints of ludicrous, yet somehow plausible, extremism. In Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors, Alan Alda's character quoted Larry Gelbart's, "if it bends, it's funny; if it breaks it's not funny" remark, and that manifesto is certainly true here. Lanthimos bends The Lobster to its absolute further, keeping it on the precipice of breaking without ever going too far.

Yet for all of The Lobster's understated work in the arts/tech departments, Lanthimos' script ultimately holds the key to the aforementioned control of tone. The Lobster could have easily become a one-note joke, but Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou dole out the bizarro details of the film's setting in carefully constructed vignettes that gradually coalesce into a spectacular whole. Some are strange, some are disturbing, and some are gut-bustingly funny in their deliberate emotional vacancy. Few scenes capture the whole of The Lobster quite like the one wherein the hotel manager (a pitch-perfect Olivia Colman) and her husband try to serenade the horde of single folk with listless performances of romantic songs and robotic dance moves. 

And as much as I lit up every time Colman appeared, the rest of the cast are all a treat to watch as well. Farrell continues to excel when given darker, off beat material, and while 'David' doesn't allow him the range of In Bruges, it demonstrates his skill as a versatile actor who should never have been propped up as a traditional leading man. Other hotel residents are marvelously filled out by the likes of Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Extras's Ashley Jensen, and frequent Lanthimos collaborator Angeliki Papoulia (as an ice cold "hunter" who delivers the film's darkest joke). Later arrivals like Lea Seydoux and Rachel Weisz (the latter of whom narrates the film throughout) are welcome presences as well. 

However, these characters are ultimately pawns in Lanthimos' oddball experiment. In some ways, he's taking a page from the Coen brothers, playing a narrative god with a merciless combination of dark humor and irony. But even when the ambiguous ending arrives (he's a fan of those), Lanthimos refuses to let his detachment from his characters slip into cruelty. The characters may do horrible things (or have horrible reactions), but in the film's later stages Lanthimos subtly shifts into empathy without puncturing the carefully crafted tone and losing all thematic control. Like another film set to play at AFI Fest (Todd Haynes' Carol), The Lobster possesses an unwavering dedication to a strict code of tone and atmosphere that will strike many as redundant and exhausting. Yet for others, the relentless unwillingness to make major changes will become its main selling point, highlighting, for better or for worse, the purposeful vision at the helm. 

Grade: A

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