As we approach the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar favorites like La La Land and … La La Land. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less-heralded — but possibly more deserving — Oscar nominees. The upsets start here.
The most futile Academy Award nominations are often the most compelling. Pulling for the little movies that can’t — and won’t, and don’t — prevail preserves the view that the Oscars are an antimeritocracy (and come on, of course they are) even as it draws us into the irresistible position of rooting for an underdog. When David Lynch was nominated in 2002 for Mulholland Drive, the fact that he didn’t have a prayer against his, um, obvious artistic superior Ron Howard made Lynch’s presence in the audience feel that much more vital. Dropping Best Director to Opie kept Lynch in the company of career non-honorees like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. Or, as Lynch’s fellow loser-slash-all-time-great Robert Altman put it moments after the announcement, “It’s better this way.”
With this in mind, the 2017 Oscar nominees whose inevitable defeat will reveal some deeper triumph are Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, the cowriters of The Lobster, which is nominated for Best Original Screenplay against Damien Chazelle for La La Land and Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, both of whom are also in the running for Best Director and Best Picture.
The Lobster has one lonely nomination, and it’s sort of remarkable that it even got that: It’s the only screenplay in the category, which also includes nominations for Hell or High Water and 20th Century Women, that wasn’t eligible for a Writers Guild of America award (neither of its Greek-born-and-based authors are WGA members). And it’s also by some distance the strangest of the pack. If its competitors are all examples of scripts that riff on (and mostly within) acknowledged genres — boy-meets/lectures-girl musical, family melodrama, bank-robbers-on-the-run thriller, coming-of-age-story — The Lobster’s neo-surrealist scenario places it right at the fringes of AMPAS acceptability (the first respondent in this year’s Hollywood Reporter “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot” deemed the film “a little bit weird for me”). It is, in every sense of the word, the odd film out.
It’s also very much in line with Lanthimos’s earlier work: As anybody who caught his savagely funny 2009 breakthrough, Dogtooth, already knows, he is one of international cinema’s premier weirdos — the Greek Freak of the art house.
A bleakly funny parable about a father-knows-best type who has entrapped his family in an alternate reality fitted to the contours of their suburban home — teaching his kids wildly incorrect definitions of words and objects and stoking incestuous impulses — Dogtooth is one of the great antiauthoritarian satires of recent years. It’s a mix of heady ideas about the prison house of language and the visceral kick of body horror (its violence is shocking and brutal). Dogtooth’s success on the global film-festival circuit is widely credited with kicking off what Guardian writer Steve Rose dubbed the “Greek Weird Wave,” which includes the claustrophobic comedies of Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of 2015’s marvelous Chevalier (cowritten by Filippou, who also worked on Dogtooth).
The very existence of The Lobster is a testament to the viability of Lanthimos’s imprint as an auteur; this lavishly shot and decorated English-language production is a step up after the necessary austerity measures of the Greek-financed Dogtooth and Alps (2011). The film was smartly picked up for American distribution by A24 (which turned it into a niche hit along the same lines as Under the Skin and Ex-Machina). The Lobster grossed $9 million in the U.S., a healthy figure that surely owes something to the presence of recognizable movie stars like Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly, rather than any attempt by its creators to make something accessible. On the contrary: The film is set at an isolated hotel hosting a convention of single adults — a menagerie of lifelong bachelors, grieving widows, and embittered recent dumpees — who have been forced to find a compatible life partner among the other guests. Those who fail to take a mate will be transformed into an animal of their choice and exiled into the woods, where they will become fair game for natural predators and big-game hunters alike.
What separates The Lobster from the other nominees for Best Original Screenplay is its overtly metaphorical m.o.: Its characterizations and plot points have been deliberately flattened out so as not to distract from the conceptual gamesmanship underneath. Lanthimos and Filippou imagine a universe in which the mandatory nature of monogamy either breeds an absurdly regimented sort of unhappiness or inspires resistance — the revelation that the forest outside the hotel is crawling with self-styled revolutionaries who reject romantic attachments with a fervor equal to the guests’ desire for companionship reveals the film’s essentially dialectical spirit, which views fidelity and freedom as two sides of the same counterfeit coin. The absurdist flourishes of the script, beginning with the magical-realist idea of people being transformed into animals (which is never explained or questioned), are tied to a worldview that’s sympathetic to irrational impulses and skeptical of the systems that try to contain them.
The Lobster is also very funny, to the point of being more quotable, line for line, than nearly any other comedy released last year. During her introductory address to the guests, the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman, in a typically superb supporting performance) explains that couples experiencing problems “will be assigned children, [which] usually helps”; when Farrell’s lovelorn protagonist escapes into the wild to take up with the free-range loners, he’s told by the leader (Léa Seydoux) that the members of the group dance alone for recreation — “that’s why we only play electronic music.” (Later, when Seydoux asks Farrell where he’s been, he guilelessly replies: “I was masturbating behind those trees over there.”)
The dialogue is delivered almost entirely in deadpan by a cast that’s been directed to act as if in a trance — Lanthimos is fascinated by characters living on autopilot. This lack of affect only enhances the poetic quality of some of the language, as when Weisz’s nameless narrator — who eventually enters the story as the “Short-Sighted Woman,” with whom Farrell falls dangerously in love after pledging to live as a monastic dissident — explains that “it is more difficult to pretend that you do have feelings when you don’t than to pretend that you don’t have feelings when you do.”
On one level, this is a deeply self-reflexive line, recontextualizing the Kubrickian chilliness of the entire film as a cover for all sorts of fugitive emotions; it’s also a more direct and affecting expression of longing than any of the ersatz romanticism of La La Land. It may be that the best chance of an upset for Best Original Screenplay resides elsewhere, in the rat-a-tat verbal duets and pounding, operatic narrative rhythms of Manchester by the Sea, in which case The Lobster’s inevitable loss will be a bit less masochistically satisfying, coming at the hands of an equally worthy adversary. But if the prize goes to La La Land — which is as banal about the process of locating a soul mate as The Lobster is uncannily imaginative — it’ll serve as the latest in an endless series of reminders of how little these things really matter. It’s better this way.