The discovery of something that is thoughtful, clever, or even that oh, so preciously abstract concept of “original” is the most exciting prospect of attending a film festival. It’s the chance to find a movie that desires more of both itself and its audience; it demands to be seen.
Well after finally seeing Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English language film, The Lobster, I can safely attest that it is indeed clever and demanding. The film that was all the rage at Toronto and Cannes earlier this year has proven to be just as cutting in its razor-sharp observations about human coupling and romance when it premiered at the New York Film Festival this weekend. However, it might just be so pointed from all angles that many audiences will have difficulty handling it like those animated early first adopters.
Greek filmmaker Lanthimos has already proven in his native language that he can be viciously deadpan in his high-concept dark comedies. Dogtooth presented a closed-off and over-protective family that practiced its own customs and bizarre dogma. And while I have not yet seen his follow-up, Alps, The Lobster takes the same dry cynicism to new extremes with a dystopian future of curt repression. In fact, the characters are so maddeningly polite in this film’s hellacious world that, at times, it feels as if Wes Anderson scripted a Terry Gilliam story—one with a two-hour metaphor for every conceivable form of expectation and societal disdain in the dating game.
The Lobster is a savagely blunt allegory about how we all judge our own and each other’s love lives. This occurs immediately for David (Colin Farrell) after his wife of 12 years leaves him for another man. Instantly, the cuckolded divorcee finds himself returning to a country resort where all newly single men and women are given 45 days to find a mate. After which time—as absurdly arbitrary a deadline as that of any other culture’s—that single person will be literally transformed into an animal that society can go on ignoring as sweetly benign and pathetic. In other words, couples can banish single people from their sight as subhuman beings with maximum condescension. For the record, David’s choice of animal exile is to become a lobster.
Single people who do not wish to couple or become animals also might elect to break society’s rules and hide in the woods with the other “loners.” Of course, these loners are likewise punished with the country resort’s other duty being to hunt loners down and violently drag them back to the hotel, so they can be turned into animals.
But lest this sound like the makings of a dystopic revolution, the loners have their own idiosyncrasies. While the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) allows any to join her ranks, they must choose a life of celibacy and friendship. If any of her followers dares to even flirt with another member of the group, such as say David making eyes at the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), then they would risk punishments more severe than being forced to dance under the sea.
From top to bottom, The Lobster is a self-contained metaphor about the anxieties and social pressures to marry, as well as those required if you should stay single. It is a pox on both your houses, but its world is built with such prideful quirkiness that it never expands beyond its admittedly amusing set-up. The film establishes allusions for every variety of social construct that turns the dating game into everyone’s own personal kind of hell, yet it never explores them deeper than the caustic gag of any given scene.
The film has its best moments in parenthetical subplots away from the main narrative. While at the resort, David befriends a limping man (Ben Whishaw) and a particularly awkward fellow with a lisp (John C. Reilly). At a glance, Reilly’s case seems hopeless, but Whishaw achieves the goal of social acceptance by mating with a woman who suffers chronic nosebleeds (Jessica Barden). In order to find some common ground, the limping man smashes his head nightly into walls to simulate a bleeding nose. And when even that proves to not be enough after several weeks, this newly married couple is assigned a child by the hotel to fix their relationship.
The implications about the heightened importance of “shared interests” and the type of desperate first date “white lies” that are commonplace is self-evident. But while presenting such cultural habits and unspoken social cues in a world without subtext can be intellectually amusing, it rarely proves to be any more loveable than its cast of miserable and self-deceiving characters.
Filling out those ranks are a number of very game actors, including Farrell in a brave and unglamorous role as a nebbish introvert that is the definition of milquetoast. Seydoux is also gleefully icy as a leader who takes a special kind of pleasure in telling followers to dig their own graves (saves her the trouble of unearthing a hole later).
But the overarching joke is both the point and ultimately the frustration of a film that feels as cramped as its terrified characters. It’s a well-sketched joke that is never filled out enough to leave an impression greater than your mileage for the grimmest of deadpan.
Consequently, The Lobster demands to be seen for a strikingly clever and prescient premise, but for many it will prove just as aloof and undesirable as the most unwanted of animal shapes. The ending reaches for a greater emotional truth about love and what drives (or holds) people together, but when apathy is the overriding sentiment, the only catharsis to be found is escaping this stifled world. The Lobster obviously and grandiosely aims to be a dark comedy reflection of our real, rigid world, but it is so dark that nothing can be truly gleaned beyond its own satisfied cleverness.