James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
James: This is…?
James: Yes, definitely, but it’s also…?
Semaj: Crazy, innovative, funny, sad, moving, devastating?
James: Yes, I know, I totally agree, but how do we define it? It’s not really like most movies out there right now.
Semaj: Just call it Kafka-esque. That’s what we call this kind of story where people are subject to insane power structures – furthermore, a power structure that can turn you into an animal, anyone reminded of The Metamorphosis? Hell, you could have called that story “The Cockroach.”
James: Or “The Dung Beetle,” according to Nabokov.
James: Vladimir Nabokov used to teach “The Metamorphosis” at Cornell, and he insisted Gregor Sampson turned into a dung beetle, or something like that, rather than a cockroach. Something to do with the translation, I don’t know.
Semaj: Okay, whatever. This movie is called “The Lobster” because Colin Farrell chooses that as the animal he wishes to turn into if he doesn’t find a lover in time. He is in a strange world where finding a monogamous partner is the law, and the failure to do so is punished by being turned into the animal of your choice.
James: Ferrell asks for a lobster because they can live as long as a hundred years (I had no idea!) and they can mate for their entire lives.
Semaj: It’s a funny choice, not what you would ever expect, but it shows that he wants to live a long time and have companionship more than anything. A life-long companionship.
James: Colin Farrell is so good in it. I don’t know if his character resembles a lobster but…
Semaj: No, he doesn’t resemble a lobster, that’s what he’s going to turn into if he doesn’t get a mate…
James: I know, I’m just saying, the title infers that he’s a lobster already.
Semaj: He’s more like some kind of passive, chubby land animal, with the cute face of a chipmunk.
James: Yeah, it looks like he gained weight for the role.
Semaj: Certainly, and he has a funny ‘stache. But everything fits so well. His performance is pitch perfect as a man dumped suddenly by his wife, beaten down by an oppressive system, and awkward in love. But, I mean, everyone plays the stilted awkwardness so well; they evoke a clear sense of the darkly pervasive establishment that is choking their lives.
James: This odd kind of behavior seems to be a specialty of the director, Yorgos Lanthimos. In “Dogtooth,” we have three adult children locked away from the world by their parents, which causes them to develop in awkward ways, and have strange social behaviors.
Semaj: Right, it’s very similar in “The Lobster,” except there, the oppressive force has changed from being just the parents to the larger world. And it’s not just three children who are imprisoned in an insane system, it’s everyone.
James: What does the director get out of this kind of set up? What is he doing when he creates a world where marriage is the law, and where unmarried loners are unflinchingly murdered?
Semaj: It’s a way of bringing subtext to the surface. We tell so many stories to ourselves about love, and companionship, and usually make these things the most important things in life.
James: I think love stories, and relationship stories in particular, are so common because they allow for great drama and meaning in narrative form.
Semaj: Of course, but they’re obviously important in life, too. Companionship and love give meaning to so many lives. But by creating a world where monogamous companionship is the law, Lanthimos is able to look at the crazy lengths we go to, and the rituals we undergo in order to find that companionship. By putting his characters through forced trials of their love for each other — at the hotel, new couples have to go through stages of intimacy in their courtship — he can examine the strange, comic, and sad things that we all do in order to get close to someone.
James: Like what?
Semaj: The way characters bond over their problems, such as having recurring bloody noses, or being near-sighted; the way that we rub our bodies against each other, in that strange ritual we call foreplay, to turn each other on; and all the little negotiations we make in order to live in synch with someone: how fast to walk side by side, to how hard to hold another’s hand.
James: Lanthimos can also show how self-centered a lot of our actions are, even when we are seemingly engaging with other people in “loving” relationships. Like when the characters are pushed to reveal if they would die for their mates.
Semaj: Lanthimos creates brutal realities in his films, but he’s ultimately hopeful. He doesn’t completely crush his characters like Kafka often does; he puts them through incredibly hard trials of endurance and self-mutilation. This happens in both films to a disturbing, but effective degree — but he wants them to survive the surreal hells that he puts them in.
James: No spoilers.
Semaj: I don’t think I’m spoiling anything. The ending is anything but conventional. I’m just saying that, as bleak as his milieus are — and as sad, and beaten-down, and misguided as his characters may be — he still holds up a little light for them to follow.
James: You’re right. So what animal would you be if you had to choose?
Semaj: They say in the movie that most people choose dogs. That’s why there are so many of them.
James: Maybe a cat?
Semaj: A cat? A house cat? What about a dolphin, or a lion?
James: Those might have been cool before we started destroying the planet.
James: I’m a cat person. And I like being around people.
Semaj: You could be a cat and live with your brother Dave. He’s the biggest cat lover alive.
James: True that. He’d probably make a cat calendar with me.