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HOLY HELL

Will Allen provides a portrait of a cult from the inside in “Holy Hell,” a documentary that’s been in the making for far longer than any Kubrick film was—though Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series still has it beat. Allen was in effect the cameraman of the group—the Buddhafield, as it was dubbed by its leader, a fellow named Michel—for much of its history, and it’s the footage he shot over more than two decades, interspersed with excerpts from interviews with ex-members he filmed more recently as well as a creepy present-day postscript, that makes up the bulk of the film.

Allen offers a prologue of sorts in the form of a brief childhood autobiography using the home movies he loved to make, explaining how he was brought up with his two sisters in a supportive Catholic family and how, like many young people, he began feeling dissatisfied, searching for answers to life’s deepest questions. After earning a degree in film, he chanced in the mid-1980s upon the Buddhafield, a bunch of youngsters gamboling happily on the California beach in swimsuits around their smiling leader, whom they simply called The Teacher. As a young man only coming to grips with his sexuality, he soon joined the community, and quickly became its functional videographer, filming sessions in which Michel, seated on a mini-throne, dispensed pearls of what passed for wisdom to his disciples. But he also produced videos showing the sense of wonder and contentment Michel produced in his followers, and their intense desire to be blessed by him with what he called the Knowing, a sort of sacrament administered by laying on of hands, which would supposedly bring direct contact with the divine. Interviewees discuss how they worked in various jobs and handed over much of their earnings to the group, though some of them became Michel’s personal servants.

Problems set in, however, when Michel felt threatened by outsiders, and left on a quest to find a safe haven to resettle in. He finally decided on Austin, Texas, where the group fashioned a supposedly idyllic community which was nonetheless extremely disciplined; Michel, who eventually called himself Andeas (while bestowing new names on disciples, too), was trained in ballet, and demanded that his followers practice dance as well. (In time they would put on elaborate performances in a theatre built by themselves—and viewed only by the group. Michel, of course, was always the star. It also became known that he’d been an actor, with bit roles to his credit in a few Hollywood pictures—and larger ones in porno flicks.) Michel, of course, was always the star.) As he aged, however, Michel/Andreas became increasingly dictatorial, and vain: his cosmetic surgery became more and more obvious.

Still, the members remained docile, until one decided to leave and circulated a letter accusing The Teacher, who had disapproved of any sexual relationships among his followers, of regularly abusing him under the guise of offering him counsel. Other young male followers admitted that they had suffered similar treatment, and the revelations led many to leave the community. Eventually Andreas and his remaining followers were sent off to Hawaii where, it seems, he has begun to assemble a new group, taking for himself yet another name. Allen manages to secretly film a brief, unsettling encounter with him on the beach.

“Holy Hell” juxtaposes clips from Allen’s video diary of the cult’s life, focusing naturally on Michel/Andreas, with the later reminiscences of its ex-members, who are obviously still puzzling through how they could have been taken in for so long. In some cases—including Allen’s—there is also the residue of pain they feel as a result of having submitted so completely to their master’s sexual demands. The explanations they’re able to offer aren’t terribly profound—one opines that in The Teacher Michel simply found “the role of a lifetime,” and it seems that his charisma simply bowled them all over—and outsiders viewing the documentary will undoubtedly find it hard to understand how they could have been bamboozled by such an obvious faker.

But of course the viewer lacks the all-encompassing communal embrace that Buddhafield provided for impressionable—one might simply say naïve—souls who came into its orbit. “Holy Hell” tries to get across the ambiance of a community under the sway of a weirdly magnetic figure, but inevitably it comes up short; nonetheless the taste that it provides is chilling.

And so too is the sense not merely of betrayal but of unnerving complicity that Allen and the other ex-cultists convey in describing what was for some more than two decades of service to an abusive charlatan. The Buddhafield was hardly holy, but in many ways it was surely hell. It’s nice to be told, in the cards that interrupt the closing credits, that so many of its initiates have made fulfilling lives for themselves despite their experience in it.

