Synopsis: In a fabulist tale of a movie, if you are single you are sent to a hotel by the woods where you have 45 days to meet someone before being turned into an animal of your choosing. Your days can be extended for each ‘loner’ you bring in – people who live in the woods attempting to escape the choice of relationship or animal. However, there are rules to being a loner as well – you can’t kiss or sleep with anyone or there are ‘repercussions.’
Rachel Weisz narrates the beginning where we follow David, a recent single man, who goes to the hotel with his dog, Bob, which we learn is his brother who didn’t make it. When he checks in he is asked his orientation and told he can only choose Hetero or Homosexual, as Bisexual caused too many issues From there he has one hand chained to his back so he can see how useful two are. We are taken through the absurd view of being paired – how a lot of it is done on similar ‘defining features’ – such as a man who has a limp (caused when he went to visit his mother, who turned into a wolf after his father ran off, and other wolves at the zoo attacked him) whose wife also had a limp. Her passing is why he is currently there.
Afraid of becoming an animal that others eat, the man with a limp pretends to have a nosebleed to match with a woman who gets nosebleeds. Meanwhile, David pretends to be a sociopath to match with a female sociopath. After she does something too horrendous for him to pretend anymore, David runs off into the woods to become a loner and there he meets his ‘match’ – a woman nearsighted like him played by Rachel Weisz. But it’s not allowed out there and they have to develop their attachment in secret, because there are bad things afoot if they’re found.
The Good: The absurdist nature of this had the theater chuckling throughout. For example, there is always an unexpected animal in the background in the scenes in the forest. In one, we learn a woman is turned into a pony and then later see the pony nosing around the background. At another there is a flamingo or a camel that walks through the scene.
The parts at the hotel in the beginning, while we are learning the rules of the world are also great. There are ‘plays’ the single people have to go to where they learn the benefits of being a partner. In one, a man is eating alone chokes and dies. Then they show how having a partner would lead to them living as they simulate the Heimlich. If partners are having problems ‘they are given children, as that seems to help.’
This world building continues in the woods where you learn about ‘red lips’- if you are caught kissing you have a razor drawn across your lips and throughout you see people with bandages over their lips. The narrator says there is also ‘red genitals’ if you are caught doing something else. Then we are told that you dance alone, so they only allow you to listen to electronica and there is a scene where people are just dancing to their own music.
The actors take to the roles well. Part of the allure of the film is the flat affect which everyone has. While there is the sociopathic woman who has no feeling, few others do either, just not as blatantly and it’s shown in all interactions and the acting. This is not a world where love goes into matching, you just do it if you have a similar ‘defect’ from others and so you don’t become an animal. Everything is regimented and dictated. If you aren’t partnered the law will find you – as is shown in a scene in a mall where if you are alone and don’t have a certificate showing you are coupled you get hauled away. At times you can almost see the glee with which the actors are playing everything so straight. And great actors, too. John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell are the most prominent names. There was also an always heart-wrenching character portrayed by Ashley Jensen – I fell in love with her in Extras and she doesn’t disappoint here.
The Bad: The tone shift is incredibly prominent and you felt it in the theater. The hotel part is absurdist fun as we are learning the rules – and then (BEWARE OF THIS!)
Bob the dog is kicked to death AND YOU SEE THE AFTERMATH. Once we see the bloody dog in the bathroom not moving and the blood on the sink and the woman’s leg, yeah, it’s not fun anymore. Then suddenly we’re out in the forest and you see more of this darkness overtly, instead of just the hints in the absurd. There’s the red kiss but also the awful thing the leader of the loners does to Rachel Weisz’s character when she finds out she is planning to run away. This is probably the biggest flaw, how it changes so drastically and is like two different films tacked together.
Also, it feels less like a film and more like a fabulist story put on the screen. It’s narrated, it’s purposely flat in terms of action, and fits so nicely into the current literary movement of asian fabulism that Clarkesworld, and other magazines, is promoting. I would have loved to read this as a story and almost feel like I did more than like it was something I saw in the theater.
In the vein of a literary magical realism story, the ending is a non-ending and there was a collective ‘What?’ when the credits began to roll followed by ‘shit’ by more than one person in the audience. It’s okay to end films and stories, people. Give us satisfaction. Although, at the same time I understand that no one in that world was allowed satisfaction and that was part of the themes. There was the running joke of women getting guys erect and then leaving them like that, with masturbation outlawed.
The Female: Here’s where it gets tricky. While the hotel says both homo and heterosexuality is allowed we only see hetero. And David is the main character, so it’s most about him. There are other women, but by nature of the film’s set-up they are there to partner up with a man, except for the female leader of the loners in the woods. There is one scene where two best friends sort of talk to one another, when one is reading a letter about how much she’ll miss her friend (who is to become a horse, having not met anyone). But I don’t really remember them much talking even in that scene. The maid and the loner leader talk a bit, and not about men, and there are other conversations.
Now, the Bechdel test says that two women must talk and not about men, even if it’s a sentence. If we go by that, then it passes. Some add that the women must also have a name- if we go by that, it fails. David and his dogbrother Bob have names. The friends they meet that are male have names (Jon, the man who limps) but no woman is given a name in this film. Is this because they are only there to partner with the men, who are the focal point, and thus just another thing do be acquired so should have no name? Could be. The loner leader definitely has agency in the film, even if she ends up in a grave at the end at the hands of David. As does the maid, and the female friend who becomes a horse (because she had fabulous hair).
This is ultimately David’s tale in the world he’s stuck in, but there are more female characters than many films nowadays and even if not the focal point, they speak.
Overall – it’s a film that is being discussed for a reason. There are good things in here and it does read like a story on screen, as in, it feels more ‘writerly’ than cinematic. Plus, there are some laughs to be had and things to discuss afterward.