Saturday, August 1, 2015

MIFF: Beyond language, beyond origin

It's MIFF time again!

The Melbourne International Film Festival began on Thursday night, and I was at my first screening the very next night, ready to go. Which led to quite a bit of deja vu.

Like last year, I started at the Forum Theatre on Flinders Street, and like last year, I started with a movie about the unusual relationship between humans and animals. Last year, it was Hungary's White God, about an uprising of dogs against their human oppressors. This year, it was Yorgos Lanthimos' English language debut, The Lobster, about a society where coupling is legally mandated, and singles who can't meet their soulmate within 45 days of arriving at a singles resort are turned into an animal.

Yep, that's the director of Dogtooth and Alps for you.

Unfortunately, the deja vu extended to my tepid response to a film I was anticipating. Both White God and The Lobster ultimately received only three stars from me.

You wouldn't have known it from The Lobster's first 20 minutes or so, which I spent in a state primed -- primed -- for laughter. Every little absurd tic -- and this is a movie comprised of absurd tics -- produced a titter in me. In other words, I was putty in this movie's hands, and was already thinking about how close to the top of my year-to-date rankings it would end up.

Unfortunately, it ultimately settled in the lower half of the movies I've seen so far in 2015. I attribute this primarily to a change halfway through that alters the mood and direction of what I thought the movie was doing. I won't say anything more about it than that, for fear of spoiling a movie I know many of you are anticipating as much as I was.

I will say that the way this movie uses language is something fascinating, something I want to spend some more time talking about.

As I noted, this is Lanthimos' English-language debut. The Greek director made his first four films in the Greek language, unsurprisingly.

It is not, however, his "Hollywood debut." "English-language debut" and "Hollywood debut" are phrases that tend to get used interchangeably, mostly because people are speaking off-the-cuff and not properly considering what they're saying. This is not a Hollywood film -- none more than either of his other two films I've seen, even.

It does, however, show a sort of curious deference to American audiences, but in ways that may not be immediately obvious. They were probably more obvious to me because I've been living in the British Empire for two years now.

So Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw are two of the bigger names in the cast, which also includes John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux. Farrell is of course from Ireland, and Whishaw is English. Both get to speak in their native accents -- something Farrell doesn't do all that often -- but the words they speak actually betray them. Early on, Farrell's David refers to a bisexual experience he had "back in college," when of course anyone with his brogue would say "back in university." And then Whishaw's "Limping Man" talks about being bad at math, when he would really say "bad at maths."

I guess it's all part of the sense that this strange land these characters inhabit -- which, it should be no surprise, is never identified (the film was shot in Ireland) -- is without a particular nationality. English is the spoken language, but not all the characters speak it very well, nor is it their native tongue. A maid who works in this resort (Ariane Labed) is one of two French actresses in the film, along with Blue is the Warmest Color's Lea Seydoux. In fact, at one point they have an entire conversation -- a conversation with some bearing on the plot, it would seem -- in French, without any subtitles. The conversation might last two minutes of screen time, which is an eternity when it comes along at the juncture of the plot that it comes, when the rules are changing and when something crucial is clearly being communicated.

In this way Lanthimos sort of seems to be putting his audience in the same position as one of his stars and key collaborators during his career -- a position of not really understanding what's going on. Angeliki Papoulia, who starred in both Dogtooth and Alps, appears here as well, not surprisingly. (I should mention that Labed is also a veteran of Alps -- although she was raised in France, she was born in Greece.) Papoulia doesn't speak any dialogue in her first four or five appearances in the film, so I thought Lanthimos might have been throwing some work her way without actually requiring her to learn English. (Or at least, learn how to parrot the words in English, even if she doesn't understand them.) But Papoulia does have a couple dozen lines of dialogue, which lends credence to the notion that pretty much any foreign actor of any prominence finds it in their interest to be able to work in English-language movies. Anyway, there's little doubt that even if she does have a preliminary grasp of English, she might not get everything that's going on -- even if the director speaks the same language she does and might be equally at sea in some respects.

So the whole movie kind of has this sense of displacement, of discomfort -- which certainly is to its benefit. Perhaps the guy who stands out the most is John C. Reilly, the only American present. And his language is affected by the decision to give his character a lisp, though I couldn't tell you entirely what that means beyond its contribution to the aforementioned theme of displacement.

The essential anarchy of Lanthimos' approach is good for this film -- until it stops being good. Until the absurdism starts to leave the realm of comedy and become something more recognizably Lanthimosian in terms of its sadism and need for shock value. However, that alone wouldn't have been a problem if I'd liked where Lanthimos had taken it, as I did in Dogtooth but as I did not in Alps.

So while I'm certainly glad Lanthimos' English-language debut is not more Hollywood, I will be hoping for something a bit more, shall we say, structurally satisfying on his next outing.

As for MIFF, I'll have a week between viewings now before I see the Romanian drama-thriller One Floor Below next Friday.

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