MOVIE CRITIQUE OF“THE LOBSTER” AND ROYAL OAK
On Thursday, June 16, 2016, Mark the Brit and I decided to attend a late matinee at the Main Street Art Theatre in Royal Oak. The ticket to see Yorgos Lanthimos’ super-surreal, ultra-absurd opus was a mere $6.00. And, so, there I was at the office fidgeting while counting time by fixating on ball bearings rolling on a velvet tray to the tune of Arab-owned vehicles wending their way down Warren Avenue to their next serious accident.
At 2:00 p.m. I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to accomplish anything while staring at particles of dust settling insolently on my moustache. I, therefore, decided to visit a non-existent used bookstore in Royal Oak. As it turned out, the bookstore was in nearby Ferndale – and right on Woodward Avenue. “Oh, well”, I muttered, despondently. I only wanted to buy a used Spanish/English dictionary since I had embarked on a recent campaign to learn the language in order to share in the joys of being a hunted species: the undocumented alien. I even thought that learning Spanish might result in acquiring a new avocation…. perhaps…. something along the lines of roofing or painting walls, even, dry wall installation, asphalt paving or hand rolling tamales.
I arrived in Royal Oak at about 2:30 p.m. and received a telephone call from Mark asking about my whereabouts. I told him I had come early to Royal Oak to find the bookstore. He advised he was also coming down and would meet me for a pre-show beer. I agreed, but, by the time I found out there was no used bookstore in the area, I thought I’d have a bite to eat. Every restaurant I saw promised much exotic fare, but, sadly, were all closed until 4:00 p.m., exactly the time the movie was to start, and it was as though I was in some quarter of Zurich, Switzerland, where nothing ever happened and nothing ever opened once the banks closed for lunch.
Only this Sushi Bar was open to the public. It was down about a fifth of a mile from the theater on the east side of Main Street – Royal Oak’s uniquely-named main thoroughfare. It was called the Little Tree Sushi Bar advertising NuAsian cuisine. It also promoted cuisine from Thailand, China, Philippines and, if I remember correctly, Trader Vics. It was a disaster.
Being a transplanted Ann-Arborite, I have become accustomed to the styles and tastes of Dearborn and West Detroit (whatever that may mean to you). What that means to me is that the prices are much lower in Dearborn than what you might find in the tonier areas of Oakland County, especially those with a high homosexual demographic like Ferndale and Oak Park. What I’m trying to say gracefully is that a small platter containing six pieces of Sashimi costs $18.95 cents at this Royal Oak Sushi Bar while a full bowl of Chirashi Sushi would only cost $13.00 at Oyaki Sushi in Dearborn Heights with 80% more quality fish and other emoluments such as miso soup and salad with ginger dressing. At the latter establishment, the sushi chefs are pleasant Koreans who act in amazement when you come in as though they had not seen one single customer since General MacArthur was fired by Truman. They often hand you a free sample platter of something spicy, salty and deep-fried to encourage another visit. That Royal Oak sushi place, on the other hand, was populated by largely indifferent chefs with grimaces one associates with Samurai, but, for one glaring omission…… they were all from Mexico.
As I sat at my counter waiting for the shock of the day – that moment when, like so many others, I would realize that I’d been fleeced, I thought of Mark and whether he would deign to enter this place and share a beer and a plate of sushi. Mark? No. He’s English, real English from Coventry where the locals are bred on blandness as though it were a national pastime, or a culinary maxim. Well, not necessarily, when you think about the English penchant for all things Indo-Pak, the colonial cuisine which they actually influenced with their accidental creation of curry, of all things – and – their longings to recreate the Old Raj in their own backyard – not to mention the curious convenience of having Indian restaurants (now more than the number of rats in Calcutta) available so the British can partake of their favorite daily habit of scarfing down pint-after-pint of bitter ale after the hour had passed for the publicans (pubs) to close until the following day, ….and so you come around fully to the conviction that Mark will not come into this restaurant and will wind up dragging you pell-mell to some sub-continental estaminet from which there is no evading dyspepsia.
