CANNES, France — The days go by so quickly here, and are packed so tightly with movies, that by the time you start rounding the final stretch of the festival — the prizes are announced on Sunday, the 24th — you’ve almost forgotten what you saw in the early days. But I still haven’t forgotten Yorgos Lanthimos’s competition film The Lobster, an absurdist romantic tragicomedy in which Colin Farrell plays a man nearing middle age who suddenly finds himself single. That wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t live in a society where single people are shipped off to a country hotel, where they must find a suitable mate in 45 days — or else be turned into the animal of their choice and released into the Woods, never to return to the City, where the civilized, coupled-off humans live.
There’s another angle, too: A bunch of renegade singletons, known as the Loners, also live in the Woods. The Loners are adamant about being alone; their leader, an amusingly dictatorial Léa Seydoux, forbids them to pair off, and the punishment for doing so is severe. When Farrell escapes from the hotel and becomes a Loner, he meets fellow Loner Rachel Weisz, and you can guess what happens.
Lanthimos — best known for his twisted 2009 art-house hit Dogtooth — has woven some crazily poetic ideas into The Lobster, particularly in terms of what it really means to ally yourself with another person: How much of yourself do you give up? What must you hold onto? And can you ever be sure you’re not just making the other person fit, just so you won’t have to be alone? Lanthimos’s sense of humor is as dry as a wishbone that’s been sitting out for too long, and some of his notions are bitterly funny: The singles who manage to find a potential mate at the hotel are rewarded by being allowed to move into a bigger room with a larger bathroom, suggesting that Lanthimos is very familiar with the correlation between romance and the ungodly cost of big-city real estate. I think single New Yorkers, in particular, will really take to The Lobster: What single New Yorker doesn’t sometimes feel like a schmo, toiling away to afford a matchbox-size $2,000-a-month studio even as the New York Times real estate section fills its pages with happy, just-plain-folks couples who manage to score “modest” renovated Fort Greene brownstones, replete with palatial eat-in kitchens and backyard gardens atwinkle with fairy lights? Lanthimos is hip to the idea that society must find the cruelest possible punishment for people who just might be a little too happy being single.
Amid all this wry madness, Farrell makes a wonderful leading man: Even his caterpillar eyebrows, quizzical in the extreme, seem to be asking the perennial question, “What the hell am I doing here?” The jokes in The Lobster are on the droll side, sometimes sliding straight into the territory of whimsy, but in the end, Lanthimos is less Wes Anderson and more Buñuel. Like both of them, he loves cartoonish extremes, visual and otherwise: Early in his hotel-prison stay, Farrell literally has one hand tied behind his back — the authorities want him to see how much easier it is to live with two rather than just one. But being a couple isn’t easy, and Lanthimos knows that too. The questions he asks are serious and piercing. How much do you change yourself for the person you love best? Lanthimos gives us an ambiguous answer. But then, what other kind is there?
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The first few minutes, or even the first hour, of the films of Jia Zhangke — A Touch of Sin, The World — often fill me with anxiety. These movies can feel oblique, impenetrable at the beginning. Am I going to get it? Is any of this going to make sense? That’s definitely true of his latest, Mountains May Depart, playing here in competition. We meet Tao (Jia regular Zhao Tao), a young dance instructor who throws over her sweet, coal-miner boyfriend, Liang (Liang Jingdong), for go-getter Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), who has just inherited the coal mine. They marry and have a child — all of this happens before the film’s title card flashes onscreen, some 50 minutes in. What follows is a decade-spanning reflection on a subject that interests — and worries — Jia deeply, the fact that China is changing so rapidly that no one inside or outside can keep up.
In the film’s first segment, set in 1999, Tao sees a small plane crash into the brush, out in the country; she barely reacts to it. Why did it happen? What does this mean? Jia isn’t telling, and I’m still trying to figure it out. In the second section, set in the present day, we learn that Tao and Jinsheng are separated — Jinsheng has custody of their young son, Dollar, named after the currency Dad worships — and Liang, now married and with a child himself, has fallen gravely ill after years of working in the mines.
But it’s in the last section of Mountains May Depart, set in 2025, that the real magic happens: Dollar (Dong Zijang), now eighteen and living in Australia with his miserable, thuggish father, is a college student who’s questioning the path he’s on. He has learned English and willfully forgotten both Cantonese and his mother, two remnants of a life he wants to leave behind. Still, he feels a great affinity for one of his teachers — played by radiant, revered Taiwanese-born actress Sylvia Chang — who teaches courses in Chinese culture, and it’s clear from the difference in their ages that he’s reaching out to recover some sense of his own past, and perhaps of his country’s. Mountains May Depart, particularly in this last section, throws off a melancholy glow, as if Jia has seen his own country take off like a capitalist rocket ship and is searching the sky for streaks of the one he remembers. Maybe that earlier unexplained plane crash is a premonition of sorts. (The movie also includes references to the mysteriously disappeared Malaysian airliner.) What goes up must eventually come down. The best you can hope for is a smooth landing.