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Two movies at AFI were brought there by filmmakers who worked with an English speaking cast for the first time. Screenwriter Efthymis Filippou and writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, from Greece, previously gave the world the oddity Dogtooth and, appropriately enough, now give us the quite possibly even odder oddity, The Lobster.
The Italian filmmaker Paola Sorrentino, who directed and co-wrote the absolutely brilliant and ravishing The Great Beauty, has now given us Youth.
Overall, they have all succeeded rather well in spite of the fact that they are creating in a language that is not their native tongue.
Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is set in one of those dystopian futures and is located in The City, a place where everyone must be in a relationship, and if you are not (say you are widowed), you go to a hotel with others like yourself and are given 45 days to fall in love. If, at the end of your stay, you find yourself yet single, you are turned into the animal of your choice.
In addition, finding love is dependent on finding someone with the same dominant characteristic as you (such as a limp, or nosebleeds, or a sociopathic personality).
There is an alternative to this. In the woods that lay outside The City, are the outlaws and non-conformists called loners. These are people who engage in no relationship. There people dance—by themselves; they sleep—by themselves; have sex—by themselves. And if you are caught entering into a relationship, you are killed.
In addition, you can extend your stay at the hotel by joining in the hunt: going into the woods and shooting loners with tranquilizer guns in order to capture them. Every “kill” gets the shooter an extra day (one hotel guest is a sociopath and so can’t find love; ironically, it’s her sociopathology that makes her the best hunter in the group—she’s captured so many loners, she’s earned an extra three months). Any loners captured, are turned into animals.
And, no, I am not making this up. And, yes, there will be a test.
Collin Farrell is the central character, David, whose wife has recently died and has come to the hotel with a dog, his brother who previously didn’t find love in an earlier stay.
No matter what part he plays, Farrell always feels like he is looking inward, always thinking about the situation, reacting more than acting, irrespective of how extroverted his character is. It’s his dominant acting characteristic, one might say. Here, this characterization is taken to the extreme, playing the part with a sad sack persona and looks of clueless depression. (We know there’s little hope for him because he’s a nerdy dresser, wears glasses, has a dad bod, and wears an ironic mustache unironically).
If he doesn’t find love, he has chosen to be turned into a lobster because it lives longer than humans and is sexually active for most of it. Though no one mentions it, it’s actually an apt choice because David in many ways is already a crustacean with an outer shell that doesn’t allow much beneath to be revealed.
So where is a lobster to go in order to find love?
Well, he eventually escapes to the woods and joins the loners, but finds that their way of life isn’t any more satisfying, and in many ways, much harsher than in The City, especially since this is the place where he finally and truly finds love (the movie is full of irony, except, perhaps, as was mentioned, that mustache David wears).
The Lobster is one of the funniest and perhaps even profoundest movies to come to the theater in some time. The set up is preposterous, yet there is so much truth in it, so much a reflection of reality in its ridiculous premise, that sometimes it’s a bit difficult to laugh. I’m not sure I can explain it and make it make sense, but in watching the movie, I just get a feeling that in many ways, this is the way the world is at times, pathetic in the true tragicomedy meaning of the word.
Farrell, like almost everyone in the cast, underplays his characters, saying the lines with a deadpan quality that feels like stiff upper lip on steroids. The husband and wife who run the hotel (Olivia Coleman of The Peep Show and Broadchurch and Garry Moutaine) play like a satire of the worst managers of fun camps, almost robotic in their line readings and emotional reactions.
Rachel Weisz, a loner who is also David’s true love, also narrates, often by repeating exactly what is going on and is being said by the characters she is talking about. Like the rest of the movie, it’s such an emotionless approach, it’s often very funny.
With Ben I’m in everything this year Whishaw as the man with a limp; John C. Reilly as the man with a lisp; and Lea Seydoux as the leader of the loners.
It has one of those ambiguous endings that are very popular in Europe, but can be very maddening in the U.S.
Keep a look out in the woods for various incongruous animals that oft times pass by, as dead pan as everyone else in the film.
