Absurdism, Film

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

A film currently in the cinemas, The Lobster*, has no coherent ending. It has no coherent beginning either and the middle section is plain absurd. But for those that like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like. I loved it.

Dystopias usually show life as recognisably normal except for minor changes to cultural norms that unleash havoc. (It is like the mystical Jewish belief that the Messiah will transform everything completely with only minimal adjustments.) The small but devastating change to the world envisaged in The Lobster is: it is obligatory for all adult humans to be in a relationship as a couple. If a human fails to, or is unable to, love he or she is promptly transformed into an animal. A bestiary of semi-exotic strays wander through the backdrop to the film (camels, flamingos, wolves, rabbits, Shetland ponies etc.) as a reminder of the consequences of failure in love.

The human world in this film is tripartite. Either humans live as a successful couple in a relationship, but always in the knowledge that danger is only a lover’s tiff, or bereavement, or act of adultery away. Or, secondly, those who have recently found themselves out of a relationship are committed to a hotel-cum-prison-cum-dating agency and given 45 days to find an alternative partner or face the drastic consequences of failure. Or, the final option, those who live as a singleton outlaw in the woods on the run but in constant danger of being ruthlessly hunted down.

Music is also used to divide the world into three. A successful couple play a spanish guitar duet together in harmony. Whereas in the hotel couples mooch warily in close hold whilst crooners sing unconvincingly Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart. Meanwhile the singleton loners in the woods jerkily dance alone to electronic dance music via earphones. The incidental music (like the narrative) starts and stops abruptly and minor-key despair is never allowed to resolve into major-key contentment. In this way Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, a Beethoven String Quartet, Nick Cave and Stravinsky contribute to the discomfort and emotional darkness.

By the end of proceedings it seemed to me wholly preferable to be turned into an animal and avoid all aspects of this human life. Who is up for these love stories with a twist: boy meets girl, girl kicks boy’s dog to death? Girl meets boy, boy deliberately stabs both his own eyes with a steak knife? And the punishments meted out by others (as it happens inflicted by sadistic women) in both the hotel and the woods are brutal. In the hotel self-love is denounced: a man has his hand forced into a burning toaster for masturbating. In the woods being in a relationship is denounced: one couple both have their lips cut with a knife for kissing.

Did I mention that this is a comedy? Regular readers of this blog will know of my penchant for dark satire, for bitter comedy found in the unlikeliest places. Well even I was tested here. The cinema audience, where I watched it last night in Newcastle, were uproariously laughing out loud and then silent in shocked horror within a minute. This is the comedy of twisted dead-pan, absurdist surrealism and grotesque downbeat noir. If Ionesco, Borges, Kafka, Greenaway, Būnuel, Kubrick, Orwell and Kaufman had collaborated at a script convention this may have been the result. What other film could make an unknown women walk up and shoot at random a donkey in the rain with a handgun from point blank range seem both logical and rational?

I have warned before of the futility of searching for meaning in the absurd, and The Lobster thankfully finesses any allegorical reading. It is a film firmly rooted in the rich tradition of European absurdism, not a first-date movie.

*The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and the Palm Dog Award. Written by the director and Efthymis Filippou

Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Angeliki Papoulia, Olivia Coleman, Ashley Jensen, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw


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