As someone who loves and hates science fiction almost as much as he loves and hates art house film, I am uncharacteristically excited by the work of Yorgos Lanthimos. In fact, the only director who work intrigues me as much as that of Lanthimos is that of Athina Rachel Tsangari and she produced Lanthimos’ early works in return for his producing hers. Together, these Greek directors are in the process of creating something entirely new in European film and all I can really say is that it’s about damn time.
Lanthimos spent the 1990s directing adverts and music videos as well as working with experimental theatre troupes. Part of the team responsible for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Lanthimos stepped up to directing features with a mainstream sex comedy that was never really seen outside of Greece. The change came in 2005 when Lanthimos directed an experimental film entitled Kinetta, which was nominated for an award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Kinetta is not a great film and arguably not the best place to start when trying to get to grips with Lanthimos’ body of work but it does feature the same troubled relationship with reality as Lanthimos’ later films.
Set amidst the concrete tower blocks and sun-drenched parking lots of a holiday resort, the film revolves around a group of eccentrics who search for meaning by re-staging and filming the crimes of a local serial killer. Shot with a hand-held camera in a way that serves only to draw the audience’s attention to the artificiality of the film’s viewpoint, Kinetta creates a few memorable images only to lose them in a sea of puzzling characters, truncated narratives and a thematic package that never quite manages to find its own shape. Neither surreal enough to be allegorical nor sufficiently grounded to shed much light on questions of identity, the film seems to sit between a number of different and incompatible ontological registers.
It is easy to see why Dogtooth is the film that brought Lanthimos to a the attention of a global audience. Released at a time when the collapse of the Greek economy was just beginning, the film uses surrealistic imagery and science fictional themes to explore inter-generational conflict and the idea of Greece as a country where the young are held captive by the dreams and nightmares of their parents. Built around the conceit of a world-within-a-world that takes the power dynamics of childhood and projects them out onto a world whose political settlement had been revealed as a complete fantasy, Dogtooth solves Kinetta’s troubled relationship between fiction and reality by framing fantasy as something that can be both imposed and escaped.
Lanthimos’ follow-up film Alps took a different and considerably less successful approach to the tension between fiction and reality. Set in the real world, the film revolves around a group of misfits who rent themselves out to grieving families as a way of giving them a few extra days or weeks with the deceased. As in Kinetta, Lanthimos draws our attention to the arbitrariness of everyday life through the medium of bad acting. The group may be hired to play the deceased but their inability to either imitate the dead or deliver a line of dialogue with real sentiment drives home the idea that human lives are little more than collections of empty rituals. In fact, when one of the group begins adding to her role by fostering real relationships and making important decisions, her employers are outraged: This is not the daughter we were expecting! The reason that Alps does not work as well as Dogtooth is that rather than associating the film’s surreal imagery with a world-within-a-world, Lanthimos associates it with grief and the social transgressions born of heightened emotional states. The problem here is that while audiences can relate to the idea of childhood as a place where parents impose ridiculous ideas upon their children, the idea of people doing ridiculous and surreal things because they are upset seems somewhat unrealistic and lacking in satirical focus. Alps did not work because Lanthimos tried to resolve the tension between reality and fiction in purely psychological terms and, as in Kinetta, his surrealist methods tend to become less effective the closer his films get to conventional realism.
Lanthimos’ latest film The Lobster takes an entirely different approach to the troubled relationship between reality and fiction. Where Kinetta, Alps, and Dogtooth seemed to scurry back and forth along a spectrum that reaches from the realistic to the psychologically expressionistic, The Lobster does away with the real world in favour of a science-fictional conceit that might best be described as The Hunger Games for sexually-repressed single people.
The film opens with depressed, middle-aged David being loaded onto a bus after having been unceremoniously dumped by his partner. Up until that moment, David had lived in a place referred to only as The City where it is illegal to be single: Lose your partner for whatever reason and the government will load you onto a bus and ship you out to an isolated hotel where you have 45 days to find true love. Fail to find true love and you will be transformed into an animal of your choice. Pretend to find true love in an effort to re-join society and you will not only be transformed into an animal but transformed into the animal that nobody else wants to be. It is never made clear why the rulers of The City have chosen to persecute the single in this way but it makes about as much sense as The Hunger Games’ insistence that forcing people to watch their children fight to the death would somehow prevent them from rising up against a tyrannical government.
Much of the opening half of the film is devoted to pure speculation in that Lanthimos tries to think how his fictional society might operate and how the rules of this new society might interact with human nature.
