I still haven’t gotten around to seeing Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, though I intend to. The blackly surreal 2009 film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and drew favorable comparisons to the work of Luis Bunuel and Michael Haneke. And yet most of my friends hate it (the ratio is roughly four out of five). There is no in-between for their opinions.
And yet this might have been ideal conditions to jump into The Lobster, the latest Lanthimos film and his first English-language production. I could see the Bunuel and Haneke, sure, though I was also reminded of the stories of Donald Barthelme, which take a bizarre conceit and bring it to a strangely logical conclusion.
I also noticed that The Lobster is built around black and white distinctions rooted in the ideological heart of the film: you’re either in a relationship (or you die) or you’re single (or you die).
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2015 New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the domestic release of the film.]
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Release Date: October 16, 2015 (UK); May 13, 2016 (USA)
Country: UK, Greece, France
In the world of The Lobster, single people are social pariahs. After the death of a spouse or a divorce, a single person is forced to check into a hotel filled with other single people. They have forty-five days to pair up and get married, otherwise they are killed and have their consciousness transferred to an animal. Lots of people choose dogs, but throughout the movie we also see horses, pigs, and peacocks. Our hero David (Colin Ferrell, with a slight gut) chooses a lobster; he brings his brother (who is now a dog) with him to the hotel. You can earn extra time to prevent metempsychosis by hunting down single people in the woods with a tranquilizer gun.
The hotel operates with business-like efficiency, providing scheduled social activities like some bad singles cruise from hell. To reinforce the importance of relationships, the hotel staff puts on skits: A single man pantomimes eating a meal alone, he chokes, he dies; a man and his wife pantomime eating a meal together, he chokes, she administers the Heimlich maneuver, he lives–applause. To determine whom you can pair up with, you’re asked whether you’re straight or homosexual (the latter sounds so much like business-ese in the context of the film). David asks if there’s a bi-sexual option and is shot down–you can only choose one or the other, not both.
Paper or plastic, soup or salad, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. And it’s blackly hilarious.
The international cast adds to the oddball appeal of The Lobster, and they deliver their lines in an intentionally stilted manner. Olivia Colman’s hotel manager strikes just the right balance between clinical, supportive, and fascistic to make her moments memorable. As for the guests, at times they seem like awkward pre-teens going through the early stages of adolescence. David befriends men played by John C. Reilly (with a slight lisp) and Ben Wishaw (with a slight limp), but they act like boys in the schoolyard. In some scenes the lines are bumbled or devoid of actual human emotion, like they’re reading a script or they’re pod people acting like humans are supposed to act. Flirtation is no longer about attraction or fun but learned behaviors about how people are supposed to flirt, or the desperation of a ticking clock scenario; relationships are a form of mutually beneficial transaction (i.e., we get to remain humans) that’s not necessarily satisfying.
Some of the best moments in The Lobster come from Lanthimos’ exploration of the various forces that urge people to get into relationships against their will. The time limit might be taken as a biological imperative to have kids, or even just a desire to get married by a certain age; the pressures of the hotel staff are the different cultural, familial, and religious expectations attached to marriage and relationships. Any time your relatives have nagged you about dating, marriage, or kids, you have occupied a room in Lanthimos’ hotel.
Lanthimos also pokes fun at the arbitrary ways we sometimes choose who we want to be with. Limping Wishaw is looking for a woman who also has a limp, because something in common (no matter how arbitrary) might mean greater compatibility. Sometimes shared interests or traits are an arbitrary reason to get into a relationship. Does he or she really need to like your favorite band? Is a 99% match on OK Cupid really a guarantee of compatibility? A number is just a number like a limp is just a limp, and what people share together isn’t a matter of arithmetic or mere reflection; there’s a kind of private language and grammar that develops between people who are really fond of one another, and these things can’t be forced or imposed from the outside.
Since The Lobster is rooted in binaries, we also get to learn about the harshness of single-life out in the woods. In the wild and the damp, we meet the leader of The Loners played by Lea Seydoux, who’s both a kind of political revolutionary and a radicalized kook. She asserts her own absurd will over The Loners that is in stark contrast to the rules of the hotel–instead of relationships, it’s all about forceful solitude. And yet like the hotel, her rules are equally arbitrary, equally absurd, and also blackly hilarious. It’s no longer a case of “paper or plastic” among The Loners, but rather “with us or against us.” Lanthimos is equally suspicious of these denials of attraction and the repression of our desire to connect with someone else; it’s another imposition on human nature and individual choice. In the woods, animals who were single people wander through shots. They’re probably better off.
For all the absurd and anarchic humor throughout The Lobster, the movie loses momentum before it comes to an end. It’s as if Lanthimos exhausted the possibilities of his conceit and didn’t figure out the final pivot his story could take. (I mentioned Barthelme earlier, and his best stories often have a sort of pivot near the end, revealing an additional train of thought that’s been operating, parallel or hidden, all along.) The Lobster can feel a little one-note at times, but I suppose it’s really one note that’s played by two opposing sides, a kind of tyranny of logic.
During the New York Film Festival press conference after the screening, Lanthimos said his screenplay was very logical. The comment drew some giggles from the press, yet it’s true. The Lobster adheres to the logic of its conceit, and maybe too much. But there’s still enough to love.