He called me as I was grudgingly placing a chunk of raw tuna in my mouth, having slathered it with soy sauce and that nostril-widening, sinus-exploding, green radish paste (wasabi), and asked me to join him for a beer at a bar which, as it turned out, was right across the street from the sushi bar. Its proximity and convenience made no difference as I tried to desperately find it and to no avail. I actually played tag with a few occasional bursts of rain and found myself at a place called the Comet Restaurant – a futile attempt to recreate the soda counters of the Fifties, painted in drab green with a Lebanese owner arguing over deliveries with a truck driver. I was so famished by the paltry array of raw fish on that plate which cost $18.95 that I convinced myself that sitting down with Mark for a beer was an unforgiveable perversion and that I’d have none of it. I ordered a basket of factory-breaded shrimp, a side of fries and a Fanta Ginger Ale. Oh, woe!
Once I completed my foray into the world of nostalgia, Mark called and icily told me to forget about finding him. He suggested resignedly that we should meet at the theater. We arrived 15 minutes before the movie started – or I should say – before the endless series of “Coming Attractions” – some of which were actually tantalizing – one being about the new movie concerning the great American novelist, Thomas Wolfe (“Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River”, inter alia.) Notwithstanding the one movie which promised a modicum of substance, the rest were all uniformly designed for hospices or rehab clinics – places where old folks could slowly become one with the furniture.
Yet, nothing that happened that day was going to prepare me for the movie I was about to see. But, I want to offer a prelude before we get on with the critique which, I’m sure, all of you are awaiting with much anxiety, and, hence, breathlessness.
When I received my B.A. at the University of Michigan in 1972 and was accepted to the Rackham School of Graduate Studies for my Masters, I had a girlfriend by the name of Sherry Leibson who always kept an eye out for events which would force me to spend money. This time, her find was curiously felicitous. It was a blind screening at the Detroit Institute of Arts. They were going to preview a movie about which you knew nothing. You simply had to trust the DIA’s good taste and commitment to refinement. I agreed to see the movie as my curiosity had been pricked. I had just been offered a teaching fellowship and such an event in Detroit seemed a good way to start up a conversation for a man of my newfound social status.
The movie, it turned out, was the original “Wicker Man” (1973) written by Anthony Shaffer and which starred Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento (Sean Connery’s wife) and a dubbed, mostly nude, completely clueless, Britt Eklund, (Peter Seller’s former roommate about whom he once said: “She is a part time actress and full time girlfriend”). You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Britt speak with a strong Scottish burr. It was like a Toho Studios Godzilla movie.
The movie’s build-up to the conclusion was so effective, it upset me. I did not like the fact that Sgt. Howie was sacrificed to the Wicker Man along with a cluck of hens, a flock of sheep, and just about everything expendable on Summerisle while the pagan inhabitants sang a rousing song in a ring around the infernal scene. I rose up, as the curtains closed, and raised my fist to the heavens denouncing the movie as some frivolous conceit concocted by another British cockalorum bent on exploiting our good American breeding. I remained a-froth with venom until the next day when I realized that it was one of the best movies I had ever seen. And, so, my feelings about “The Lobster”.
“The Lobster”, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and co-written with another Greek with a pitifully unpronounceable name: Efthymis Filippou. Why can’t all Greeks be named Anthony Quinn?
Once the “Coming Attractions” end, the opening credits tell you nothing other than no distributor wanted to touch this movie. I can’t remember all the names of the investors, but, it was longer than most. I thought, once I gave up on reading all of them, that the movie was destined to be a bomb – big bomb. I think I’m right about that, but, not because the movie isn’t great. It just has to do with the mentality of audiences.
This is a movie which will be hated by women. Take note that women, as a general rule, love strawberries. No pasty tray ever went by a female upon which rested a Napoleon festooned with strawberries that did not elicit an immediate, ravenously Pavlovian, response from the dame seated across the table from you. And, as a general rule, women despise cultish bad movies like “Planet Nine from Outer Space” or “Thirst” (Australian with Chantal Contouri). They especially dislike depressing films such as “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”, “Who’s Life is it Anyways?”, “Wicker Man”, or better yet, duds like: “The Lost Continent” and “Aguirre, The Wrath of God”, a film, which by the way, ends with Klaus Kinski floating down a river on a raft with hundreds of monkeys defecating all over him. (Note: Needless to say, the movies just mentioned are some of this author’s favorites).
David played by Colin Farrell
Lisping Man played by John C. Reilly
John the Limping Man played by Ben Whishaw
Narrator and Shortsighted (British for nearsighted) played by Rachel Weisz
Lone Leader played by Lea Seydoux
Hotel Manager played by Olivia Colman
Border Collie played by some Border Collie
Sadistic creepy woman played by Anjelika Papoulia
Maid played by Ariane Labed
Buscuit Womand and suicide played by Ashley Jensen
Opening scene: A woman in a taxi orders the car to stop. She rushes out with a pistol in her hand and shoots dead a donkey standing harmlessly in a field with another 2 donkeys. No explanation.