Convinced that single people are somehow psychologically defective, the employees of the hotel try to keep the guests motivated using an array of dehumanising techniques. For example, the guests are forced to take to the stage and talk about their failures in a way that also serves as a sales pitch to other singletons. When this does not work, the guests are forced to sit through horrendous stage performances suggesting that partnership is the only way to prevent oneself from either being raped or choking to death on overly large pieces of food.
Should terror prove inadequate motivation then hotel staff are also on hand to excite the guests to the point of orgasm before cruelly denying them release. Should a singleton indulge in masturbation, they are punished and publicly shamed by having their hands jammed into toasters during breakfast.
As might be expected given the persecution of the single, The City also has to deal with a large population of loners who live on the margins of society. Singletons may earn extra days in the hotel by taking a tranquiliser rifle out into the woods and capturing some loners. The greatest hunter in the history of The City is a woman so heartless that she regularly pretends to choke on olives in order to test the indifference of potential mates.
In the hands of different director, this world might have seemed overwhelmingly dark. However, Lanthimos keeps the tone light by playing for laughs the romantic ineptness of his singletons. Thus, while everyone knows that they are faced with a choice between finding true love and being turned into an animal, the heterosexual singletons immediately split into gendered groups and avoid each other like awkward teens at a junior high dance.
To make matters worse, they are all labouring under the impression that love requires a couple to have a single thing in common. However, rather than meeting new people and discovering shared ground, the singletons declare a defining characteristic before meeting anyone new and remain doggedly attached to this characteristic even when their commitment means either being turned into an animal or having to turn down someone they genuinely like. For example, one singleton was mauled by a wolf who was once his mother and so he limits his pool of potential partners to people who walk with a limp. He does eventually abandon this strategy once he falls for a woman who is prone to nosebleeds but rather than trying to discover some actual common ground, he begins provoking nosebleeds of his own by repeatedly slamming his face into doors and tables.
This entire set-up is an obvious satire on romantic comedies like 50 First Dates where Adam Sandler is forced to take an amnesic Drew Barrymore out on a succession of first dates before hitting on the right ingredients to win her heart. The absurdity of the singletons’ behaviour is intended as a satire on the ways in which humans sometimes sabotage their private lives with weird superstitions and procrustean ideas about love. Similarly, the absurdity of the City’s campaign against singletons satirises the ways in which our culture can shame, demean, humiliate and erase the single and the solitary. Taken together, these various strands do a fantastic job of mocking the self-created hoops that humans are forcing themselves to jump through in order to find love or companionship. Seriously… things should not be this difficult!
The idea that human lives naturally tend towards the absurd and the difficult is explored towards the end of the film when David’s attempts to build a relationship on a lie end in disaster. After his girlfriend kicks his dog to death in an effort to get a rise out of him, David shoots her with a tranquiliser dart and escapes into the forest. However, rather than finding a group of emotional freedom fighters, he finds yet another society built around a set of absurd and arbitrary principles. The loners are not just people who have failed to find love; they are also people who go out of their way to prevent each other from falling in love lest they wind up leaving the group. Thus, while polite conversation is encouraged, flirting is subject to brutal corporal punishment and group dances are conducted with everyone wearing headphones lest they attempt to dance with each other.
Lea Seydoux plays the leader of the loners in that she is the person who enforces discipline, trains loners to evade hunters, and organises the group’s secret operations. In another beautifully satirical gesture, Lanthimos has the loners infiltrate the hotel using deep-cover operatives who steal money and clothes allowing the loners to journey into the City and spend afternoons posing as couples on shopping trips. Towards the end of the film, the loners are revealed to have a more involved ‘anti-love’ strategy but the idea of revolutionary outsiders who aspire to nothing more than passing for middle-class heterosexuals is both absurd and strangely poignant when viewed as a conventional genre riff on the idea of a-sexual or a-romantic outsiders struggling to get by in a brutally heteronormative society.
As with the work of the Spanish-Mexican filmmaker Luis Bunuel, words like ‘surreal’ and ‘absurd’ attach themselves to the work of Yorgos Lanthimos because he presents his acts of speculation and reality-distortion in a humorous fashion. Had the protagonists been teenagers, the hotel a concrete bunker, and the hotel staff clad in black leather and crash helmets we would naturally think of The Lobster as a YA dystopia in the style of The Hunger Games or Divergent.
