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Film Review: The Lobster

The Lobster (2015; Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

A woman drives alone through the rain. We see her in profile, mute, impassive but alert. She stops the car and walks into a field, approaching a donkey and shooting it dead before returning to her car. This is the opening scene of The Lobster, and unlike its salient absurdist/satirical/menacing premise, it is not further explained or elucidated at all, at any point in the film. But the scene fits reasonably into the unsettling deadpan dystopia crafted by Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, a society where conformity in coupling is enforced through excessively decorous courteousness undergirded by pitiless violence and the threat of forcible animalistic transmogrification.

Lanthimos’ skewed vision unfolds before the eyes of his protagonist, David (Colin Farrell). Confronted by the revelation that his wife doesn’t love him and has left him for another man (according to an initially unidentified female narrator), he loads onto a van with his dog Bob and is conveyed to a country hotel-resort. Odd clues trickle out during an intake session, but the full truth of the purpose of his hotel stay is laid out with awkward forthrightness (an oxymoronic description that is nonetheless apt for the tone strictly adhered to by Lanthimos) by the hotel manager (Olivia Colman).

Now that he is single, David will be given 43 days to find a new companion from among the other hotel guests. He has a daily opportunity to add time to his stay by participating in a hunt of “loners”, single people who wear rain ponchos and live in the woods; for each loner shot with a tranquilizer gun, a guest adds a day to his or her stay, effectively extending their life as a human. Should he not find a suitable match by the time his hourglass runs out, he will be turned into an animal of his choice. He has chosen a lobster, due to their long life (they live up to 100 years, if they don’t wind up in a pot of boiling water first) and his own affinity for the sea.

These are the general details of this polite nightmare (if the dystopian intent wasn’t already agonizing clear, it is signaled by David’s room number, 101, an obvious reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), but the specifics are simultaneously unnerving and absurd (Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocerous, with a similar premise and themes of well-mannered observance of social conventions allowing authoritarian oppression to spread and thrive, is another obvious literary touchstone for Lanthimos). All guests wear the same clothing, bland normcore ensembles of button-up shirts and slacks for men, floral dresses with modest shawls for women. Masturbation is prohibited, and we see David’s lisping friend (John C. Reilly) punished at communal breakfast for his onanist indiscretion by having the offending hand burned in a toaster. Guests are sexually stimulated by the dry, joyless grinding of a maid (Ariane Labed), the tantric arousal supposed to aid their quotidian quest for companionship. In addition to the ritual of the hunt, the guests are made to attend excruciatingly awkward dances, complete with stiff romantic crooning by the hotel manager and her husband. She also runs propagandistic pantomimes illustrating the many benefits of couplehood, her staff acting out couples saving each other from solo perils such as choking on food and rape.

Faced with the impending sentence of becoming a beast (most people choose dogs, as did David’s brother Bob) and the unlikelihood of true heart-sparks occurring in such artificial, tinder-free conditions, the guests will engage in subterfuges to find a companion (if they don’t simply commit suicide, as one woman does by throwing herself out a window). The most usual method (indeed, the only method anyone can seem to think of) is to note a fellow guest’s physical or personality quirks or ailments and pretend to be afflicted with same in order to build a relationship from common ground. It’s a glib comic reduction of the complexities of human affection, but then you could say the same thing about online dating. At any rate, David’s other friend John (Ben Whishaw) shared a limp with his late wife (he acquired it via an attack by wolves when he tried to hug his mother, who had assumed lupine form), and fakes nosebleeds (sometimes quite painfully) to secure commonality with a woman (Jessica Barden) who experiences natural ones frequently. His ruse is at least provisionally successful, but David’s attempt to replicate that kind of success with a heartless misanthrope (Angeliki Papoulia) leads to tragedy and then an escape into the woods.

There, David joins the society of the loners and finds a makeshift society whose strictures are the inverted image of those of the hotel. Masturbation is allowed, even encouraged, but any sort of romantic contact is strictly forbidden and harshly punished by the loners’ implacable leader (Léa Seydoux), who insists with a threatening air that all loners prepare their own graves. The loners are not mere passive prey for the hunts, as they pose as professional couples and sally forth into the city to shop for supplies and visit the leader’s guitar-strumming parents, as well as engage in a guerrilla raid disrupting the relationships of the settled couples at the hotel. David meets a woman (Rachel Weisz) in the woods, the Julia to his Winston Smith, and their mutual near-sightedness prefaces a romance that challenges the rigid terms of loner society.

The Lobster is a parched satire on the social pressures that buttress romantic love, even if the valences of its critique of such pressures are often missed in the (admittedly hilarious) deadpan tone of the whole piece. It’s also a critique of social control and creeping totalitarianism, with the aforementioned echoes of Orwell and Ionesco but also of magic realism (Saramago comes to mind, in particular with the metaphorical focus on eye afflictions and gradations of blindness). The animal transformation element is shrouded in some mystery, though, and never becomes magical or fantastical in nature or execution; John speculates on the gruesome physical process involved in becoming an animal, but nothing more is known or seen of it than the door to the room where it happens.

It’s not really useful to speak about the film’s performances, as all of the performances are essentially rendered indistinguishable by Lanthimos’ straight-faced tone, save those of Farrell and Weisz (and arguably Labed in a more limited way as the irreverent maid), who are allowed some limited range of emotion. Lanthimos’ dialogue and visual sense is similarly detached yet scrupulous, clear-eyed and careful never to sink into empathy or sentimentality. What is subsumed by this approach, but what comes across anyway, is the all-too-recognizable sad desperation of these people not to lose their humanity (itself a species of the sublimated desire not to die alone) and their credulous incredulity at and their unaccepting acceptance of the ludicrous mechanisms and procedures they must navigate through in order to keep their personhood.

The Lobster is all a metaphor for the mechanisms of social control, but it’s also a pretty direct depiction of them in all of their stark absurdity. It’s an obvious dark fantasy that can, at times, feel all too awkwardly real. It shimmers with the patina of subtle brilliance; it suggests some form of spectrum-placed genius to sincerely curate and maintain such an exquisitely mannered tone that is, in and of itself, also the target for such biting satire. The Lobster‘s enduring impression is very like that of its opening scene with the driving woman and the donkey shooting: ambivalent, ambiguous, impassively cruel, discomfitingly amusing, it summarizes modern life in human society as rarely if ever escaping (let alone transcending) the invisible prison for which these impressions serve as firm bars.

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