THE RULES OF THE TYRANT’S GAME
David, who has just been jilted by his significant other, is bound to be re-coupled with someone who shares certain traits which guarantee continuity of monogamy. He must find a woman or man with whom he shares certain qualities or else he will be transformed into a wild or domestic animal of his own choice for his failure and released into the wilderness. He has only 45 days to accomplish that goal amid a pool of subjects at the Hotel all of whom are also looking for a qualified partner. He appears at the hotel with a border collie who is his brother. The brother failed to find a partner and was converted into a dog.
More rules: the humans at the hotel are allowed one extra day if they can shoot “loners” with a dart gun in the forest surrounding the hotel. When they bring in the narcotized bodies of the loners, they are given a grace period of 24 hours to continue their search. The loners are obviously those who resist the system and live like wild beasts in the forest – some of them joining a group of insurgents dedicated to defeating the oppressive system of government which forces people to fold into couples. In this movie, you can see animals as varied as flamingos, Bactrian camels, dogs and donkeys, all ostensibly former humans who failed to find a partner acceptable to the system. When David is asked by the Hotel Manager what animal he would like to become if he fails, he responds phlegmatically: “A Lobster” because they live a hundred years, are blue-blooded like the nobles and because he has a special love for the sea. Hence, the title of the movie.
Couples who are successful live in the city where all the perquisites and luxuries are found. It is the job of the police to find infiltrators who are not coupled. It is assumed that such violators, when discovered and arrested, will be transformed into wild animals or domesticated ones. This is their only choice in a world devoid of options.
Another rule is applicable to those situations when the couples finally decide they are compatible. They are then sent to a yacht in the bay over which the hotel stands to test whether or not they are, indeed, made for one another. Here, on the yacht, they live a normal life and are assigned a child to test the domesticity of their world. Once they are successful, they are sent to the city where they take up what is a normal life in such a dystopian environment.
Other rules encourage coupling. For example, sexuality is dealt with by bringing the males to the point of climax without consummation. That is, a maid, played by Ariane Labed (of Arabic descent, btw), for example, will visit David daily and enticingly raise her dress as she sits on his groin grinding at his genitals, an act made famous in the Arabian Nights. When he asks her to continue to climax, she must refuse since it is her job to methodically force him to search out a partner. This daily activity with David makes the maid sympathetic to him, a sensibility he will find crucial to his survival, as you will see.
The pool of candidates at the hotel are forced to watch staged programs (not very different from the movies we’d watch in high school disparaging premarital sex or army movies encouraging the use of prophylactics) which send a message that partnering with someone is healthy and good. Being single can result in violence and rape. In this society, conforming to a particular way of life, whether it is for reasons of eugenics or survival, or just plain monogamy, is critical – even though it is never explained or fleshed out. And that may be the director’s motive. You have to infer, yourself, from the action, what is motivating humans to make such demands on others. Is it allegory? Or is it a mere metaphor for what we have become in the director’s mind?
David arrives at the hotel on a cliff which I thought looked a lot like eastern Canada. As it turned out, it was the Irish coast. He sits down with the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) and is regaled with extremely invasive questions. He is asked whether he is gay or straight. He explains he’s straight, although he does admit that he had one homosexual encounter before. When pressed by the hotel manager, he declares his preference for women. He is informed about the rules and is asked what animal he would like to be if he fails to find a partner? I told you already what he said.
David and his canine brother meet two individuals, one is a lisper played by John C. Reilly, and the other a limper, John, played by Ben Whishaw. They spend their time exchanging idle chatter as the days wear on with no compatible partner in sight. John, who limps, finally connects with a young female who has constant nosebleeds. In an effort to inveigle himself in her life, he starts to bang his head on hard surfaces to trigger a nosebleed. Bingo. They wind up finding true romance because both have chronic nosebleeds. They are sent to the yacht where a young girl is assigned to them as their daughter.
Poor Lisper, he can’t find anyone and can only hope to gain more time by hunting and shooting loners in the forest outside the hotel.
