Conversations about film
May 30, 2021
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015
Jim Wilson: Adam, welcome to Collokino. I trust you’re doing well.
Adam Davie: Thanks for the invite, Jim. I’m doing well. I hope you are too.
Jim: I am, thanks. How’s life in Pittsburgh this time of year?
Adam: Life in Pittsburgh is on the up-and-up. A few things haven’t changed though. I’m still working from home. I’m still social distancing in some cases. But as of today, May 15th, I’m fully vaccinated. And I’m looking forward to getting out and about again. I have family in Florida and Louisiana that I want to visit. And I want to take a solo vacation myself. I haven’t decided where I want to go yet. But I still have time to figure that out.
The only negative that I have to report is that a restaurant that I really liked, Nola on the Square, closed in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. And they won’t be reopening. That’s a bummer, but it happens. There’s still a lot to do, good food/places to eat, and other activities that the city has to offer. Like movies, for instance, given that most of our theaters have now reopened. So I’ll be fine. What’s life like in CO? I read that your governor just ended mask mandates. They’re now mask “suggestions.” That should go over well since we have a terrible track record when it comes to trusting the science and following rules in the U.S. Is life getting back to normal where you’re at? And how are you feeling about the new year in general?
Jim: Well, what do you know, we’re both getting our second shots during the course of this conversation. Mine’s in a couple days. Since construction workers are considered “essential,” very little has changed for me during the pandemic, work-wise. I can’t speak for Colorado statewide, but the Boulder area is very liberal and institution-based, so most everyone is enthusiastically compliant with the rules. There is a funny thing I’ve noticed, though, where people often don’t wear masks in their homes, when there are workers around, but will put one on when they go out, as if their home space affords them some sort of temporary immunity. It’s odd.
I think that attempting to control peoples’ behavior around the virus has to be relaxed, whether that’s ideal or not. With more and more folks vaccinated, it’s just going to happen.
I do want to say, since you’re giving me something of an opening, that I’m appalled by the Biden administration’s response to what’s going on in Israel. From the statements they’ve released, it’s as if there’s only one party suffering from the conflict, the ones with all the power. I don’t understand why, after endless examples of it, so many can’t understand that when a population is constantly oppressed, delegitimized and dehumanized, eventually they will erupt, as the Palestinians have done many times. These things happen for a reason, and will continue to happen, until that reason, that cause, is ended. I’ll stop short of getting too far into the topic, since we’ve got a film to discuss, but it’s something I feel strongly about. I’ve been generally supportive of Biden, though I expected little, but it’s imperative that progressives in America loudly condemn what the Israelis are doing, and demand that the U.S. stop funding their systemic oppression of the Palestinians. I don’t expect much to change soon, but I am heartened by what seems to be a broader comprehension in the U.S. about the outrageous behavior of Netanyahu and the Israeli right.
Adam: I’m glad to hear that life has pretty much stayed the same for you since this all started. I also assume that living in Boulder has allowed you to breathe easy, figuratively speaking. Having a well-educated and well-informed population is key to getting through all of this. And I agree with you that, for political and personal reasons, some of the restrictions need to be relaxed. As harrowing as it may be, we need to get to a point where we can resume daily life and begin to trust one another again in a public setting.
Regarding the current iteration of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Biden administration seems to be following the long-standing tradition of supporting Israel no matter what while diminishing the Palestinian cause. I’m still learning more about the long-standing conflicts in the region, so I won’t harp on about it. But the unwavering support for Israel continues to baffle me when compared to our critical and tactical responses to other countries who engage in acts of war against a country of lesser or equal power.
Jim: The explanation’s clear enough, really, and regrettable, but let’s move on.
I’ve just come away from watching Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, so I’m suppressing the urge to speak in Regency-era English. That film left me in a puddle.
It would be inaccurate of me to say (you see?) that you brought The Lobster to talk about, since I put my foot on the scale a little. I was so excited to see it in your finals list, I had to endorse it. Tell me how you first discovered it, and how it impressed you.
Adam: I would say that before this film became a personal favorite of mine, I was attracted to the style and films of Yorgos Lanthimos as a whole. And it remains that way to this day. The man has a gift for examining the social traditions and mores which are deeply ingrained within us. And through his deadpan and absurdist style, he shines a light on the ways in which we bend over backwards to comply and remain (or at least appear) functional in today’s society. Even if that means we abandon some of our own individuality and freedom in the process.
