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Films
by Kathi Maio

ANIMAL HUSBANDRY


JANE Austen opened her masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, with the following sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." And she spent the rest of her novel illustrating the veracity of her statement. Men and women need, above all else, to make a good match. And woe to those who don't.

Little has changed in the more than two hundred years since Ms. Austen published her novel. Although society has changed in many ways, the romantic imperative and the overwhelming impulse to be in a couple is still with us—most especially in movies and other popular culture. There's a reason that Pride & Prejudice is remade every few years (with or without zombies). And there's a reason the majority of contemporary stories and songs still repeat the same refrains. Even in modern films that supposedly celebrate a hedonistically free hook-up culture, like this year's How to Be Single, the characters spend most of their time purposefully or accidentally making a love connection. Being single is still not viewed in a positive light. And the angst about being alone and the distrust of those, especially women, who remain single is a powerful commodity, easily exploited in film.

I remember seeing 1987's Fatal Attraction in a crowded movie house. The sexually predatory (and yet deeply pathetic and needy) female lead, Alex (Glenn Close), at first seems like a capable and confident "career woman." But after a short affair with a (purportedly) happily married man (Michael Douglas), her true colors as a deeply disturbed fiend, desperate for a man, become apparent. By the end of the movie, this sophisticated singleton has devolved into a bloodthirsty psychopath—a monster, in fact—who must be destroyed by her hapless lover's virtuous wife (Anne Archer), a woman willing to kill to protect her nuclear family.

To this day, the thing I remember most about seeing Fatal Attraction was how easily the audience embraced the idea of the single woman as a monster who must be destroyed. Cries of "Kill the Bitch!" could be heard in the theater. And the filmmakers obliged. It is telling that the original version of the screenplay had Glenn Close's character committing suicide and framing her lover with her death. But that ending tested badly. So director Adrian Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden instead opted for a climax more definitively and satisfyingly bloodthirsty. When drowning the spinster monster doesn't work, she's shot. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Fatal Attraction might seem like a movie with an extreme response to its single protagonist, but for an even more chilling story about the dire consequences of the unpartnered life, you may look no further than The Lobster, the first English-language film from the Greek absurdist Yorgos Lanthimos.

In an alternate world, very like contemporary Europe, societal disapproval of single people has been institutionalized in the most severe manner. All adults must be in a committed relationship. And no exceptions are permitted. David (Colin Farrell) thought he was settled for life until his wife of over eleven years leaves him for someone else. He is summarily kicked to the curb, where he is picked up by a van—a paddy wagon, in fact—and transported to a "Hotel." Here, he has forty-five days to find another mate, or be turned into the animal of his choosing. (David's choice gives the movie its title.)

It is at this sterile and desolate resort, where everyone dresses alike, that even a new widower or a fresh divorcé must feverishly get on with the business of finding an appropriate mate. It doesn't help that it is believed that good mates must share some key characteristic like a limp, frequent nosebleeds, or a sociopathic disregard for others. The only way of prolonging one's grace period is by hunting down and capturing escapees called "Loners." But David isn't much for hunting; not for loners, or for life partners. After making an ill-conceived attempt at a match, with violent and tragic results, David escapes to the nearby forest, to become a Loner himself.

But if our hero hopes for a freer and more compassionate society among the sylvan singles, he is quickly disabused of this hope. The Loners oppose the dominant culture in a manner that is equally rigid and violent. The Leader (Léa Seydoux) makes it clear that love connections, even flirting, will not be tolerated, and punishments for infractions are just as harsh in the forest as what happens to a man (John C. Reilly) who breaks the rules about masturbation back at the Hotel.

Authoritarian culture at either side of the spectrum is an evil. And the human heart is not generally amenable to social control. Ironically, David finds a woman (Rachel Weisz) who might well be his soulmate, while living amongst the rebel society that permits no romantic relations. The course of true love never did run smooth, and in the case of these two short-sighted sweethearts, that is especially true.

To tell you much more about the plot of The Lobster would be a disservice to you, gentle reader. But suffice it to say that Mr. Lanthimos and his longtime writing partner, Efthymis Filippou, have created a memorable movie fable. Here, so many sights and plot devices make no sense until you reflect upon them. A thing may be absurd without being silly.

For example, at times, a flamingo or a camel will wander through a forest shot. How pretentious and dumb, you might, at first, think. Then you realize that these are the Hotel "guests" that "didn't make it." These creatures are the lonely hearts who were forcibly shape-shifted into animals ill-suited to a damp European clime. And so it is with the final scene of the movie in which David contemplates a hideous act. You might recoil. (I certainly did!) You might also say that what he is considering is a preposterous and insane act. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense. People internalize the values and assumptions of the society they live in, the filmmakers are telling us. Even against logic and their own self-interests.

Although a distant relative to the work of the great twentieth century surrealist Luis Buñuel, The Lobster is like nothing you have ever seen before. I predict that your response will be an intense one. You may consider it one of the worst movies you've ever seen. Or, like me, you might find this singular movie—at turns mordantly hilarious and deeply disturbing—to be one of the best you've seen in a good, long while.

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