Film reviews David Stratton and Stephen Romei assess the latest movies
When the Greek film Dogtooth premiered at Cannes in 2009 it was immediately evident that here was a fresh and original cinematic vision. The strange story of an incestuous family living in a tightly controlled gated community clearly was intended to be seen as a metaphor for a patriarchal, inward-looking society, and on those terms was a brilliant success. Dogtooth was the second feature by Yorgos Lanthimos, and he followed it with Alps (2011), an equally bizarre depiction of an unusual form of grief therapy that won the Sydney Film Festival Award. Now comes the first English-language film from Lanthimos, The Lobster, an Irish-Greek-British-Dutch-French co-production, winner of the jury prize at Cannes earlier this year.
This time the allegory is more difficult to pinpoint, though Lanthimos and his co-writer Ef-thimis Filippou seem to be having a dig at contemporary courtship rituals. At any rate, the film appears to be taking place in the near future or in a parallel universe where the state is unhealthily interested in the mating game.
The film begins with a sequence in which a woman (Jacqueline Abrahams) drives furiously along a country road in heavy rain, stops the car, and fires a gun at a donkey grazing in an adjacent field. The scene is never referred to again, but the implications of it resonate as the unquestionably strange events unfold.
The principal setting for the film is a rather ordinary and decidedly old-fashioned hotel somewhere in the countryside. David (Colin Farrell) arrives at the hotel to be interviewed by the manageress (Olivia Colman).
From this interview it is revealed David is, effectively, a prisoner rather than a guest and his status is due to the fact he recently has been divorced. In this society, singles are not tolerated, and David — like the other “guests” in the hotel — is given 45 days to find a replacement mate. He’s asked about his sexual preferences and advised that bisexuality is not an option, “due to operational matters”. If he fails to find a partner he will be turned into an animal of his own choosing and released into the wild.
This wacky concept is described in deadpan fashion as the most normal thing in the world. David is asked which animal he will choose to be in the event he fails to couple up before the deadline, and his reply provides the film with its title — lobsters, he explains, live for 100 years and remain fertile all their lives.
Once you accept this bizarre premise — if, indeed, you do — you might imagine there would be a sense of urgency among the hotel’s inhabitants to find a mate before the deadline, but everyone seems to be very calm. Life at the hotel is strangely formal, and all the women wear dresses cut from the same cloth. David, the only character in the film given a name, seems in no hurry to connect with one of several attractive women looking for mates, and instead befriends a middle-aged man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and a young man with a limp (Ben Whishaw). With time running out, he makes an effort to court a woman (Angeliki Papoulia).
Meanwhile, outside the hotel, in forests that are inhabited by outcasts led by an anarchist (Lea Seydoux), rules are in force that are just as strict as those on the inside. Yet even as he contrasts and compares two equally controlling political movements, Lanthimos finds space for a surprisingly tender love story, thanks to the presence of Loner (Rachel Weisz), a young woman who questions the system.
There are no answers here, yet Lanthimos’s debt to the surrealists ensures there is plenty of unconventional questioning. Irish locations are used as the backdrop for these puzzling goingson, while an impressive collection of soundtrack music manages to include not only Stravinsky and Beethoven but also the Kylie Minogue- Nick Cave song Where the Wild Roses Grow.
With his new film, Lanthimos shows that his dystopian, seriously peculiar vision of the world has survived the shift from his native Greece into the realm of a European co-production in English without compromise. His vision remains intact, his humour as dry and at times unfathomable as ever. He is a true original.
Two new Australian films have, by sheer coincidence, almost identical plots. Both UnIndian and Alex & Eve are set in Sydney and involve relationships between lovers from different racial backgrounds with, in both films, family opposition to the cross-cultural romance.
UnIndian, directed by Anupam Sharma, is the story of Meera (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a divorced woman who lives with her 10-year-old daughter, Smitha (Maya Sathi), and who works as marketing manager for a company. Her controlling parents (Akash Khurana, Pathak Kapur) have keys to her house and are prone to drop in at any time. Things change when she meets Will, who teaches multicultural students ocker English at the University of NSW. Sparks fly but complications ensue.
Much has been written about the fact Will is played by former cricketer Brett Lee. Lee is perfectly fine in the role, exuding a natural, unforced charm. He’s not called on to do a great deal more than play himself but he does this with relaxed skill (and I suspect it’s not as easy as it seems).
The film is not without flaws. A subplot involving Meera’s ex fails to convince so that the climactic race-against-time goes for little, and Will’s class seems to belong to another era, while his dispute with his boss, John Howard, is a conflict that goes nowhere. Despite these flaws, the film is engaging in its cheerful celebration of community. Superb photography of Sydney by Martin McGrath is a major asset, but so is the positive depiction of Meera (beautifully played by Chatterjee), who juggles a demanding job with rearing her daughter and enjoying the attention of an Australian lover. The film’s final credits feature members of the crew dancing with the actors in an attractive display of multiculturalism.
Alex & Eve is less successful because director Peter Andrikidis tries too hard to milk comedy from the script. The romance is between Greek boy Alex (Richard Brancatisano) and Lebanese Muslim girl Eve (Andrea Demetriades).
Based on a successful play, the material may have been funny on stage, but it seems strained on film as both families register their horror at the romance. There are several similarities to UnIndian but here The Graduate- inspired ending seems particularly forced and the characters are stereotyped. The best performance comes from Helen Chebatte as Eve’s controlling mother.
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster, top; Brett Lee, second right, in UnIndian, left; Richard Brancatisano and Andrea Demetriades in Alex & Eve, below left