My admiration of Lanthimos began with Dogtooth, which I probably heard about through a film blog like The Playlist or Indiewire. I can’t recall at the moment. And shortly after that, The Lobster was released. I can’t say that the film was an instant classic for me. But I think that my appreciation of the film has grown as I have grown as a person. I’m 36 right now. I’m single. And I’ve had some time to think about what I want in a relationship as well as what I don’t want.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve also had some time to think about the ways in which society has conditioned us to accept certain truths about romantic relationships. I’m thinking of things such as what your partner should look like, the amount of sex one expects out of a relationship, the expectation of kids and the impact that they’ll have on a relationship. All of which are touched on in this film. And for those who are able to adjust to the absurd way in which these ideas are presented to us, you should be able to see a bit of yourself in the way that Lanthimos satirizes the traditional relationship structure. And he’s just as critical of those who choose to remain uncoupled, which I found interesting. Both groups in this film consider their positions above reproach, which is a trap that a lot of singles and couples who are happy with their own personal situation fall into.
The first question that I asked myself prior to viewing the film was how this film would change due to my current relationship status. I’m still mulling over that question. But I am someone who desires to be in a fulfilling relationship. Although I’m not sure if I’m willing to go to certain lengths displayed in this film. I’m sure you can understand why. But I’d like to get your input.
I noticed that you rated this five stars on Letterboxd as well. I’d like to ask you the same question, if you don’t mind. How did you first discover this film? And how did it impress you?
Jim: I have to confess straight away here: I’m a really pathetic Léa Seydoux fanboy, and so that’s how I first discovered it, working my way through her filmography. I loved her performance, of course, but it was like discovering a great underground rock band, or an obscure novel, that completely exploded my preconceptions about what a film can do. It was the first Lanthimos film I’d seen. I think I watched Dogtooth almost right away after seeing The Lobster, and with that became a huge fan of his. I warmed right away to his absurdist world-building and the way he so easily cuts through to the truth of things, but I think it’s how he can conjure from such bizarre worlds these silent expressions of intense emotional longing that impresses me the most. There’s a sadness in Lanthimos’ films that always leaves me breathless. I’ve come to recognize it in other contemporary Greek directors, like Paschos, Tsangari and Tzoumerkas, a similar blending of the absurd and the doleful, along with a particular kind of playful cruelty. Many of the things I love so much about this film we’ll cover, I’m sure, as we work through it.
Start us out with a summary of the film’s plot, if you would. Where are we, who are we, and what are we doing?
Adam: The film is set in no place in particular. Yorgos is a world-builder, but more often than not, those worlds aren’t identifiable (e.g Dogtooth). If the setting is easily identifiable (e.g. The Killing of a Sacred Deer), then there’s often very little interest and emphasis placed on the particulars of a city. I imagine that he doesn’t want you to get hung up on identifying his themes, his characters, or his story with a specific place. The story is universal. The neuroses that these characters face and the binds that they find themselves in apply to all of us at some point in our lives.
The world itself is mildly dystopian. And in the world that Yorgos has created, it’s a crime to be single. If you are single, the “authorities” are notified, you’re rounded up with the rest of the singles and sent to “The Hotel,” a holding pen for those who are without a romantic partner. Once you’re at the hotel, you’re given 45 days to find a mate. If you don’t, then you’ll be turned into an animal of your choosing. We’re never shown how this actually happens. But it doesn’t matter. The absence of an explanation is good enough due to the anxiety that it instills in you. I assume that the guests of the hotel also share this anxiety.
Who we are is an easier question to ask. We’re placed in the shoes of David, a man I believe to be in his 40’s. He’s recently divorced (not of his own volition). And as a result of this, he’s taken to the hotel and tasked with finding a mate.
David is our eyes and ears within this new world. And through his interactions with others, we are fed plot points which allow us to make sense of this new and strange environment. The hotel itself is a training ground of sorts where men and women mingle amongst each other, are trained (or re-trained) on the benefits of coupledom, and instructed to focus on traits and archetypes that are extremely superficial, yet valuable when it comes to finding “love” as our world (and Yorgos’ world) defines it.
However, there are those who have chosen to rebel and remain permanently single. Their world is also a world that deals with absolutes, like the hotel. Being single is the only option and once you’ve made the choice, you can never go back. Those who deviate are punished. And during the film, David finds himself living amongst both worlds, which offers us as viewers the opportunity to see how both sides are firmly entrenched in the belief that it’s all or nothing in terms of these relationship agreements.