When we talk about satire we are actually talking about one way of comparing the real and the unreal in order to create a particular artistic effect. In this case, we can talk about Lanthimos having created monstrous fictional situations and compared them with our understanding of real-world situations in an effort to highlight the absurdity of the real world. However, there are a number of other ways in which real and unreal can be juxtaposed and Lanthimos has tried a different one in every film he has made. The Lobster is an interesting artistic departure as while his earlier films each tried to forge new relationships between fantasy and reality, The Lobster opts for a relationship that is often found in works produced under the rubric of science fiction. In truth, much of what happens in the film can be explained by the assumption that Lanthimos is trying to do for the experience of being a middle-aged singleton what The Hunger Games did for the experience of being a high school girl.
From my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:
Collins’ use of first-person narration in The Hunger Games books forces the reader to be aware of the fact that what they are reading are descriptions of people, places, and events that have been filtered through the mind of a scared and overwhelmed teenage girl. The strength of Katniss’ voice is a constant reminder of her status as an unreliable narrator, and her imperfect understanding of people and events lends the books a psychological element so pronounced that it frequently blurs the line between psychological realism and outright metaphorical fantasy.
The highly emotive nature of Katniss’ narration encourages the reader to take everything she says with a pinch of salt. Collins makes frequent use of this effect as a form of misdirection that encourages us to view characters in a certain light only for their true nature to be dramatically revealed at some later date. In fact, Collins’ use of misdirection and flawed narration is so systematic that it is easy to fall into the habit of accounting for the flaws in Collins’ world-building by pointing out that all we ever have to go on is Katniss’ impressions of the world.
Thus, the fact that the Hunger Games and their role in Panem’s political system makes not a jot of sense is not seen as a sign of Collins’ incompetence but as a sign of Katniss’ incomplete understanding of the world around her. Once we accept the possibility that what we are seeing is not Panem itself, but an emotional landscape inspired by Katniss’ reaction to Panem, then it is possible to read almost every aspect of the book as a metaphorical representation of how Katniss feels about her world. This not only accounts for the inconsistencies in Collins’ world-building but also the fact that the world of the Hunger Games feels like a postmodern collage comprising images lifted directly from an assortment of books and real world historical events. Thus, the world of The Hunger Games feels a little bit 1984, a little bit reality-TV, a little bit Nazi Germany, and a little bit American dustbowl as those images evoke a set of emotional responses that are intended to help convey not what Katniss literally sees but rather how she feels about her world.
This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White’s children’s novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words ‘port’ and ‘Eton’ serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.
While The Lobster juxtaposes the real and the unreal in a satirical formation, it also makes use of formations that are surrealist, metaphorical, speculative and outright fantastical in the sense that the film’s studied unreality is often tempered by the emotional truths contained within the logic of stories. The Lobster moves between these different formations so smoothly that it is often difficult to determine whether the film’s imagery should be read as surrealist whimsy or part of a more complex metaphorical structure. Indeed, while much of the film may feel like a straight satire with surreal interludes, the final act recalls the way that Jose Saromago’s Blindness uses loss of sight as a sort of floating emotional metaphor.
As one might expect of a literary tradition with a propensity for radical self-reinvention, science fiction has spent the last century acquiring new dramatic formations. Back in the days of Hugo Gernsback, genre science fiction was unreal in the sense that it described things that did not actually exist but the unreality of the fiction was always grounded by an appeal to scientific rigour that served as a useful proxy for truth, authenticity, and engagement with the world. Since those early days, the genre has grown accustomed to a variety of different formations simply by virtue of the fact that people have long been able to approach the genre with different ideas about the genre’s purpose. These days, science fiction is not just satire, or metaphor, futurism, or surrealism but a combination of all and none. Viewed as a traditional work of science fiction, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is a completely unrealistic mess. However, viewed as a contemporary work of science fiction, it draws on a variety of different techniques to express deeper truths about what it feels like to be a teenage girl.
The Lobster is an awesome film because it manages to capture many deeper truths about what it feels like to be single, lonely, and middle-aged: It captures the way that our culture’s commitment to conventional heterosexual pair-bonding can make single people feel inadequate and sub-human. It captures the way that dating can often feel like a series of unreasonable traps. It even captures the way that trying to spend time with other single people can result in weird behaviour patterns designed to ward off the spectre of sexual tension before it has even presented itself. It is a film that expresses deep truths and rewards repeat viewings. In short, it does everything that great science fiction does and it does it with real humour and style.