On a personal note, just when you thought the delivery couldn’t be any more deadpan, the hotel provides encouragement to their guests in the form of skits, including one where a man and woman are eating and the man gets something caught in this throat and the woman has to provide the Heimlich maneuver on him. It is followed by one where a man eats alone, but when he gets something caught in his throat, there’s no one there to save him, so he dies.
A few weeks after seeing the movie, I was a food court where I had to have someone use the Heimlich on me.
Afterwards, all I could think was, hm, maybe those hotel managers have a point.
Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes.
Jane Fonda has a cameo in Paola Sorrentino’s movie Youth playing an aging actress coming to terms with her life and career. She has perhaps only ten minutes of screen time, but in those few precious moments, she attacks her role like a bulldog, grabbing it by her teeth and refusing to let it go. It’s a powerful and tremendous performance, scary, haunting, and fully baring every wrinkle on her face and hands as if they were the deadliest of war injuries. It’s the best performance she’s given since The Morning After and it’s also the best role she’s had since that film as well.
The rest of the movie is a bit more hit and miss and scattered in its effectiveness. Overall, I thought it pretty wonderful, but I also thought that at times it was hampered by scenes that more waiver in their success.
It has many aspects in common with the previous The Lobster. It takes place at a hotel (well, a hotel spa); Rachel Weisz is in both of them (here she plays the central character’s daughter); and the story is driven by a widower.
Here, the widower is one Fred Ballinger, a composer of classical music as well as a conductor, who no longer creates or conducts. He moves around the spa like the composer Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, mentally observing other guests, taking notes, though not coming to much in the way of conclusions.
His main areas of focus are best friend, movie director Mick Boyle (half of Boyle and Ballinger’s conversation seems to be whether they’ve managed to urinate or not, just so you young’uns know what you’re in for), at the spa to finish writing a screenplay with some newbie filmmakers, though he hasn’t made a movie in ages (their biggest roadblock is the last line of a character who dies at the end); Jimmy Tree, an actor who has fled the limelight to work on the character of his next film; and his daughter, whose husband has left her.
As I stated (and I stand by said statement) much of Youth is wonderful. The stylistic approach is in many ways the same as The Great Beauty, with the camera often breaking away from the central characters and focusing on the aging bodies and faces of the others at the spa as well as vast landscapes and hallways as eerily empty as at the Overlook.
Though heavily influenced by Fellini, Sorrentino doesn’t exploit these scenes for their grotesqueries, but shows much more empathy for sagging and decaying flesh. After all, this is what we all will be one day.
Michael Caine plays Ballinger and it’s possibly one of his finest performances. He carries the whole movie on his shoulders as if it were light as a feather, while showing how heavy life can become. What he does seems effortless, yet so deep and personal.
Harvey Keitel plays Boyle the same way. The two know death is around the corner, that there’s nothing they can do to stop it, while at the same time, they trudge forward full of life.
Whenever Ballinger and Boyle are on screen, the movie feels flawless. But at other times, Sorrentino slips up and even seems to be a bit tone death.
This is so in the character of a mountain climber who starts falling for Ballinger’s daughter (his facial expressions are a bit too Monty Python; you even expect him to start singing The Lumberjack Song), as well as the young filmmakers who have gathered around Boyle (they’re so one dimensional that the actors come across as flat and bland in their deliveries).
But perhaps the biggest slip is in the role of the actor, played by Paul Dano. At first, his through line starts off rather well (it’s even a little hard to tell that Dano is playing the part when you first see him). He then comes out completely dressed in the role he’s preparing for: Adolf Hitler (it’s like the opening scene from To Be Or Not To Be).
Everybody is aghast, but all they do is stare at him with mouths agape, as if they can’t believe what they’re looking at. But this plot turn never quite works. One, because it’s impossible to believe that all the guests at the spa would just stare and not do something about it. And two, because all you can think is, “Who in their right mind would cast Paul Dano as Hitler?”
Still, for all its flaws, there is something about Youth, and especially Michael Caine, that is riveting and deeply moving.