Jim: The “where”, as you point out, is insignificant, which the film’s cast underscores. Greek, French, Irish, British and American actors, with their respective languages and accents, all participate as indiscriminate citizens of the world of the film, which is really just “the city” and the surrounding countryside. This is, of course, an accurate description of many urban areas, where a polyglot of citizens resides, maybe even a kind of Babel. I do wonder, though, how much this aspect of the film is derived from conditions made by multiple production companies being involved, from various countries, than a conceptual element of the story. In other words, was it an aspect of production that was folded into the film’s design? The fact that The Maid (Ariane Labed) and the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) speak French to each other, when everyone else speaks English, says a lot more about the Greek-French Labed’s discomfort at speaking English (she said as much) than anything built into the film. I have more thoughts about the cast and the characters as presented in the script, something distinctive to Lanthimos’ style, which maybe we can get to eventually.
I think it’s pretty important to point out how comically absurd this world is. But because it’s a Lanthimos world, it’s absolutely air-tight, and makes complete sense within its own self-proscribed limits. The demonstrations the hotel staff present to the residents about the advantages of coupledom are so blatantly silly – The Maid suffering a simulated rape, because she’s alone, while she flaps her hands around, chirping “help, help”, for instance – can’t be seen as anything other than an outside indictment of this fictional world’s stupidity, but since all the players are entirely captive to it, it only intensifies the severity of its impact on them. Having your hand inserted into a toaster for the sordid crime of masturbation isn’t really absurd at all, when you consider the psychological and physical torture people have actually been subjected to for doing the same. It’s so thoroughly stupid, Lanthimos is pointing out, that it must be accurate, and true. Like Monty Python before him, Lanthimos is a genius at focusing on absurdity in the real world by overplaying it in an imaginary one. What better representation of the reality of the human world is there than this?
After watching it four times now, what I still struggle to comprehend is the shared “defining characteristic” that all successful couples must have, like the bloody noses shared between the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and John (Ben Whishaw), or the cruelty shared between Colin Farrell’s David and the Heartless Woman, played by Angeliki Papoulia. In both of these cases, there’s an obvious reference to pretense and deception, as those things play out in relationships, but in other cases the shared “defining characteristic” is thoroughly genuine, most notably between David and Rachel Weisz’s Short-Sighted Woman. On one hand, I hear Lanthimos talking about a measure of self-sublimation that all couples perform to achieve a manageable stasis. But I can’t help, too, sensing that he’s pointing to a gesture of conformity that society expects couples to perform, a show of reductive sameness, or unity, that blots out individual distinctions and inconvenient irregularities. But I’m still unsure, especially in light of the same conformity expected from the rebellious singles of the loner crowd in the woods, but with opposing standards. I guess I’m not really that mystified by it, and recognize the film’s indictment of established ways of thinking about romance, but I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject, or anyone’s, since I feel like I’m missing something. It certainly doesn’t detract from my love for the film, but it’s something that remains incomplete about my comprehension of it.
Adam: You may be right about the film’s cast. Although Yorgos himself has acknowledged that in many of his films (including this one), he chooses his actors based on instinct. If I were, chosen by Yorgos himself, I’d be honored. Mainly because his decision to bring you on has less to do with your resume and more to do with his belief that you can instinctually find your way into his world, inhabit this character that he has given you little to no information about, and trust that you’ll find your way. In past productions, he’s advised his actors to not “think too hard…just be present and things will reveal themselves.” Based on these instructions, and what you’ve previously described, I’d like to imagine that a piece of each actor’s deepest fears and insecurities about love were folded into the film’s character. And its characters. Because I don’t know how you get such layered performances out of such a sedated style of acting.
Colin Farrell is a prime example of this as he is someone who I wouldn’t have immediately tapped for the role of David, given his prior roles which painted him as a sex symbol / part-time action hero. But this version of Farrell, as David, feels right at home in the air-tight scenario that you’ve described.
When we first meet him, he’s sitting on a couch. He’s sullen, having just been given word that his wife no longer wants to be with him. And rather than rage, or cry, or beg for one more chance, what does he do? He asks her whether the new man wears contacts or glasses! Someone new to the Lanthimos universe is probably wondering why this is happening. But he’s exposing the laughable notion that David’s failures as a man / husband are somehow related to something completely out of one’s control. And that something so trivial as glasses or short-sightedness or contact lenses would make or break a marriage. But apparently it will in this new world that we’re in.
