Is this a Greek new wave?

Rex Dunn reviews: Yorgos Lanthimos (director); The Lobster, general release

Film maker Yorgos Lanthimos has the ability to reach out to a wider audience from his native Greece - just as his compatriot, Theo Angelopoulos, did a generation ago. But there the comparison ends. Whereas the humanism of the latter - eg, in his Travelling players (1975) - was marred by a Stalinist perspective, the former has freed himself from this tag, albeit at the expense of a direct form of humanism.

For artists, filmmakers, etc, so far disillusionment with Stalinism leads to only one thing: a postmodern world view which abandons any attempt at a grand narrative altogether, wherein hope gives way to despair. At least on the basis of his two most successful films to date, Dogtooth (2009) and The lobster (2015), Lanthimos seeks to project a dystopian, cynical view of both present and future. Yet, when asked about Dogtooth after its release, he insisted that his film is not an allegory for anything (although he does not deny the use of satire). He prefers to stress the acceptable idea that it is up to the audience to find their own individual meanings. Hopefully he would not disagree with the idea that, at the very least, there are a number of obvious themes in his work; which points to something. So here goes.

Let’s start with the universal in the particular: Dogtooth is a low-budget film set in contemporary Greece. But it could be any developed capitalist society: rich businessman goes to extreme lengths to protect his family from the harmful effects of the outside world (including incest to satisfy the burgeoning sexual needs of his teenage offspring); which, of course, ends in tragedy. This film was only released in 2009; therefore Lanthimos can be forgiven for not using the Greek crisis (then only in its early stages) as a basis for his story. But what about 2015, wherein, during the intervening period, the Greek people have been subjected to the most draconian austerity measures in modern times?

In The lobster he eschews this altogether for a ‘comedy’ about contemporary relationships. Yet in its own way, this is a disquisition on the atomisation of bourgeois society, within which the age-old need for individuals to form a couple relationship is not immune. So Lanthimos offers us a scenario whereby a group of disparate individuals find themselves single again; however, they are desperate to find a new mate. Those who have the means - of course - can check into a hotel, somewhere in rural Ireland, where they can try their hand. (Note, this is a progressive enterprise, so all sexual preferences are catered for!) But there’s a catch: You only have 45 days; If you fail, you are transformed into an animal of your choice. That’s the deal!

Lanthimos is animated by a dystopian, as opposed to a utopian, world view - not without precedence vis-à-vis modernist literature and film history itself. The hotel is a metaphor (surely) for an authoritarian society, wherein failure to conform leads not just to ostracism, but to dire punishment in every case. Moreover, the victims are willing or unwilling participants in their own oppression (eg, they join in the hunt for anyone who tries to escape).

This leads to another theme: the idea of a dialectical struggle between opposites within society. On the one hand, we have an ideologically driven social form, which seeks to enforce couple relationships. On the other (without giving too much away), the only alternative is a social form, wherein strict celibacy is the order of the day. It is based on comradeship, if only at the platonic level! But in Lanthimos’s imaginary world, there is no possibility for these dialectically opposed forms to end in a synthesis on a higher social plane (ie, a social revolution); they are destined to continue in opposition to each other, without a favourable outcome for humanity.

In the case of the celibacy scenario, one is reminded of the novels of Orwell and Huxley. In 1984 free love is forbidden upon pain of torture and death. Whereas in Brave new world normal procreation between men and a women (let alone sexual desire!) has been superseded by laboratory methods - test-tube babies (which prefigured in-vitro fertilisation, long before this became a reality).

As for examples from cinema history, Lobster echoes John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), in relation to the theme of transformation. Here a man seeks to throw off the shackles of his existence as a dull, flabby, middle-aged businessman. Once again, given that we live in an unequal society, only people like him have the financial means to pay for a surgical operation, which gives him a new identity as a hunky, bohemian artist, à la Rock Hudson (in his pre-HIV days!). But this second chance proves to be just as unfulfilling. So ‘Rocky’ checks in to the same private clinic to have the operation reversed; which leads to “one of the most chilling endings in American cinema” (Time Out film guide). At least in Lobster the individual knows from the beginning what the ‘transformation room’ will lead to, if his/her quest fails!

Lanthimos’s dystopian theme goes hand in hand with dark, Kafkaesque humour: “Why have you chosen to become a lobster in the event of your failure to find a mate?” “A lobster lives for over 100 years; it has blue blood like the aristocracy (which I like); it remains fertile throughout the whole of its adult life.”

As if the pressure of finding a new mate within 45 days is not enough, the idea of a compatible couple is based on the (erroneous) principle that each person must bear similar characteristics, which places extreme demands on the erstwhile participants: a person who is prone to nose bleeds must find a partner who has the same problem (even if one of them has to bang his head to get the desired result). The inmates are also instructed to inform on each other. Woe betide anyone who is discovered to be cheating! A heartless woman seeks a heartless partner: to test him, she insists that he looks at her when they make love. (Pretend that you are just mowing the lawn!)

Many fail in their quest. In the ‘liberated’ zone various animals are seen wandering through the forest: eg, a peacock, a flamingo and a camel. The Stalinist guerrilla leader asks the ‘hero’, “Why did you go Awol?” “I went behind a tree to masturbate.” The guerrilla leader is a sort of female Che Guevara. But for R and R, she travels with a few select comrades into the city, where they take tea with her middle class parents.

Music plays an important, albeit conventional, role - as a means of ratcheting up the drama and the horror of these events. Here Lanthimos reveals a high-brow taste: he has chosen fragments of famous quartets, ranging from Beethoven to Shostakovich and Britten, which works very well.

But I was disconcerted to find myself laughing during scenes which combine human ingenuity, on the one side, with human cruelty towards others - and pets! - on the other. This is how Lobster will affect you too (unless you are like the ‘heartless’ woman who turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a champion hunter of escapees). But rest assured: such a reaction is OK. Even if Lanthimos denies it, this is not just another film made for laughs. It has a serious agenda. Even though he has chosen to ignore the elephant in the room (Greek austerity), at least for now, he has tackled a long-standing and, arguably, a deepening problem: the atomisation of human relationships under late capitalism, which reinforces an existing division within the ranks of the masses.

Perhaps it’s enough for an artist/filmmaker to ask tough questions and not provide the answers (leave that to the audience!). Maybe he has created a allegory, after all - which is no bad thing.