In the meantime, David, frustrated by his inability to liaise with someone appropriate, picks the most despicable, most psychopathic, most unfeeling female (Anjelika Papoulia) in the whole group with whom to partner . She is no more beautiful than she is heartless given to bursts of jubilation when others fail or are brutally savaged. She is the eidos of sadism, extolling the virtues of negativity and nihilism. She is sadism incarnate.
In order to get on her good side, he sits down next to her in a Jacuzzi whirlpool on one of the hotel’s decks. She is drinking a martini and can tell he’s putting the make on her. Suddenly, there is a bit of commotion. Another woman, who solemnly swore to leap from a window and kill herself before she is turned into some animal, manages to bollocks up the entire effort by jumping from a second story window, as opposed to the fourth story window, which she suggested she was going to do. As she lay writhing on the ground in a failed suicide guaranteeing her transformation into some breed of spaniel, David must project the kind of character consistent with that of the lunatic sitting near him in the pool.
When David knows the woman fudged her suicide, he demonstrates unlimited contempt for her and going so far as to wish for her increased suffering. This impresses the crazy sociopath who also tests him by pretending to choke on the olive in her martini. When David does nothing to help her, no Heimlich maneuver, nothing, she is convinced he’s the right man with whom she will share her life of malignant narcissism.
Fast forward now to a somewhat soft-pornographic scene in which David has mounted the crazed she-wolf. Attempting to demonstrate no pleasure, he continues to perform what appears to be a monotonously biological act. Not satisfied yet with his credentials as heartless freak, the woman asks to see his face as he continues to perform coitus on her. She wants to detect if he shows any pleasure or emotion as he makes love to her in the missionary style. Once the act has mercifully ended, she walks to the bathroom and comes back to inform him that she has just killed his border collie – his brother! David can be seen trying to maintain his icy cold composure as he walks into the bathroom to see his brother slaughtered.
“Woof, woof”, barks David’s brother.
The vicious siren waits and catches him with tears in his eyes. She knows he’s a fake and decides to denounce him aloud to the hotel staff. Then, in one of the few moments of tangible humanity, the maid whom David begged for more carresses, shoots the damned harridan with a dart gun. Under the influence of the narcotic, she is dragged to the “Transformation Room” where she is ostensibly turned into a badger, mongoose, rabid dog or wolverine. This one act of kindness is notable for its scarcity – it sticks in your mind for that reason alone.
With such goings-on, David knows the jig is up and that he is going to have to become a crustacean. He escapes into the forest. This movie has just reached its first half – if it were long enough – beyond its two hours – there would be an intermission. David is now among the opponents of “coupling”. They are the opponents of romance and relationships. They are led by a female no less cruel than the monster David and the maid just sent to Hell.
All throughout the movie, there is a narrator who eventually turns up as Rachel Weisz. She belongs to the insurgents who are fighting the system. Ms. Weisz, in this incarnation as the shortsighted rebel, is made up to appear less beautiful than she truly is. As he wanders in the forest as a loner, he comes upon a group of insurgents led by their leader, a young female played by Lea Seydoux, who has her mother and father in the city living together and whom she visits once in a while as she and her cohorts enter the city to take care of certain business.
David is shocked to come upon a campsite where a black man looks up at him with a gauze and bandage wrapped over his mouth. It’s called the “red kiss”. You see, this group of loners so resents coupling or romance that he had his lips sliced off. The red spot on the bandage stuck to his mouth resembles the Japanese flag. David is informed that the black man was caught kissing another and had to be punished.
David and the narrator, played by Weisz, fall in love but cannot show it else they’ll suffer some horrific punishment by their group. They develop a system of hand and body signals like turning their heads to the right or left, lifting their legs or raising their arms. Most of the gestures are meant to signal affection or warning. In one scene, after they are discovered, the members of the group emulate them in a comical, uncoordinated, un-choreographed performance in the middle of the forest.
Before the discovery, the leader accompanies them to the city where they visit the leader’s mother and father. In an effort to demonstrate they are a couple, David and his lover are told to show affection in order to establish their belonging in this world of couples. Their performance, in the presence of the father and mother, however, is so intense, so exaggerated, that the leader has to literally pry them apart. (Some might remember the love affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra when their love scenes became so real they had to be pried from one another with a crowbar.) And that’s what happened here.
In another scene in the city, David finds himself in a mall alone with Weisz away on some errand. He is contacted by a police officer who demands his papers showing he is a citizen with a mate. He tells the officer his papers are in his wife’s purse. The officer is not convinced until Weisz appears and disabuses the officer of any suspicions. Some of these scenes are reminiscent of 1950’s paranoia flicks like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.