This is important to me because I think that it partly answers your question regarding the “defining characteristic” that you say you’ve struggled to comprehend. Yorgos indictment of our absurd “date or die” culture begins with the individual, those who constantly obsess over the smallest defining trait in hopes that it’ll be the key to catch someone’s attention. I’m thinking of John aka Limping Man and Nosebleed Woman. Once you have that person’s attention, your goal is to then become a chameleon of sorts, blending personalities and perspectives until there is no daylight between you and the other person. David’s coupling with the Heartless Woman is a testament to this.
This chameleon like act, similar to the lizard itself, has many functions, which is apparent in their relationship. Even though it’s all an act, he changes his behavior, his heart turns cold, and the sad sack of a man is temporarily replaced with a David that is unrecognizable and somewhat cruel. But because he isn’t true to himself, when his partner reveals her authentic self through an act that I’d hate to spoil in this discussion, he’s devastated. And he exits the relationship with even less to show for it than when he began. And what’s crazy is that I don’t blame the Heartless Woman for his loss. I actually think that she’s one of the more honest characters in the film.
Jim: My sense of Lanthimos’s casting strategy is exactly as you describe. The characters as they appear on the page must seem fairly hollow, each speaking in a flatly descriptive tone, even instructional, like a user’s manual. The written characters wait to be animated by actors whose instincts Lanthimos trusts will not only fill, but embellish the role. More than any other film of his, and I love them all, Lanthimos achieves this feat spectacularly in The Lobster.
Right, I’m almost embarrassed to not recognize the “distinctive characteristic” as a metaphor for wrong-headed thinking about attraction and attractiveness. It’s not that it works, even flimsily, but rather that it fails to secure a suitable mate, and in no small way because it interrogates the very notion of a suitable mate. By the same token, the loners’ enforced, even fetishized, solitude works about as well. I will suggest, though, that Lanthimos, and his co-writer Efthimis Filippou (it’s important to note), capture some things essential to how people consider relationships, and about which they’re right. I’ve personally been a loner most of my life, so I chuckle knowingly at the loners’ sad rituals, because for better or worse they work. I particularly love the importance of each loner to dig their own grave, in preparation for the inevitable day. It’s comical, sure, and pathetic, but also acknowledges the central tenet of death as a solitary act, and one for which each individual should be solely prepared and responsible. Conversely, the pretense of shared traits, of, as you point out, a merging of two people into one, actually does work to keep a lot of couples together.
But The Lobster is, in most respects, a love story – a successful, albeit tragic, one – about the relationship between David and The Short-Sighted Woman. They do share the “distinctive characteristic”, which in their case is short-sightedness. What do you think is uniquely different about those two characters that sets their relationship on a course not achieved by other hopeful lovers in the story?
Adam: I’m glad that you pointed out the fact that they’re both short-sighted. For some reason, that was going to be my initial response to this question, among others. But it’s obvious because the Short-Sighted Woman brings it up in one of the voiceovers. And that’s superficial; it’s something that would’ve connected them in the hotel.
After that connection is established, the two go deeper. Their compatibility is supported by a desire to free themselves from the repressive world that the Loner Leader has created.
There are others within the group who have taken to each other as we come to find out. And they may be as compatible as David and the Short-Sighted Woman. But their efforts were stifled; and they were awarded with the Red Kiss, which seems like an extremely harsh punishment for such a minor infraction. But it’s in keeping with one of the themes of the film. I’m referring to certain characters resorting to extremes in response to trivial actions taken by other characters whenever their worldview is questioned or jeopardized. The Loner Leader bestowing the Red Kiss on two loners and the Lisping Man’s hand being placed in the toaster by the Hotel Manager are two examples. And of course, being turned into an animal if you don’t find a partner within 45 days is the best example of this. It’s the deterrence theory applied to romantic relationships.
In order to avoid a similar fate, the two begin to develop a secret language, which is undetectable for the most part. There’s a level of effort that goes into creating, learning, and using this language, which forms a bond between the two that goes beyond the superficial. And as you already know, good communication is often listed as key to a good relationship. Lanthimos, and Filippou, like many others, are aware of this, as is the audience. But I noticed that we aren’t beaten over the head with these messages, when compared to the instructions the singles in the hotel receive.
