I was pretty jazzed to see this ever since I first heard about it at the Toronto film festival, and got quite intrigued the closer it came to release. I was puzzled, however, because this looked light-but-serious and a little goofy, when I heard that this was from the same director as Alps, which was not light or mainstream in any way. And it turns out that this is also not mainstream in any way, and is also quite, quite dark, and quite depressing (and I usually like depressing movies). It’s still good, but I would see it with the one you love and expect to leave the theater wondering why you even bother to go on, rather than transported by the true meaning of love.
The premise, and the movie, is kind of science fiction. We’re in a world where you must be part of a couple, or you get sent to this hotel. At the hotel, you get 45 days to find a mate amongst the other single people there, or you get turned into an animal. You can also escape, and either get shot and returned to the lodge, or be taken in by the loners, where love is strictly, and violently, forbidden. If you are part of a couple, you live in the city, where our characters sometimes go for various reasons. So there are only three settings in the film; the hotel, the woods, and the city.
In a prologue, a woman gets out of a car and shoots a donkey. Colin Farrell is David, who must go to the hotel because his wife of 12 years left him. He is accompanied by a dog, who is his brother, who previously went to the hotel and failed to find a mate. Men are all given the same slacks and light blue shirts [right on as I just started a job in downtown Chicago and lunchtime is like a sea of light blue shirts, as though it were some sort of universal requirement]. Women all wear the same dress. People eat at single tables in a room separate from the couples room, where people go after meeting someone. David meets John C. Reilly as Robert and Ben Whishaw as John, who become his friends. I will tell you that although Farrell sports a comely mustache, he only removes his shirt in long shots. Like, do you WANT people to see your movie?!?
At the hotel, people are known by their dominant feature, such as a woman who gets nosebleeds, or a woman who eats butter biscuits. At various times, the people from the hotel go out and hunt people who have escaped the hotel with tranquilizer darts. The staff enact little scenarios like “man eating alone,” in which he chokes on his food and dies, and “Man eating with woman,” in which he chokes, but the woman saves him. There is another, in which a woman walking alone is raped, but not when accompanied by a man. Robert is forced to hold his hand inside a hot toaster for masturbating, until it is quite charred.
So it’s kind of funny, in an extremely grim way, but one that won’t make you laugh. The people all act—throughout the entire film—in an extremely stiff way that seems normal when you consider that they all have to find mates and are in extreme peril at all times, although you’d expect them to be a little more outgoing, but this way if being suits the film.
SPOILERS > > >
John bashes his head in order to get a nosebleed, so he can have “something in common” with nosebleed girl. They become a couple, and soon get to graduate to the couple’s room. They are told that if they ever have problems they can’t handle, they’ll be given a child. We are told that it’s harder to pretend to have feelings when you don’t then to pretend not to have feelings when you do. Meanwhile, butter biscuit woman has tried to kill herself, but not jumped from a high enough floor, so she just lays there in anguish, and an expanding pool of blood and scattered biscuits.
One of the women is known as “the heartless woman,” and David decides to make a play for her. Her manner of seduction is to pretend to be choking on an olive, and the way he wins her is by sitting there, NOT saving her. They get together and graduate to the couple room, but one day she tests whether he truly is heartless in a way that is quite heart-rending. When he reacts, she is going to turn him in, but he manages to escape and is soon taken in by the loners, where things go from bad to worse.
One thing not apparent from the trailer is that the entire second half of the film takes place with the loners, who make the hotel look like Disneyland. With the loners, you cannot have any romance, or connection of any kind. We are told that a couple who was flirting had their lips sliced and then were forced to kiss, and another couple was forced to have “red intercourse,” which the film leaves to our horrified imaginations. They are all overseen by Lea Seydoux, of Blue Is the Warmest Color and Spectre, who shows that she can do viciously heartless quite convincingly. One of the details I found to be quite profoundly depressing is that loners are compelled to dig their own graves.
They take trips into the city to buy supplies, where we see that single people are stopped by police and sent to the hotel if they cannot produce papers proving that they are couples. The loners stage raids on the hotel in which they break in and try to ruin the relationships of the couples there. The manager of the hotel and her husband receive quite a nasty comeuppance. In celebration, the loners all silently dance alone to techno music on their headphones.
With the loners, David has met and fallen in love with Rachel Weisz. Their relationship develops slowly and in secret, and is quite romantic, as they have to develop a secret language in which to communicate with each other, and we’re happy to finally have something nice happen in this movie, and to see David and Rachel’s characters finally find some love amidst their extremely harsh environment. But there can be no easy happiness in this movie, and they end up going through the wringer, although we are left to imagine that Lea also meets an unpleasant fate. The final moments provide further testament that this film is not going to let us off easy, or let us have any easy happiness, or any happiness at all.
So you go in expecting a movie that will have a hopeful, romantic thread running through an amusingly dark satire, but what you get is a seriously grim movie that offers little hope or good feeling and a lot of horror. So it takes a while to settle down and realize that yes, it’s a good movie, it’s just really fucking dark. There are many memorable touches and twists that ingeniously draw out the feeling that if you’re single, well, there’s obviously something kind of wrong with you, and you are somehow outside of the social contract. And the movie has all kinds of funny but grim details about how hard it is to find someone compatible, especially under pressure, and the need to make serious compromises just to be coupled. But once we’re in with the loners, things get a bit more absurd and less tethered to reality, and also more horrifying.
What works well is the emotional reality of the film. Everyone in the film speaks in a strange, stilted cadence, which works to maintain the tension of the situation and convey that no one in this world can really relax. It effectively gets across that stilted tension of trying to approach a potential romantic partner, especially when you don’t really like them but are trying to make the best of it and see if something develops. In the second half, people continue to be stilted because they are so afraid of revealing any emotion, because being vulnerable can literally result in being tortured and killed. So the movie succeeds [in its grim mission to alienate your emotions] because it has an emotional reality that runs through the events, no matter how absurd. And it’s one of those movies that casts a brief spell, for after the film ended, the real world outside and the people in it all had this stilted, absurd and alienating quality.
So, it’s a good film and quite ingenious. It’s just that you go in expecting something down on love but with a hopeful and romantic thread, along the lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but what you get is not heartening at all, but cold, bitter, chilly and brutal. Enjoy!
Probably, but it takes a strong constitution. Try not to go alone.