In the meantime, the leader prepares David for his own death by having him dig a grave wide enough and deep enough to accommodate his frame. She orders him to lay down in the grave and to cover himself with soil, insisting he cover his face so that the dogs won’t eat at it. This scene will be repeated shortly, but, with another body in the grave.
There are scenes when the loners attack the societal tyrants. Their techniques are, however, bizarre to say the least. For example, raids on couples involve exposing lies that undo the relationship. The limper and his nosebleeding mate are invaded by David who announces that the limper does not have nosebleeds and only pounds his head on the table to achieve that effect. In another instance, a team led by the character played by Seydoux takes control of a bloated, Sixty-ish singer and his wife. They ask him who would better live on his or her own. He answers that he would. They then hand him a pistol with blanks and order him to shoot his wife, who, looking horrified, finds out that her husband is about as loyal as a crocodile when he pulls the trigger. The troupe then leaves the couple to face the consequences of this new revelation. Nobody is killed in this kind of subversion, only the exhibition of deceit.
David’s lover returns to the forest and is taken back to the city for an appointment with an eye doctor who will presumably help her with her shortsightedness. He, instead, on orders of the leader, removes her sight . Like the “red kiss”, she will not be able to look upon her lover again. When David discovers this event, he is enraged in his own way. He resolves to kill the leader.
Amazingly, during one scene in the forest, David is set upon by the Lisper, who is trying to gain more time by shooting a loner. When David protests his affection for his friend, the latter does not appear very convinced. What happens next is that the Lisper is knocked out and left to rot – if not to be transformed into some animal. (That’s the way I remember the scene).
David is now convinced he must take his blind lover away from this. He knocks the leader out after stealthily coming at her from the blind side. He ties her up quite thoroughly, tightens a kerchief over her mouth and lays her down in the same grave she asked him to dig for himself. The last scene of the leader is her helpless, supine body approached by hungry dogs.
David and his mate walk to the city, both dressed in clothing appropriate for an urban setting. After a hotel bus passes them by without incident we find our lovers in a station seated in a canteen where one of the most shocking scenes in spaced-out movie history takes place. This was the kind of scene that reminded me of the “Wicker Man” so many decades ago.
In order to make them a proper couple, David has to show they have something in common that brought them together. If it isn’t a nosebleed, or a limp, or sadism – it has to be something. A waiter arrives at the table and David politely asks him to bring a knife – not a butter knife, but, a steak knife. He takes the knife to the men’s room where he stares at the mirror as he desperately tries to gouge out his own eyes, with little luck, I’m afraid. The camera changes scenes and fixates on the somber form of David’s lover who appears completely comfortable with what is happening. The movie ends here with no solid resolution.
Think of the movie “Logan’s Run” with Michael York. There, inhabitants of a city are given only a few decades of youth to live in relative luxury and civility being programmed to believe that is the way of nature. Logan escapes and returns from the forbidden zone to scream out to the populace that the tyrants are wrong and that, contrary to what all were taught about the world outside the city, he was very much alive and well. Think of “Planet of the Apes”, another vision of a civilized world surrounded by a much more barbaric one. Think of “Judge Dredd” with a plot similar to those just mentioned.
In this movie, the civilized world insists on joining people into couples for reason which are not made very clear by the director and screenwriter. The society promoting monogamy is meant to resemble something despotic, mind-controlling and fatalistic. But, the insurgents, who would normally be cast as “freedom fighters” or “heroic champions of justice, liberty and the American Way” are even worse than the tyrants of organized society! They are so averse to romance, love, affection, kindness and monogamy, bigamy, or even polygamy, that they can hardly claim any moral ground in a world as dystopian as this one. I have never been confronted by such a dichotomy where every element of classic narrative expectation or plot development results in the conclusion that nobody should be allowed to exist. Even David, played stunningly well by Colin Farrell, is so devoid of human context or provenience, that you might think he was created a pod similar to those in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.
Nobody in this movie can claim to be worthy of life. Only the maid at the hotel showed ordinary human empathy when she narcotized that sadistic villainess played by Anjelika Papoulia before she could expose David, who, as far as this writer is concerned, should have been rendered into a creamy Thermidor and served up to a border collie.
This is one of the greatest thought-provoking movies I’ve ever attended. I’m going to see it again before its pulled. Ziad A. Fadel