There’s also a healthy level of effort put towards the Short-Sighted Woman’s needs, such as when she asks him to catch a rabbit. And of course, there’s the fact that she goes blind. Which would scare off most suitors. But not David. He reaches a point in their relationship where he’s willing to sacrifice some of one’s own needs, which I also viewed as a sign of an intelligent and valued partner. Which is what David proves to be. Once again, we aren’t beaten over the head with this. The film seems to retreat into a “show, don’t tell” phase as their relationship develops. My belief is that, if you’re a good partner, or, if you have traits which will make you a good partner to someone in the future, then you’ll recognize these positive traits in these two individuals.
While on the topic about relationships which have potential, and since you’re a Lea Seydoux admirer (I’m quite fond of Rachel Weisz myself), I’d like to get your thoughts on the scene which takes place between the Maid (Ariane Labed) and the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux). There are some unrequited feelings there which go unexplored, but the scene stuck out to me this time around due to the Loner Leaders passion and admiration for The Maid. What’s going on there? And aside from the obvious reasons, why doesn’t Seydoux’s character want to act on those feelings?
Jim: I just went back and watched all the scenes between Labed and Seydoux, and I have to say it’s a part of the film I’ve overlooked, when you’d think it would occupy more of my attention. Although the two appear together in a number of scenes, once Labed’s The Maid has decided to desert her post at the hotel altogether, and join the Loners, there are two primary scenes between them. In the first, which I think is the one you’re referencing, Seydoux’s Loner Leader thanks The Maid for all that she’s done for her, and hugs her, eliciting a facial expression from The Maid that suggests uncertainty about the Leader’s intentions. In the second, the newly blinded Short-Sighted Woman brandishes a knife at the Loner Leader, and the Leader draws The Maid between her and Weisz’s character, resulting in The Maid being stabbed and killed.
I think it goes without saying that the Loner Leader has feelings for The Maid. I suspect, though, that the Leader’s cynicism about romance and relationships sours her ability to express that in any complete way, and probably leads her to a fair degree of self-loathing. Using The Maid as a stand-in for herself during the confrontation with the knife wielding Short-Sighted Woman is a physical manifestation of that self-hatred. She uses the object of her repressed desires, The Maid, as a sacrifice to the person she has maimed, The Short-Sighted Woman. It feels like a classic response to feelings of self-hatred, jealousy, and a good helping of despair, though I don’t know if I can fully describe the mechanics of it. The Loner Leader’s hatred for love and relationships is complete, even for her own budding affections, the object of which she has murdered as a stand-in for herself.
Back to the subject of casting, placing Léa Seydoux in the role of the Loner Leader is pitch perfect. Although she was, especially early in her career, usually cast in pretty sexualized roles, she typically played an outcast, or someone whose beauty and desirability estranged her from a sane romantic life. I think principally of Belle epine, La belle personne,and Sister, even Lourdes to an extent, as excellent examples of this. The role of the Loner Leader is, in a grimly comical way, perfect for her. The scene when the Loners invade the hotel and the Loner Leader plays her cruel trick on the hotel managers, is one of my all-time favorite Seydoux scenes.
The secret language between David and The Short-sighted-Woman is one of those little things I could go on at length about, and about language in general in the film, but it has to be forsaken for broader targets. There are a lot of characters in The Lobster, though most often attention is given to the top four or five, all of whom we’ve been discussing. More needs to be said about all the others, who are all spectacular, like the couple who manage the hotel, the Nosebleed Woman, The Lisping Man, the Biscuit Woman, or John the Limping Man, to name a few (and another impressive list of actors). Which of them stand out to you, and what unique insights do those characters, and their performers, lend to what I think we both agree are the central ideas of the film, about how we try to harden, and then police, the boundaries of our relationships?
Adam: The Biscuit Woman, played by Ashley Jensen, stands out for me because of what she represents. There are people in this fictional world who dread a fate that’s worse than being transformed into an animal. I’m thinking of the feeling of growing old. And being alone. It’s something that isn’t really touched upon in the film as it would be too on the nose for someone like Lanthimos. But Jensen is able to expose this in her performance.
The first time we see The Biscuit Woman, she is sizing David up from the back window of the coach near the three-minute mark of the film. This small detail eluded me during my first viewing. But it speaks to the power of repeat viewings (as well as this discussion). It’s also noted in the script that as soon as David gets on the bus, she goes over to his assigned seat, and initiates a conversation. This didn’t make it into the final cut of the film, but it confirmed my suspicions. And it provides context for their later encounter.
I’d like to imagine that she is well aware of what awaits her; not only in the form of the hotel, but her prospects for finding a new mate given her age. There’s a desperation that all of the singles may harbor, but she seems to express it with more force than others. This applies to Lisping Man as well.
