From London to Tribeca in Monochrome
A STILL FROM LOTUS EATERS.
Lotus Eaters, one of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival picks, delves into the corrosive beauty—and inevitable downfall—of the London socialite scene. The film’s tragic heroes, beautiful as they are young, are trapped in a Sisyphean struggle in a perpetual pursuit of the next high. The movie teems with beauty and indulgence, emitting effortless glamour in monochromatic scenes of dizzying parties, bathroom floors, and dimly lit back seats. Never alone, but steeped in a looming feeling of isolation, the characters embody a desperate hunger for intimacy in a world that inherently lacks it; spilling champagne and dripping with witticisms, they have no reason to emerge from their hedonistic den.
At first glance, the recklessness is enviable—a best friend can be replaced, a crashed Jaguar elicits an apathetic shrug. But as Alice, the main character, wanders deeper into the funhouse of dark corners and mirages, she finds it impossible to distinguish love from lust and sincerity from boredom. The only one to realize she has constructed herself to become the vision of what others want to see, Alice attempts to comprehend the empty shell of false lashes and glitter that stares back at her. We discussed the character and the film with its director, Alexandra McGuinness.
ALICE GREENBERG: The phrase “Lotus Eaters” has a very rich history. Why did you choose it as the title of your film?
ALEXANDRA MCGUINNESS: Originally it was just a working title, and [we] moved so quickly! [laughs] So we just ended up sticking with it. It’s originally from Homer’s The Odyssey, I think it was the third book. It’s the story where this man gets waylaid on the island of the Lotus Eaters—and our central character Alice is kind of waylaid herself at the time we join her in the movie, so there was that parallel. In some ways, Lotus Eaters is a journey disguised as a party film; there’s a circus in the movie, and there are parties, but the real story is of an internal journey. There’s themes of emptiness and excess and beauty and grief around it, but it’s always surrounded by these glamorous events, and those are ways of waylaying her on her journey in the same way that it is in the ancient Greek story.
GREENBERG: So it’s a very indulgent theme in the Greek story.
MCGUINNESS: Yeah—the man is there for like 10 years, and he’s desperately trying to get home. And in some ways, Alice is trying to find her home, and she’s trying to find her friends—or real friends. She’s surrounded by people who never finish their sentences or never listen, really; and she’s in love with somebody who’s really sweet but kind of fucked up, and she can’t really give herself completely to that person because there are so many choices around—and they’re really attractive choices because of the world she’s in. She’s quite passive in the film, and I wanted to play with the idea of the narrator that is unsympathetic at points, so the audience is kind of with her sometimes, but not always.
GREENBERG: How do the themes of beauty, and perception versus reality, interplay with each other in the film?
MCGUINNESS: We wanted to have something that looks really beautiful on the outside but is not necessarily on the inside. There’s a lot of superficial references. I remember we were looking at Helmut Newton’s photographs—they just look so glossy and beautiful, but you look closely and you can see the cellulite. [laughs] We wanted to have the dirt under the surface and to have it as a kind of veneer, and to push it with the costumes as well. Everyone in the film is so concerned with appearances, but there’s an emptiness under the surface that they’re trying to ignore. We talked about [the theme of perception versus reality] a lot with mirrors and masks what people were wearing—and we shot on two formats; we shot it on film and on digital, and a lot of the night-time scenes are film, and it looks better, and people can put on a mask and they can go out there and show an artifice to the world. In the day it’s all a bit… you can get away with less, and people know each other less in the daytime, and the masks drop a bit, and people look less beautiful. We wanted to play with that quality and create a different look between the day and the night scenes.
GREENBERG: How does Alice develop as a character throughout the film?
MCGUINNESS: At the beginning of the film she’s kind of just okay to coast, and at the end of the film she realizes that she has to find something new, and she has to get out where she is and go somewhere different—and it’s the beginning of a new journey, like in Homer’s story, she’s trying to get off the island.
GREENBERG: And none of the characters really change around her—
MCGUINNESS: Yeah, they don’t really change, and I wanted it to be kind of cyclical, so they have something like a reset button. Alice goes deeper into it, she gets worse at first, but she realizes that she has gotten worse and that she needs to get out.
GREENBERG: A lot of the scenes depict beautiful people doing seemingly beautiful things, but there’s no real depth to them. It just seems like they are on grayscale of emotion—which is especially interesting, given that the film is shot in black and white.
MCGUINNESS: I was taking a lot of black-and-white photos while I was writing the script, and I’ve just always wanted to make a film in contemporary London. I thought I would simplify it, then and I’d always imagined the story to be in black and white.
GREENBERG: What inspired you when you wrote your characters?
MCGUINNESS: I definitely met a few people who are like some of the characters… [laughs] I think they’re imaginations, but there’s definitely people like that and I’ve met them. [laughs] But they’re kind of fiction, they’re hyperreal.
GREENBERG: In the first scene, Alice says to her friends that maybe she’ll go back home; her friends ask her, “Why, what’s going on there?” It’s a very striking moment, because it really highlights the restlessness—the perpetual search for something more. Why did you choose to open the film with this scene?
MCGUINNESS: I wanted to have it as a prologue scene, and I think it kind of sums up what you’re about to see, and the group she’s around and what’s next and the fact that they don’t really get her and they don’t know her, even though they’ve probably known her for a while.
GREENBERG: One of the characters I couldn’t quite figure out was Orna. She wasn’t superficial like the rest of the characters—she had this mysterious deeper quality that you can’t quite pinpoint.
MCGUINNESS: She’s kind of earthy, and she sort of plays with them for her amusement as well. I think she’s meant to be mysterious; she’s grown up with all of those people, but she doesn’t have the same concerns as them—although she has some of the same desires, I think. And she doesn’t look the same as them, and she is sort of like a storybook archetype in some ways, as well. In some ways she could see Alice as a friend, but that’s not going to work.
GREENBERG: I found it very striking how desperately bored the characters in the movie seem to be. This perpetual desire of the next high, the next piece of gossip, the next party—how does it impact their relationships with each other, and with the world?
MCGUINNESS: It’s a movie about people who can’t really be alone, but they’re always alone, really, even when they’re together.
GREENBERG: Does that reflect current society, in a way? This notion that we can’t be alone, and we have these social mediums and we play it up and act like we’re on a stage—
MCGUINNESS: Yeah, I think that’s definitely a part of it. Somebody said to me the other day, “You know, you never even mention Facebook!” [laughs]
GREENBERG: There is an instance in the movie where one of the characters, Lulu, is taking pictures while they are having an awful time in the back of the car. This scene really highlights the notion of taking the use out of something, like a camera—which is meant to capture valuable memories—and repurpose it for a social medium of self-promotion. What does this scene communicate about what these characters want to remember?
MCGUINNESS: [laughs] Yeah, they pose, as well! I think, you know, there’s a certain boredom, there’s not a lot of purpose; they’re looking for a rush, and they’re trying to get to the next party, and they haven’t planned what they’re trying to do in their lives yet—and they’re probably a little old to have no plans. These characters, they’re thrown together and they don’t know who their friends are or who they are, and they don’t necessarily need to get up in the morning.
LOTUS EATERS SCREENS AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL TOMORROW NIGHT AT 9:30, AS WELL AS APRIL 25 AND 27. TO LEARN MORE, VISIT TFF’S WEBSITE.