In Season 2 of Friends, I remember Phoebe making an analogy of lobsters to describe the relationship between Ross and Rachel, considering how the crustaceans mate for life. Whether that inspired Yorgos Lanthimos (an admitted fan) to choose the title for his debut film in the English language, I do not know, but there would be no better animal to describe the essence of The Lobster’s satire. Set in a future where mating has transcended love to become a legal and social necessity, Lanthimos’ latest is the most inventive take on modern society centered on courtship. A creative masterstroke carrying itself with deadpan hilarity, The Lobster isn’t for the faint-hearted or conventional moviegoer. Balancing off-kilter humour and dystopian horror in a masterful blend, this is a film the likes of which has never graced the screen before, and perhaps never will again.
David (Colin Farrell) is a middle-aged man whose wife leaving him for another man has caused him to be single for the first time in his adult life. This makes him an outcast, who is then brought to a facility where single people are ‘groomed’ to be paired off as couples, or else turned into an animal of their choice. Our protagonist, a short-sighted, paunchy man with a leech for a moustache has poured substantial time over the second question – he doesn’t have much hope in finding a mate – to arrive at lobster, for its long lifetime and fertility. There he meets two other men – one with a limp (Ben Whishaw) and one with a lisp (John C Reilly) – who become his only companions at the facility. During the day, the inmates are taught why two is better than one, and engage in various activities which may help them find a partner, and during the night, the head out into the woods to hunt ‘loners’. Each person is given a fixed number of days to find a partner before he/she is turned into an animal, and the duration may be extended only by capturing the loners who don’t subscribe to the society’s idea of relationships. When his days start running out, David flees the facility and joins the tribe of renegade loners who, as it turns out, have their own harsh rules against mating.
In The Lobster, Lanthimos holds up a mirror to the strange ways of our society in how everyone feels the need to hold others’ private matters to a universal standard. The only things that separate humans from animals in this world are the ties of relationships which again, are strictly defined as monogamous and homo/heterosexual. This is a world that functions around finding partners, with people defined by unusual characteristics and mates switched for the most trivial reasons such as mathematic ability. Masturbation is punished as sin, and people are willing to smash their noses in every few hours just to keep a mate and keep from being pushed lower down the food-chain. The most outstanding feature of the film is something assumed at the very start: the complete world that is built and ready for the characters to walk around in, a surreal world where every moment that makes us laugh or gasp is treated as ordinary by the characters. The craft of the film is in its sly provocation of laughter and horror with a singular action – drawn from the shocking closeness of the rules of this world to the rules that exist today – and boy, is it done perfectly.
The heavy satire of contemporary society finds excellent expression only through the impeccably short and poignant lines exchanged between characters. It is a film that shows close to no emotion in its players, something very much intended to display the drainage of emotion from the equation of love, as humans forget romance in the desperate search of a compatible other. Farrell’s David is the highlight here; as he hobbles about awkwardly he is mechanical and monotonous, fitting in effortlessly with the irreverent atmosphere. With his usually dashing looks covered up brilliantly with just a brush of hair above his lips, and a demeanour that is sure to make any potential mate fall asleep in seconds, Farrell turns into the ultimate protagonist for an unusual romance in an unusual world. Yes, The Lobster is at heart, beyond all the social criticism a story of love; love that struggles between the only two existences available to it. While the hotel and its heavy-handed manager (Olivia Colman) represent the conventional mainstream of society – obsessed with match-making and shaking their heads at singles – the tribe of loners and its Leader (Lea Seydoux) are the cynical singles, ever critical of relationships and ever proud of their abstinence. Lanthimos paints us a picture of a world of doubles: where there are only two options for every individual, and where two is better than one. It is also a society of absolutes; every person strictly having to fall into neatly cut-and-labelled stencils and shades of the middle are unacceptable. You can either have 44 or 45, the manager says (referring to shoe sizes); there is no question of 44.5.
While the hotel inmates make it their job to hunt down and transform loners – incapable of joining everyday society – into animals, the loners have made it theirs to infiltrate the hotel and pull at the seams of couples to lay bare the lies. For all the importance they give to relationships, the silliness of the people lies in the obvious consequence: almost no true relationships. The Lobster shows us a heightened reality where people modify their behaviour and suit their characteristics to match another’s, so that compatibility may be attained – and they are taught that compatibility is everything. The film takes this one further when the manager says nonchalantly that any hurdles in the relationship are easily solved with the assignment of a child, a practice which usually helps a lot. With the same stroke, it parodies both the silly human act of courtship as well as the even sillier act of couples staying together for the ‘sake of their children’. From another angle, it is also mocking the narcissistic nature of our romances, most based on finding ourselves in other people; for we fail to face the harsh truth that we only truly love ourselves. The irony is turned up to full volume in the brief coupling between David and the heartless woman (Aggeliki Papoulia), the former who tailors his personality to practically become here, and the latter who decides to report him at the first sight of emotion.
While the manager and the practices of the hotel seem the height of perversion, the rules of the loners are seen competing for barbarity: amorous activities received with the bloodiest punishments possible. No two loners can be seen flirting or so much as sharing music, as the Leader promptly replies as the reason for the whole tribe opting for electronic music (a slight jab at modern music from Lanthimos). Strangely enough, it is amongst the loners and their love-forbidding rules that David finds his compatible other at last, the two sharing something deeper than their characteristics. The Lobster turns from a disturbingly hilarious film in the hotel to a disturbingly moving film in the woods as David and the short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) court each other and struggle for survival in a world torn between two power structures. As they move through their many emotions – something that finally erupts in David’s mind with the introduction of jealousy – weird animals are seen prancing about silently in the woods; transformed souls who failed in their search for human love. It is a moving juxtaposition that succeeds in telling the tale of true romance all the while not missing a beat in its satire.
There is something blaringly abstract and unconventional about the film, that you are sure to feel drawn to the very queer images strewn about on screen. The cinematography is typical of the Greek director, and invoke a special emotion caught somewhere between a smile and a frown. Replete with visual poetry and images poignantly played to the notes of classical music, I cannot imagine a better display of the simultaneous comedy and tragedy. It takes a uniquely creative artist to make you not just appreciate but run through the palette of reactions in the most mundane scene, and that is exactly how I would describe Lanthimos’ work. With the subtlety of a painter’s brush and the precision of a surgeon’s knife, the director wields his camera to say the most with the least. The characters shift from the offbeat monotonous to quirky swiftness with the music, and it all just works so well together. It is undoubtedly not your conventional film, and the images alone ooze the weirdness from their silly motion.
The Lobster is a film you just cannot turn your eyes away from; whether from creative intrigue, the arresting visual depth, or the sheer perverseness of what’s unfolding, it doesn’t matter. The film delivers on all those counts and more; each layer peeling off to reveal a deeper seated one in this multifaceted satire. Self-reflection is the game of the film, and the mirror held up to us seems all too strange and familiar at the same time. This isn’t a film you can leave the same person as before: it stays with you, and haunts you to question the obstinately silly creatures that we are. And yet, at the heart of this satire of love is a romance so powerful the rules of this world start to rumble. Here you will find no resolution of plot or characters, and the ending will prove frustrating to those averse to open interpretations. Not to be watched for the performances or the cinematic quality as much as it is for the very ideas that the director wants to implant, Lanthimos’ work might turn some off, but for the few that don’t mind their fair share of black humour, it will be a revelation. The Lobster is quite easily the most inventive film I’ve seen in years, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ entry into English cinema is something for the competition to watch out for.