Her encounters at the first ballroom dance are just as awkward: She’s rebuffed by the Heartless Woman when she asks to sit down next to her, her dance with Limping Man goes nowhere as he uses his limp to excuse himself from an encounter he knows is going nowhere. And after the dance, as they are on their way to or from a hunt, she propositions David. And is handed a soft rejection that is nonetheless made more painful by David’s awkward, yet understandable silence and excuses/rejections.
When she fulfills her promise to jump from the window if she can’t find a suitable mate, her decision carries weight for many reasons. While she chose this course of action, you can’t help but think of the hotel’s culpability in all of this. Although they were probably enforcing a rule that’s been handed down from some government official or body. And in the real world, the responsibility for convincing someone that their worth is tied up in their attractiveness or other superficial traits is something that should be borne by us all. No one pushed her out of the window. But we all bear responsibility for her arriving at that point, imo.
Jim: Adam, you’re making me cry here, goddammit.
The Biscuit Woman is an amazing character, it’s true. She feels, by far, the most normal and natural of all the film’s characters, meaning the most connected to this world, not the fictional world of the film. The way you describe her triggers an emotional response in me because growing old alone is fucking hard. It’s hard enough without all the judgement that’s passed by the world-at-large. Layer onto that the self-appraisal, and the constant self-doubting. In that light, the prospect of suicide by leaping from a first-floor window isn’t absurd at all. Her piercing screams as she lies bleeding on the paving stones sends shivers up my spine every time.
As you say, she is entirely responsible for her own actions, though some culpability has to be laid at the feet of social norms and the pressures of conformity. But we all shoulder those burdens differently, meaning all the loners and mismatched misfits in the world. In the case of the Biscuit Woman, hers is a clearly desperate path, a longing for connection, no matter how pathetic the attempts. Others are resigned to it, like the Lisping Man, or defy it, like the Heartless Woman, who isn’t, I imagine, as heartless as she seems. In total, so much of the emotional wallop the film delivers is, for me, all the silent screams rising up from so many of these characters as they’re compelled to cohere to social contracts that function primarily to exclude. This is at the very heart of The Lobster’s greatness, and its bottomless melancholy.
Like anything Lanthimos, it’s important to emphasize the technical aspects of the film – the craft of it – as it functions similarly to the performance styles, as a means of hyperbole, caricature and excess. Any time I think of The Favourite, for instance, I recall eye-popping wide-angle lens views, flickering candlelight, and plucked violin strings. In the same way, The Lobster is replete with its own stylistic flourishes. I’m curious to hear what stands out for you. I always think of that high-speed slow-motion sequence when the hotel guests go on their first loner hunt, especially John C. Reilly as the Lisping Man and his wonderfully expressive facial contortions as he crashes through the branches. But what always stands out for me with The Lobster is how the audio of the audience in the hotel scenes, when responding to the presentations on stage, squares, or doesn’t square, with the crowd’s reserved appearance. The audio is filled with whistles and catcalls and hooting, while we see the docile crowd politely clapping. It’s classically underhanded Lanthimos, a subtle disparity that, even if unnoticed, amplifies that profoundly discomfiting quality always present in his films.
Adam: If you shed a tear or two because of my last response, I hope you know that it wasn’t my intention, Jim. I just shared what’s on my heart. Thank you for letting me know that it resonated with you.
That the Biscuit Woman’s screams are used by David to wiggle his way into the arms (and not necessarily the heart) of the Heartless Woman is another thing I found interesting about the entire sequence. It’s not uncommon for two people to bond (whether platonically or romantically) over a shared tragedy. Their mutually held grief and sympathy for the victim(s) can bring them closer to one another. But this shared grief is non-existent in the relationship that David attempts to forge with the Heartless Woman. And it just leads to more tragedy when she murders his dog/brother. We’re essentially watching David make the same mistake as John a.k.a. Limping Man, but with more dire consequences. And while we view Biscuit Woman as the ultimate tragedy, I can’t help but see a little bit of her desperation in David. He’s no spring chicken either.
Regarding the technical aspects of the film, is it ok if I suggest the setting itself? It’s a deliberate choice, isn’t it? There’s often very little that a director can do to obtain the proper lighting, angles, and other aspects of a film that generate the specific mood that the production team is aiming for. But I’m drawn to the perpetual overcast which hangs over all of him films. This is no doubt a conscious choice. And given that many of his films deal with the internal gray areas of our personal and professional lives, this is something that always stands out for me. There are no outs in his film nor are there rays of sunshine which peak through to let you know that there are brighter days ahead. There’s just the here and now, the conundrums that arise from our interpersonal conflicts, and the ambiguity that is one of the few constants in our lives.
