How important is having a partner? We live in a society that puts great value in the notion that we must all pair off for life. Any deviation from this is somewhat stigmatised. If you haven’t found a partner by a certain age, there is a view that you’ve failed in some way, or are a deficient person. The latest film from Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos is his first English language feature, and takes exception to our notions of pressured symbiosis, taking place in an absurd and grotesque mirror world.
Colin Farrell plays David, a schlubby sadsack recently jilted by his wife. Now – gasp! – single, he is ferried off to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new mate for life. If he fails, the management will turn him into the animal of his choice. Should it come to that, he’d like to be a lobster. He arrives with a dog. It’s his brother.
This head-turningly crazy set-up is a fine lure for Lanthimos, catching audiences unfamiliar with his work with a fanciful idea, drawing them into his sphere of influence with the promise of a highly quirky romcom. And while a stark uneasiness marks the film from it’s seemingly inexplicable prelude (in which a nameless woman shoots a donkey), the first hour of The Lobster is a very charming experience, with plenty of laugh-out-loud wit. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was all going to be some rather light comic fare.
Life at the hotel is a tightly regimented weave of very specific tasks and routines. Single hopefuls and established couples are segregated. Masturbation is prohibited and bizarrely punished. And occasional sirens pit stop David’s journey with hunting trips in which he and the other hopefuls are bussed out to the woods with tranquilliser guns to take aim at loners; society’s unacceptable outcasts. There’s a perverse logic at work, no matter how harebrained, and the sheer madness of it makes the material incredibly appealing. As I watched, I mused where the film would likely end in my top films of the year list, so happy was I with its originality.
But things take a turn, and it’s probably wise to warn newcomers to Lanthimos’ cinematic playground that it’s rarely a friendly or safe place, or better still point them toward his career-making previous films Dogtooth and Alps for a flavour of the darkness to come.
Set to a sombre classical score and featuring beautiful slow motion sequences that accentuate the absurdity, The Lobster aesthetically recalls Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist or Melancholia as it shows us the other side of the spectrum, splitting the film in half. We are introduced to the forest-dwelling loners, lead by present Bond love interest Léa Seydoux. But rather than discovering a shunned society of rationality, we learn that the loners are just as steeped in intricate rituals and dogma. Theirs is not an antidote but rather the flip side of the same dreaded coin. Whichever way it lands you lose.
Lanthimos gives the audience warning of how far The Lobster is going to tilt just before it takes the plunge with two disarming acts of cruelty punctuating the comparably amiable tone of the first half, one self-inflicted, the other devastatingly heartless. It is here that the bubble bursts and the story starts down darker avenues. It is still very funny, grimly so, but there is a marked shift which some may find hard to contend with.
The wild originality of the film is its greatest asset and perhaps it’s near downfall. Watching most films I have some idea of where I am in the story because it conforms to an expected shape. The Lobster offers no such security, and the second hour seems long and a little hard out of the fact it doesn’t offer a map to its grave solution. On more than one occasion I thought I’d foreseen where things were headed only to be utterly confounded. There’s a delight in that, and I wish more films challenged me so, but at the same time Lanthimos’ dogged reliance on such an increasingly morose tone makes the initial sprint feel like a rose-tinted memory. Go in expecting a cute flight of fancy and you’re liable to leave utterly floored. I saw the film with a recently married couple, and their reaction was pure horror. The film has the ability to be deeply distressing.
Whatever your reaction, there’s probably no arguing that The Lobster is beautifully shot, with judicious, intriguing frames clipping by one after another. It’s a luxurious meal for the eyes. But the austere tone is a heavy weight on proceedings, even if the pitch black humour and uniformly entertaining performances act as ballasts. Speaking of performances, the film is veritably cluttered with notable players, from fine local talents such as Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz, Ben Wishaw and Michael Smiley, to Lanthimos’ loyal former players Ariane Labed and Angeliki Papoulia. Farrell continues a pleasing renaissance of his own here; his good work in True Detective sadly lost in the kerfuffle over how problematic the rest of it was. Everyone is on point, gamely presenting the material with the stilted, almost autistic mannerisms of a Wes Anderson cast recovering from depression.
The Lobster presents a world of extremism with no middle ground, showing the dangers of such polemic vantage points existing with no level-headed intermediaries. Choice is redacted. Bisexuality is too complex and disorderly for the hotel, for instance. Likewise David’s size 44 1/2 feet are unacceptable. The system doesn’t allow it. The Lobster is a warning against blind fundamentalism, and makes that a very literal concern by the film’s bleak final act.
It also asks us to question what we value in our partners, what society has conditioned us to prioritise, and how and why we respond to the pressures of conformity. David’s jarring final decisions will leave the audience hanging, left to draw their own conclusions. Are they selfish? Are they selfless? Or are they the insane deeds of a man trapped in a system that offers no middle ground?