Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Olivia Coleman
UK, Ireland, Greece, France 2015
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut is, without doubt, one of the most exciting films to be seen at Cannes this year.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut The Lobster is, without doubt, one of the most exciting films to be seen at Cannes this year. It starts off as an impressively intelligent and highly amusing piece in the first half, and although it is overlong and less effective in the second part, Lanthimos still manages to turn the corner and create an original piece of work that is set to divide audiences and critics alike.
As the film opens Lanthimos transfers us to a near future setting, where it is now a legal requirement to have a partner and be in a loving relationship. Those who aren’t are sent away to The Hotel, run by a sinisterly straight-talking manager (Olivia Coleman). Here guests are obliged to find a romantic partner within 45 days, or face the fate of being turned into an animal of their choice and released into the woods.
One of the guests arriving at said destination is David (Colin Farrell), a man paunchy and passive, but clearly broken hearted. He’s here because his wife has left him, so he decides on ‘his’ animal – a lobster, chosen for its lengthy lifespan and sustained fertility – and sets out to explore his new accommodation and what it has to offer. Lanthimos builds this bizarre world with a sardonically absurd wit as the hotel guests communicate through strange, stilted dialogue and ritualistically spend their days attempting to increase the length of their stay by hunting the woods for ‘Loners’, who adhere to their own code of independence, while the evenings are spent scouring for potential mates at the disco club.
The Lobster may be a ludicrous vision of our future, but it’s one founded upon very genuine observations about our ultimate desire for companionship, which Lanthimos skewers with sharp satire, until eventually he seems to become overwhelmed by the material. While the first half is full of flavour, the second is unappetisingly bland. A narrative twist that sees David flee into the woods and begin to fall in love with a rabbit-catching Loner (Rachel Weisz), comes too close to convention. The heavy-handed inclusion of a stunted narration told from the perspective of Weisz’s character somewhat suggests a lack confidence on Lanthimos’ part, as if he suddenly lost faith in the ideas he has so deftly and meticulously crafted.
‘I killed them all,’ says the beautiful, coffee-with-cream-coloured beauty sitting on a comfy couch, cradling a mega-pump-action shotgun. ‘I don’t know how I did it. It seems like I’m in a dream and I’m still in this dream.’
Coffy (Pam Grier) is a lean, mean, killing machine with a soul that’s all woman. By day, she’s a caring, highly skilled inner-city nurse, but by night, she transforms into a show-no-mercy vigilante who takes on the underworld, pusher by pusher, pimp by pimp and gangster by gangster. Vengeance drives her, and with every explosive killing she thinks of her teenage sister, lying in a vegetative state in a rest home, the child’s mind and body decimated by drugs, forced sex and all manner of exploitation at the grubby paws of vile men from the lowest orders of their gender.
When her handsome, corrupt boyfriend, an African-American politician, seduces her with his words of hard truth tempered with racial caring (‘Our people want dope to make themselves feel better, but we’re gonna take that money and put it back in the hands of our people.’) and tenderness laced with a let-Daddy-put-it-all-right-again (‘All ya have to know, baby, is that I am your Man and I’m gonna take care of you.’), her gelato-smooth dream becomes not unlike that of fairy tale princesses and Prince Charmings. But when the silly dream of Barbie Doll acquiescence is shattered by the real truth, the dream reverts to the nightmare it’s always been. It’s the suffering necessary to put things right in the world.
Such is the blood-soaked reverie that is Jack Hill’s ground-breaking 1973 action picture Coffy, which is so thrilling, politically charged and exquisitely crafted one hesitates to slap the Blaxploitation monicker upon it to simply categorize the picture with a convenient label. There’s nothing ‘convenient’ about Hill’s picture. His smart, nasty screenplay betrays all expectations whilst kneading in the tropes of the genre when needed, but doing so in a manner that twists the necessary machinations like a pretzel-maker gone mad.
The legendary Pam Grier was already a fixture in the world of Blaxploitation when she played the title role, but this is the film that put her on the map to drive-in movie superstardom and into the hearts and minds of eager, slavering 13-year-old boys (like me, when I first saw it) of all ages (as I have been and am now over 40 years later and with well over 20 viewings of this film behind me).
And never mind just the lads, Grier was a hero to women all over the world. Not only was she a classic screen beauty, but her lithe form was inextricably linked to her prowess as an actress. Nobody moved on screen like Grier; she embodied her character here (and subsequent roles) with the kind of skill that most actresses can only dream about. In Coffy she represented a heroic figure to women of all ages and races because she brought grace, intelligence and humanity to her ass-kicking. Grier embodied the ultimate feminist femme fatales she played with Dirty Harry cool and Veronica Lake sex appeal, all with the soul of Cicely Tyson. There’s never been anyone like her, and her performance in Coffy is perfectly matched to the great Jack Hill’s inspired writing and stunning directorial aplomb.
