Reel Rumbles: The Lobster vs. Eyes Wide Shut
The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos has already equaled Stanley Kubrick in at least one respect: this year he received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, equaling Kubrick’s lifetime total in that category. Kubrick’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey did not result in an award, so if The Lobster’s screenplay is selected for the statuette, Lanthimos will be one up on the deceased auteur. Of course Kubrick, who tended to turn preexisting texts into distinctive palimpsests, was nominated four times in the Best Adapted Screenplay category (winning none), while Lanthimos has preferred to develop his own original stories, so they are not following similar paths to awards-season accolades. In any case, gilded trophies are redundant and almost vulgar ways to recognize these directors’ brands of acerbic arthouse gems.
Relationships, monogamous and otherwise, are the topics of 2015’s The Lobster by Lanthimos and 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, the last feature Kubrick made before his death. On Flickchart The Lobster sits at a global position of 1875 to Eyes Wide Shut’s 2272, an advantage to Lanthimos of almost 400 spots. At nearly twenty years old, Eyes Wide Shut is unlikely to close the gap, and the fresh Lobster will probably extend its lead as more Flickchart users discover it. A head-to-head comparison of the two films will help us consider whether their relative global placements are justified or just a case of recency bias.
Round 1: Directing
In an early scene, Nicole Kidman’s character in Eyes Wide Shut trades innuendo with an Eastern European lothario in a slow, sleepy cadence. Midway through, masked characters in the film’s legendary orgy sequence speak in a similarly stilted manner, eschewing conjunctions and imbuing each word with significance and menace. Characters in The Lobster speak with an even more consistent affect, minimizing emotional tells and allowing the intrinsically funny, sad, or frightening relationship between ideas and actions to come to the fore. Kubrick would love the way Lanthimos directs actors. His own approach to individuals was famously agnostic and detached; we rarely know why characters in The Shining or 2001 or Eyes Wide Shut are the way they are. We are interested only in what they do, usually at the threshold of a personal downfall. The tonal blend that Kubrick and Lanthimos achieve is funny and dark — we laugh to hear actors speak in a heightened, impersonal way, stating blunt truths in a blunt way, and we are horrified to see apparently helpless characters careen toward annihilation in worlds they barely understand and cannot influence. The fatalism and cynicism of Kubrick and Lanthimos’s worldviews are reflected in the quizzical living automatons that populate their antiseptic dystopias.
Both directors use stillness rather than kineticism to capture our attention. Eyes Wide Shut‘s highlight is a slow tracking shot through the aforementioned orgy, a triumph of staging and precise personnel placement that censors for the tamer theatrical cut did their best to undermine. In The Lobster Lanthimos shows a knack for framing, but avoids set pieces that could be considered gimmicky. There is a scene in which a character leaning against a tree in the center of the image is hit over the head by an assailant who runs in from the left. The fact that the scene is simultaneously funny and startling (think of the Famous Historian scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) is a factor of timing — the time it takes for the assailant to move from the left edge to the center — and the timing is a factor of how far the camera is from the actors. Lanthimos’s staging is perfect without being obvious.
Matched against a better example of Kubrick’s eye-popping tableaus, Lanthimos would lose a directing contest. The Lobster, though, beats Eyes Wide Shut at its own game tonally while matching it stylistically.
Winner: The Lobster
Round 2: Story
The Lobster takes place not in our world nor in any kind of imminent world, but in a world where the fear and shame of being single are given literal expression. Some of its ideas are traceable to old dystopian concepts from works like The Lottery and The Most Dangerous Game in which unfortunate individuals are disposed of through agreed-upon cultural practices or in the guise of entertainment. Here, single adults (including those who are single through divorce or the death of a spouse) receive a certain number of days to find a compatible partner at a state-run luxury resort. Compatibility is determined in the most reductive sense: a match between two people who share the same defining characteristic, be that a limp, a lisp, or a tendency to have nosebleeds. Single people who fail to find a partner even after frequent reminders of the benefits of doing so are given a chance to live as renegades in the woods, where the lucky ones join a loose society of radical individualists. The unlucky ones are shot with tranquilizer guns, and their minds are transplanted into the bodies of animals of their choosing. It sounds ridiculous and potentially childish in a Hunger Games sort of way, but the detailed mechanisms by which all this is achieved are wisely not addressed, since they would never hold up to scrutiny. The Lobster is a metaphor for the state of being single, wanting not to be, and worrying about never finding a partner. Frustratingly, but realistically, both success and failure at the singles’ resort have unforeseen and unpleasant consequences.
Eyes Wide Shut takes place in our world’s actual, plausible, or metaphorical undergrounds. Tom Cruise plays a man frustrated by his wife’s fantasies about infidelity. By way of revenge or at least equalization, he seeks the company of a prostitute but finds himself in uncomfortable proximity to the attendant ills of that profession: STDs, child exploitation, and drug addiction. He soon learns about a secret society that allows rich and powerful men to have sex with carefully-selected women with total anonymity, but crashing their party proves an unwise decision. One hesitates to call the dispassionate Kubrick a moralist — his characters often have no choice but to behave badly, due to insanity or a fixed nature — but Eyes Wide Shut illustrates the destructive potential of acting out one’s fantasies.
While Kubrick successfully gives his chosen story a powerful, dreamy atmosphere of danger and stifled eroticism, the ideas Lanthimos engages in The Lobster are more creatively abstractified. Questions that have no answers go unasked, showing Lanthimos’s restraint. Kubrick exhibited the same restraint many times in his career, but in Eyes Wide Shut the answers are too clear and too easy.
Winner: The Lobster
Round 3: Acting
Kubrick and Lanthimos have both attracted big-name actors to challenging, commercially-dubious projects. There’s nothing strange about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were a real-life couple when they played a couple in Eyes Wide Shut, wanting to work with an acclaimed director like Kubrick, but they must have known that by portraying disturbed characters and deviant lifestyles they were opening themselves to probing questions about their off-screen relationship. Kidman, incidentally, will appear in Lanthimos’s next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with The Lobster star Colin Farrell.
Farrell and his costars Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, and John C. Reilly are no strangers to arthouse, and Weisz especially has lent her talent to many courageous, critically-admired screenplays (as has Kidman). Farrell and Reilly, like Cruise, are more often associated with blockbuster thrillers abd comedies. Kubrick and Lanthimos both keep a tight rein on their actors, ensuring their alignment with the movies’ arch tones, but Kubrick had had better vehicles than Cruise over the course of his career. Cruise looks the part of the naïve striver, but he lacks the exquisite poise and powerful presence of prior Kubrick leads and of his costars in Eyes Wide Shut. Farrell and Weisz, meanwhile, rise to the challenge of Lanthimos’s precise rhythm and make The Lobster‘s “absurdist” black comedy look easy, much as Peter Sellers once did for Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove.
Winner: The Lobster
Flickchart users have it right: The Lobster beats Eyes Wide Shut and is a new classic from an emerging auteur. The Academy is likely to miss the mark and give the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Damien Chazelle as part of the impending La La Land sweep, but it won’t be the first time mistakes are made: just look at Kubrick’s losses.
- Global rank: 1875
- Wins 56% of matchups
- 674 users have ranked it
- 4 users have it at #1
- 44 users have it in their top 20
Eyes Wide Shut
- Global rank: 2272
- Wins 35% of matchups
- 36590 users have ranked it
- 99 users have it at #1
- 2031 users have it in their top 20