Jim: Oh, I’ll weep at the slightest provocation. Not your fault. Honestly, it’s testimony to the strength of your writing.
If Lanthimos was looking for grey skies, Ireland was a good choice for setting, since it gets its fair share. And that constant damp that hangs over the film, as well. I saw somewhere that the cast loved the time spent at The Parknasilla Hotel in Kerry, and The Eccles Hotel in Cork, like a big actors’ vacation at a luxury hotel. It is a very cool setting. Every time I watch it, I love the scene between David and the exceedingly vain Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend (Emma O’Shea). I’ve never seen anything like those tiled recliners they’re sitting on, poolside. Maybe it’s my tradesman’s eye for stuff like that, but I delight in those every time, imagining what it’s like to lay back on one.
Thinking of O’Shea’s character reminds me of a thought I had the last time I watched it. What do you think the circumstances would be that would lead two best friends to become single around the same time, and end up at the hotel together? Does the angelic beauty of them both say anything about it? I can easily imagine those two as part of a pretty active dating scene. Furthermore, it raises another question, about how young love, and young couples, are perceived in this world, a time in life when the permanence of relationships is far from assured. Do this world’s rules pertain only to married couples? Probably. But then why would anyone get married (why indeed)? Is that maybe another conceptual nugget in a film chock full of them?
Okay, so, after that and anything else you want to bring up, maybe it’s time to move on to the film’s ending, at Joel’s Restaurant, where David and the Short-Sighted Woman rest after escaping The Loners. It’s a pretty amazing sequence. Walk me through your thoughts on it.
Adam: That’s a great question. And I don’t think that it has anything to do with beauty.
Nosebleed Woman seems like a very nice woman. Who ends up being duped into being with a very nice man. She’s also appears to be along for the ride that O’Shea’s character, credited as Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend, seems to be on at the moment. It almost feels like she’s the caboose while the best friend is the locomotive. Friends often talk about following each other to the end of the earth. And I suspect that’s what happened here, with some gentle prodding from O’Shea’s character. To your point, it seems like they’d have no trouble getting dates in the real world. I’m sure that the conversation between the best friend and Nosebleed woman started with assurances from Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend that they’d both find a partner in no time.
Yes, they’re friends. But there’s also something a bit off about their relationship, which is revealed during the scene in which Nosebleed Woman attempts to share her heartfelt feelings with her best friend before she’s turned into an animal. And instead of receiving gratitude, she’s met with an open hand slap across the face.
Jealously can seep into any relationship, given the right time and opportunity. And that’s certainly happened with these two. During that scene, her face is devoid of emotion. But there’s an incredulity & internal rage which lies behind her unmoved demeanor. Maybe it’s Nosebleed woman’s comments regarding making new girlfriends. Maybe the best friend believes that she’s prettier than Nosebleed Woman and deserves the relationship that her friend is now engaged in. Or, maybe she expected her friend to follow her into the transformation room. That way, they’d both be miserable together. There’s an opening there for us ponder. But in the end, the world in this film is so airtight (like you previously mentioned) that their fates are sealed and there’s no way that they can avoid the inevitable.
The final sequence is in keeping with the style of Yorgos, who often concludes his films with scenes which, if carried to their logical end, would offer a catharsis of sorts to the viewer. But aside from watching David blind himself with a steak knife, the film actually concludes itself when we watch him attempt to do it the first time, fail to follow through, and then attempt once again. All the while, the Short-Sighted Woman waits patiently believing that her beloved is ready to commit a major sacrifice on her behalf. But there are limits to love, which is the point that I believe Yorgos is trying to get across.
This leads me to the obvious questions: What was he going to do after blinding himself, while covered in blood in the middle of a restaurant bathroom in the middle of the city? How did they expect to wiggle out of that situation when both of them are now blind??? And how do they expect to manage their everyday affairs and avoid detection by someone associated with the hotel or the loners as they attempt to blend with the rest of the couples in the city? Given that this world is built on coupling together based on superficial traits, wouldn’t they be better off telling others that they’re both deaf in one ear? I think that this final sequence is brilliant because this is less about David blinding himself physically. It’s about him (and many of us) being blind to the ways in which the affections and/or desiring of another makes us do foolish things.