Watching the film again on the Arrow Blu-Ray, so soon after suffering through the loathsomely directed contemporary smash hit Furious 7, I was again reminded how genuinely talented filmmakers like Jack Hill were. God knows, Quentin Tarantino recognizes this, but we’re stuck in a horrible rut of critics, studios and ADHD-afflicted audiences responding positively to herky-jerky movies that have no sense of spatial geography because they employ a jumble of edits driven, not by story or even character-related emotion, but by sound – screeches, thuds and overwrought scores. Coffy has one terrific action set-piece after another that puts most current pictures to shame. (It’s also got the cool musical styling of soul-funk-jazz composer Roy Ayers working with the film’s visuals instead of noisily, annoyingly driving them.)
There’s an astonishing chase scene involving Pam Grier on foot as corrupt cops in their black and white cruisers pursue her on, across and through a crazy-ass Los Angeles freeway and eventually into a wide-open rail-line storage field, which is so edge-of-the-seat thrilling because Hill uses superbly composed wide master shots, spare mediums and close-ups only when necessary. We see real choreography and real danger. There isn’t a single frame of Furious 7 and most other modern pictures of its ilk that can match the sheer virtuosity of Jack Hill’s meagerly budgeted Coffy.
Writers: William Shakespeare (adapted by Orson Welles)
Cast: Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau
Falstaff (aka Chimes at Midnight, as it also known) is an amalgam of two Shakespeare plays (Henry IV Parts One and Two) edited by Welles to bring the character of Sir John Falstaff to the fore. Sir John is one of Prince Hal’s ‘dissolute crew’, a witty but amoral figure of fun who keeps the young wastrel Prince of Wales from the serious business of helping his father rule.
Orson Welles’s obsession with Shakespeare went back a long way. He made film versions of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952); staged plays many times, including his famous voodoo Macbeth in Harlem in 1936 and Chimes at Midnight, first staged in 1960. Welles even claimed to have played Falstaff in a high school production.
Falstaff was a labour of love. Unsurprisingly Welles felt a great affinity for the character whose ‘means are very slender and waist is great’. A man who lies, embellishes and cheats his way through life. He is a corpulent braggart living on credit or hare-brained money-making schemes, and yet he is well-loved and always entertaining – a great storyteller, exaggerator, witty raconteur and self-delusional optimist. It is as if Welles had been preparing for this role his whole life. If films can really be judged on how personal an expression of their author they are, then Falstaff stands supreme in the Welles canon.
Even the story of how Welles obtained the funding for his project seems like a scheme for a modern day Falstaff. Welles had claimed he could shoot two films at the same time using the same cast, crew, and sets whenever possible. For this BOGOF bargain his Spanish investors would get an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (with Welles as Long John Silver) and Falstaff. However, Welles’s focus was clearly on the Shakespeare film. He went as far as building a set for the Treasure Island tavern with the hope of placating the financiers and even spent a day filming sailing ships. But in the end Welles struggled to complete the one film, partly through illness (Welles was hospitalised with a gall bladder infection) and partly through the difficulties in scheduling the cast. Scenes were shot according to availability with actors playing alongside stand-ins. The film’s slightly odd montage sequences of close-ups and reaction shots are due to the fact that the cast were rarely on set together.
The finished film is a messy affair with many technical flaws that can be rather disconcerting. There are continuity errors throughout and the post-synced dialogue never quite matches the movement of the lips. Much, if not all, of the dialogue seems to have been recorded this way. Welles, in typical fashion, overdubbed some of non-English speaking actors himself. Another flaw is Welles’s trademark sonorous voice that here renders Shakespeare’s lines somewhat unclear. Fortunately Keith Baxter (Hal) and especially John Gielgud (King Henry) give the lines the clarity and rhythm they deserve.
Despite all this there is much to admire in Falstaff. The Welles style developed in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil is still much in evidence. Chiaroscuro lighting is again used to great effect as is composition in depth and those dramatic low camera angles. The Battle of Shrewsbury is a wonderful set-piece and perhaps the film’s highlight. It is a fast moving montage sequence with the camera in close with the swinging swords, the falling bodies and the mud. The camera seems more involved in the fight than the cowardly Falstaff, who hides among the bushes or plays dead.
In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff largely provides comic relief although with greater depth of character than a Bottom or Malvolio. However, Welles’s performance is somewhat lacking in humour (he was never known for his ability as a comedian) and his rumbling voice adds gravitas to the role. With the focus away from Prince Hal’s growth towards kingship and skewed towards Falstaff, the narrative is one of decline and fall. Welles has created for Shakespeare another tragedy, ending in heartbreak and death.
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