Strange, fascinating, and deeply unsettling, The Lobster is a lingering look, a straight-on stare into the mirror of modern relationships; a caustically funny and then supremely discomforting examination of the ways in which we try to forge connections with other members of our species. While its arthouse eccentricity is likely to make it inaccessible to mainstream audiences, it remains a worthwhile and offbeat dive into one of the greatest mysteries of all time.
After his wife leaves him for another man, David (Colin Farrell, appropriately pudgy), newly alone, is forced to go to the Hotel, where he and other singles are given 45 days to find a life partner. Any who fail are transformed into the animal of their choice (David chooses a lobster because they “live for a hundred years” and he loves the sea) and released into the forest. Sexual stimulation by the hotel maid is mandatory; orgasm and masturbation are prohibited. The guests must watch various propaganda extolling the virtues of coupling. In order to extend their stay, guests are given the opportunity to capture escapees, the Loners, with tranquillizer guns.
The Lobster generally adheres quite strictly to its own rules: David’s closest “friends” at the Hotel are “Lisping Man” (John C. Reilly) and “Limping Man” (Ben Whishaw), describing their defining characteristic. The desire for a kindred spirit is literalized as a desire for someone with a similar dysfunction (for example, rampant nosebleeds). The characters speak in dry monotones, and the dialogue is not so much dipped in irony as drenched in it. If the guests are aware of the superficial limits and liabilities of their situation, they’ve decided to make the best of it (for example, the Heartless Woman has caught over a hundred Loners and lasted at the Hotel for over three months).
Family and romance are common targets of attack and analysis by film directors from cinematic legends to independent auteurs. After decades of exploring the inns and outs of love on screen (and given the unique constraints of portrayal), it is easy to conclude that contemporary attempts are doomed: they will merely be variations on previous themes. And then one is confronted by the bleak honesty of Derek Cianfrance, the ingenious role-playing of Abbas Kiarostami, the brutal finality of Michael Haneke, the humane sensitivity of Richard Linklater, or, in this case, the forceful originality of writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos.
In Dogtooth, one of the most auspicious and brilliant debuts in years, Lanthimos skewered parents’ tendency to impose their vision of – and approach to – the world on their children, no matter how old. By locking its five or six main characters within the confines of the house and its grounds, Lanthimos revealed a dangerous attraction to control to the point of brainwashing, despite its inevitable consequences. It was a stunning work.
In The Lobster, Lanthimos’ worldview is expanded to encompass a far wider range of characters. In some ways, by risking more, by reaching for more, Lanthimos is ultimately less successful. The Lobster does not boast the same pitch-perfect sense of tone as it evolves from the first act into the second. Indeed, the first half – which is universally held to be the stronger one – is very similar to Dogtooth and Lanthimos’ sophomore follow-up Alps. The second half is new territory, one that he does not navigate with the same ease.
(Rachel Weisz and Léa Seydoux – the former delivering two of the most impressive performances over the past ten years in The Constant Gardener and The Deep Blue Sea and the latter on a recently consistent run of excellence to rival Chris Pratt or Kyle Chandler with Mysteries of Lisbon, Midnight in Paris, Blue Is the Warmest Color, and The Grand Budapest Hotel since 2011 – are responsible for buoying the second half tremendously despite its struggles.)
That said, one immediate parallel to The Lobster is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which was equally divisive and received differently depending on which of the film’s halves resonated with the individual audience member (the only universal acclaim being directed toward the film’s mesmeric seven-minute opening). Like the sci-fi epic, The Lobster may grow in stature over time and upon repeated viewings, where the disjointedness of the narrative may meld together.
Regardless, few filmmakers these days, foreign auteurs or otherwise, are as committed as Lanthimos to thinking outside the box (Charlie Kaufman being the only one that comes to mind). In many ways, Lanthimos’ brand of filmmaking is exactly the kind of thing that Absurdity & Serenity was created to champion. For that reason, as well as many others, my response to his latest work is reflected in the words of Weisz’ Short-Sighted Woman: “Thank you very much.”