Maybe I’m injecting too many common sense thoughts into a world that is devoid of it. Because if that’s what Yorgos wanted, that’s the world that he and Efthimis Filippou would’ve created. But, when dealing with matters of love, coupledom, romance, and the sacrifices that one makes for another, oftentimes it can make sense for one partner to do something in order to demonstrate their sincerity and willingness to make things work. There’s an equilibrium that is maintained. But other times, and this is one of them, there are sacrifices that make no sense, serve no one, and leave both parties worse off in the end.
Jim: I’ve considered all those things. How is David blinding himself going to help their predicament in the least? But that’s obviously not what Lanthimos himself is wondering about.
The first thing about the ending that strikes me is David’s continued insistence on them sharing the ever-so-critical “defining characteristic”, so much so that he’s ready to poke his eyes out in the restaurant lav with a steak knife. The real high point is Weisz’s character showing David her elbows, so that he can get one last look at them before going blind. It’s one of those quintessential Lanthimos moments, when absurdity and affection combine to express something truly genuine. I think of Maren Ade, for some reason, the German director, who’s also a genius at joining those two elements.
But if David and The Short-Sighted Woman are to live happily in the city together, don’t they need to have that shared condition? Isn’t David doing what is necessary for them to re-enter “acceptable” society? It’s achingly tragic. So I see Lanthimos doing three things in the end. One, he’s taking the Lobsterworld’s internal logic to its natural conclusion, given these characters. Two, he’s questioning the space between pragmatism and passion, between the gigantic forces of the world in which we live and are governed by, and the puny power of individual will. And three, he’s foregrounding it all in front of a world that couldn’t give a shit, and not out of any hostility, but because it’s all too small. Like you said above, the here and now, the mundane, is our inescapable context, always. The work crew visible through the window behind their restaurant booth drives this point solidly home. For all these people have been through, there’s still Joel’s Restaurant in Dublin operating another day, and roads and parking lots that need to be maintained, a whole world just carrying on. It always leaves me breathless, that ending.
I usually finish these talks with some kind of question for my guest that’s not about the film. This time, though, it’s inspired by the film, but can hopefully lead elsewhere. If you were in Lobsterworld, and were single for 45 days, and were now being taken to the Transformation Room, what animal, of your choice, would you soon become? Why that animal?
Adam: I assume that, like Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend, I would be defiant in some way shape or form. And so I’d be as difficult as possible. I’d ask them to turn me into a whale. It would then be the Hotel’s responsibility to escort me to the sea. It wouldn’t be my problem anymore as I wouldn’t possess the capabilities of a human being to recognize myself in my new form. Nor would I understand what it meant to be human. So if they end up chopping me up into little pieces in order to avoid transporting me to the sea, I’d be ok with that.
When the film was being promoted a few years ago, there was a quiz on the film’s website that you could take. It would then tell you what type of animal you are or would become. I was listed as an elephant. So if they can handle an elephant, then they can handle a whale too. Plus, this would provide an additional method of protection against jilted lovers, which is covered briefly during the film’s opening. I’d be continually on move (hopefully), which would make it harder to find me. Unless my ex decides that she wants to be a polar bear. Or a killer whale, which has been known to prey on other whales from time to time. Maybe I should be as specific as possible. But maybe there are no good options?
What about you, Jim? What would you choose?
Jim: It’s one of a few things. My first thought is some extinct animal, like a dodo or an aurochs. Would that be possible? I imagine that in a world so skilled in the art of bioengineering, it would be at least a beta option, right? That way I could spend my second life as a glorious circus freak, witnessed by packed houses the world over, popping my plumage, or making sublime trumpet noises for all the nerds to fetishize. My second, more compelling thought is to become the animal I fear most. Not just the animal, but the single thing I fear most in the world: a shark. Imagining it, it feels like I’m shimmying into a heavy, dully electrified rubber skin. I’m very unhappy about it, because I’m armless and perpetually hungry. I will be transformed into the thing I fear the most. That’s intense. On the up side, I reserve the cheap thrill of terrifying everything I come into contact with. Yeah, that’s it, a shark. Shudder. It’s fucked up even saying that.
Adam, thanks for talking through this amazing film with me. Think of another film to immortalize, and we’ll do it again.
Adam: You’re welcome, Jim. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss this amazing film. I can’t wait to do it again.
And thanks for picking a sea-dwelling creature as well. If the hotel’s going to turn us into animals, let’s make it as difficult for them as possible.