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Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist dystopia is the best of Cannes so far

The Lobster

7:50 a.m. I hit the snooze button too many times to make it to Cannes by bike. Frederic, my hotel manager in Juan-Les-Pins, fixes me a coffee while I wait for a cab. The driver is a local with a thing for bachata, the dance music of the Dominican Republic.

8:30 a.m. A friend once called Arvo Pärt the “I Got You (I Feel Good)” of the art film circuit: great music made meaningless by overuse. The Estonian composer’s work is all over Nanni Moretti’s decidedly minor My Mother (Grade: C / C+), which also features what sounds like a sped-up version of Brian Eno’s “An Ascent,” along with songs by Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen, countless short dream and daydream sequences, and basically every cue the director can think of for telling the audience exactly how his protagonist feels.


Moretti regular Margherita Buy stars as a director (also named Margherita) in the midst of shooting the kind of movie-within-a-movie that never seems like a real production: a vaguely defined labor drama with an American actor (John Turturro, pretty funny) who can’t remember his lines. Meanwhile, Margherita’s elderly mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a retired classics teacher, has been hospitalized, compounding the stress.

Moretti has made a career partly out of evading dramatic conventions, but he also has a weakness for broad strokes. My Mother’s two halves—behind-the-scenes comedy and domestic drama, connected only by the character of Margherita—don’t interact in a meaningful way, and Margherita’s psychology is so bolded and underlined that it never has time to develop complexity. Still, as with much of the Italian director’s work, there are grace notes: Margherita’s brother (Moretti himself) fixing his mom a meal in the hospital; Barry (Turturro), the kind of star who annoys and endears the crew in equal measure, leading an impromptu dance on set; a skit-like set piece in which Margherita tries to direct Barry through a driving scene.

10:15 a.m. At Cannes, there is press to cover the press. Post-screening, the exits of the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the largest theater in the Palais complex, are mobbed with TV camera crews. I barely squeeze through a very persistent crowd of Italian reporters who want to interview foreign critics.

11:31 a.m. Reductio ad absurdum as dystopia: In the world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (Grade: B+), single adults are required to find a partner within 45 days or else be transformed into the animal of their choice. David (a paunchy Colin Farrell) picks the lobster, because they live long and he likes the sea. Left by his wife of 11 years, David is taken to a hotel compound where the non-attached—played by Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Ashley Jensen, and Jessica Barden, among others—can form couples or earn extensions by hunting down Loners, renegade singles who hide in the woods. With him, he brings Bob, a border collie who used to be his brother.


As in his breakthrough feature, Dogtooth, Lanthimos continually introduces new bizarre rules, rituals, and punishments. Trial couples are assigned elementary-school-age children to keep them from arguing; matches are based on arbitrary similarities, like having a limp or nice hair; bisexuality was phased out as an option “last summer.” He also keeps expanding the scope, from the hotel to the woodland world of the Loners—who wear unflattering ponchos and “only listen to electronic music”—and then to a nearby city, where patrolling police officers badger unaccompanied adults for proof of couplehood.

It’s a funny, unsettling, occasionally gruesome riff on the way a society can prioritize long-term relationships while codifying them into meaningless gesture. Dressed in identical clothes, the guests gather in the ballroom, where the married hotel managers serenade them with duets or perform skits about the importance of having a partner. The dialogue and performances are deliberately affectless (and inherently comic), suggesting a world of pure values, where every sentence is a declarative statement.


As the shocks and surreal-satirical conceits pile on, they accumulate meaning, leading to a semi-ambiguous finale that questions whether it’s even possible for two people to be in love on terms other than the ones their culture has laid out for them. There’s comedy that’s weird for its own sake, and then there’s this.

2:50 p.m. A companion piece to the writer-director’s great My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument, My Golden Days (Grade: B / B-) is Arnaud Desplechin’s take on the coming-of-age movie, meaning it’s eclectically framed, staged, and structured, and cut with the Desplechin’s long-standing preoccupations with ethnography, the Cold War, and classical literature. One of several high-profile titles playing in the parallel Quinzaine festival this year, the film finds Desplechin returning to Paul Dedalus and Esther, one of several 30-ish couples who figure in My Sex Life…, here seen as horny teenagers in Roubaix, the northern hometown Desplechin seems to love to hate.


Returning to France after nearly a decade abroad, Paul (Mathieu Amalric) is stopped at the airport and interrogated by a nameless agent (André Dussollier) who tells him that there’s a man with his exact name, birthplace, and birth date living in Australia. In a typically off-beat move, Paul begins his story as an Iron Curtain thriller about his adventures as a teenager (Quentin Dolmaire) helping Soviet Jews during a school trip to Minsk. From there, My Golden Days segues into a more traditional tale of teenage heartbreak, in which undergrad Paul falls in love with high-school-age Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, who looks strikingly like Emmanuelle Devos, who played the character in My Sex Life…) over weekend visits home.

Set to a soundtrack of jangly ’80s college rock and old-school hip-hop, My Golden Days bursts with details of small-town teenage life in the pre-cell-phone age, but its teenage cast lacks the neurotic intensity needed to match Desplechin’s convoluted plotting and all-over-the-place style, with its iris shots, cinephilic quotations, inter titles, and idiosyncratic cuts. Still, it’s a treat to follow, and, like so much of the director’s work, it’s packed with oddball details and subplots that are either very imaginative or extremely personal.


6:52 p.m. In line with friends for Carol at the Debussy, the larger afternoon press venue at the Palais, I see a colleague rushing over, with both sleeves of his shirt ripped halfway off. Later, we learn that he was attacked while trying to get through a crowd of Natalie Portman fans.

7:04 p.m. “What a strange girl you are, flung out of space.” Oh, what a touch of Douglas Sirk could have done for Todd Haynes’ Carol (B-, but could go up), an intelligent, but emotionally muted adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian romance The Price Of Salt, originally published under a pseudonym in 1952. Set that winter, Carol stars Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, aspiring photographer and clerk at Frankenberg’s Department Store in Manhattan. There, a few days before Christmas, she meets the title character (Cate Blanchett), the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Hargess Aird, who wears furs and lives in a wealthy New Jersey suburb.


There’s a growing attraction, tiptoed around for much of the movie for reasons of time, place, and class, even as the two women set off on an impromptu road trip to the Midwest. (Coincidentally, this is my second pre-gay-rights lesbian relationship of the day, after My Golden Days, the early parts of which deal with Paul’s beloved great aunt and her Russian partner.) Working for the first time from someone else’s script, Haynes retains his knack for parsing and navigating subtext, while Ed Lachman’s Super 16 mm camerawork blends stiff compositions with rugged and grainy textures, suggesting a world restrained from forbidden touch.

But while Mara and Blanchett are typically good as vulnerable individuals, they’re never all that convincing as two people in love with each other. (It doesn’t help that there’s a central sex scene that’s cut like a nudity-clause contract negotiation.) Highsmith’s novel is considered unusual for the period because of its more-or-less happy ending, but Carol is almost too tactful and whispered for the romance to register as a point of release. Then again, Haynes is a smart filmmaker, and perhaps the impossibility of a genuinely fulfilling togetherness in a world like the one Therese and Carol exist in is the whole point.


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