THE LOBSTER

Perhaps the oddest—or more accurately inappropriate—date movie ever made, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language film is a darkly absurdist comedy with a surprising strain of tenderness beneath its edgy surface. On the most basic level it’s a deadpan satire of the contemporary obsession with finding ways to bring couples together—dating sites and the like—and especially of their insistence in identifying commonalities between prospective partners that will somehow insure their compatibility. But in a broader sense it’s a critique of the presumption that such couplings should be encouraged—or, in the extreme case concocted by Lanthimos, mandated—as a prerequisite for social acceptance, and of any system that would employ coercion as a means of achieving them.

After a brief prologue in which a woman simply drives up to a pasture, walks onto the grass and shoots a donkey grazing there, the movie shifts to David (Colin Farrell, looking uncommonly pudgy and glum), a bespectacled sad sack who’s just been dumped by his wife. Now unattached, he’s quickly taken to the Hotel, whose manager (Olivia Coleman) presides over a system in which each involuntary guest must find a mate from among the other residents within forty-five days—or be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David, accompanied by Bob, a dog that happens to be his once-human brother, informs his officious host that if he fails to locate a new wife, he’ll want to become the titular crustacean, a choice the manager commends though later others will criticize it. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the lobster image has surrealist connotations that are entirely in tune with Lanthimos’ vision—witness Dali’s Lobster Telephone.)

David then begins his highly regimented month-and-a-half stay—masturbation, for example, is absolutely forbidden—and makes common cause at mealtime with two of the other guests, a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and another with a limp (Ben Whishaw). Each is anxious to attract one of the females that they meet on the dance floor, and the limping man grows so desperate to do so that when he encounters a woman who suffers from nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), he pummels his face in the wall to convince her that he does too, creating a common condition that he uses to romance her. (The ruse actually works.) Meanwhile David will eventually focus on the nastiest female of them all (Angeliki Papoulia), an imperious type who enjoys toying with suitors—and chooses an especially cruel way of dealing with David.

She can do that without fear because she’s such an expert sharpshooter, a skill she employs in the hunts the hotel guests must undertake in the nearby forests where the Loners—a militant group of singles—are treated as prey. She gets extra days of human existence for each kill, while more inept marksmen like David and the lisping man can barely find their way through the brush. Those forays, however, give David an alternative when his forty-five days approach their end: with the help of a maid serving as agent of the Loners (Ariane Labed), he escapes into the forest, where he joins the dissidents—and before long finds among them his true soul mate (Rachel Weisz), who like him is severely nearsighted.

Unfortunately, the dictates of the Loner leader (Lea Seydoux) are as dogmatic as those at the Hotel, but in reverse: there is to be no romantic fraternization among her followers, and those who get too close are severely punished. The only time David and his love are permitted a show of affection is when they venture into the city, posing as a married couple, to purchase essentials and visit the leader’s parents, a musically-minded duo who serenade their visitors. At one point, the longing pair put on a show of attachment that earns them a rebuke from their leader back in the forest. (It’s a sly joke that the tune their hosts are playing on their guitars during their exhibitionist moment is the theme from Rene Clement’s “Jeux interdits.”) The lengths to which the Loner leader will go to destroy her enemies in the Hotel, and to maintain order in her own ranks, demonstrate that adherence to maniacal principle is no less rigid on one side of the tree line than it is on the other.

The extraordinary thing about “The Lobster” is how quickly a viewer buys into its outrageous premise, due not only to the blissfully matter-of-fact fashion in which Lanthimos and co-writer Efthimos Fliippou present it but to totally committed performances by Farrell, Weisz, Seydoux, and the rest of the cast, with Whishaw and Papaoulia bringing a particularly crazed intensity to their roles. Production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop give the film a look that allows only slight divergences from the familiar, while cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis uses strikingly formal compositions to transform the Irish locations into a hermetically closed environment. The smoothness of Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ editing is contrasted with the jarring dissonances of the score cobbled together from snatches of ferocious classical string music by Amy Ashworth, though a few pop tunes are introduced to comment ironically on the plot twists.

It’s probably sheer serendipity that “The Lobster” should be appearing shortly after the publication of Moira Weigel’s book “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.” Both show that it’s not easy finding a suitable mate, and that shortcuts that have been (or might be) devised to simplify the process might instead poison it. As peculiar as it is, Lanthimos’ film succeeds so well because it follows the cardinal rule of the best satire, pushing actual practice only a modest distance into the realm of the absurd and retaining a straight-faced attitude while observing the result. That makes what it reveals about our times all the more horrifyingly funny.