Lips (2022)

On his way from work to his wife Kathy (Caroline Chesworth) at home, Michael (James Dreyfus) stops in at the local social club – but he is not there to be social. All he wants is to drink a pint and read the newspaper all alone, in peace and quiet – but a man (Paul Dewdney) with a grey beard, wild long hair and bare feet enters the premises, and makes a beeline for poor Michael. The man wants a light for his cigarette, a drink (or several) on his new best friend for his parched throat, and an ear for the sob story that he has to tell. That story will turn out to be about the extreme medical treatment of his wife in a nearby hospital, about his own shoeless state, and about the plastic bag that he has now placed on the table between himself and Michael. It will also, eventually, explain why Hayden Hewitt’s short(ish) film, from a script by David L. Hayles, is called Lips in the first place.

Played initially with a clipped wariness by Dreyfus, Michael is at first a reluctant audience to this man’s tale, but as the pints and chasers pile up and the story gets ever more bizarre in its details, Michael is hooked. After all, a pub is supposed to be a place of free exchange, and soon these two strangers are close drinking buddies, even if Michael is still somewhat sceptical – both bemused and amused – about what he is hearing. Yet as the landlady (Jolene Rathmill), seeing the man’s exposed feet, expressly raises fears of tetanus, and as the man’s long, reeling anecdote also concerns a contagious condition, Lips resonates with these times of pandemic panic and our anxieties about infection. The microscopic cells shown behind the film’s opening credits certainly add to this impression of disease. Perhaps, after all, it is not just words that are being shared in this establishment. 

Essentially a shaggy dog story with several twists in its tail, Lips sits two very different-seeming men down together for an alcohol-fuelled chat, even as one of them knows – indeed, embodies – the future of the other. The man spins a yarn that is funny (in every sense), and its missing parts will come back to haunt its immediate audience, while making the viewer laugh. “None of it made any sense,” the man will say of his wife’s peculiar ailment – but once these words have passed through his lips, their effect on Michael is already irreversible, the viral story spreads, and Michael’s own fate is sealed. It is a satisfyingly irrational Tale of the Unexpected, where eventually the shoe will be on the other foot – and it also illustrates with mordant humour the contradictory principles that while, in a pub, misery loves company, social distancing remains advisable. It is all held together by the nuanced performances, with Dewdney’s bitterly insistent bonhomie pitted against Dreyfus’ resistant stiff upper lip.

strap: Hayden Hewitt’s darkly absurd short film tells a boozy barroom tale about a peculiar infectious viral condition

© Anton Bitel