Greece/UK (2015) Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
I hesitated to watch this film for two reasons – one: international directors making English language films rarely match the work in their native tongues; two: I can’t stand Colin Farrell. So, imagine how much of a chump I feel as The Lobster is arguably Yorgos Lanthimos best film to date and that Mr. Farrell is quite tolerable!
Still subverting modern society ideals with a caustic eye, Lanthimous and script co-writer Efthymis Filippou have created a dystopian world with an eerily plausible feel to it, considering some countries’ attitudes towards the core theme of relationships. The location is nameless, the time frame never disclosed but this is irrelevant – everything is entirely relatable in one way or another.
In this setting, single people are not tolerated. If you happen to be dumped, widowed or just unsuccessful in attracting a partner, you are sent to a specific establishment for 45 days to find a partner; if you fail, you are turned into an animal of your choice.
For David (Colin Farrell), his wife has left him so he is carted off to the hotel, run by the stern manager (Olivia Colman), with his dog – formerly his own brother – Bob. He quickly bonds with a lisping American (John C. Reilly) and a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw), whilst being pursued by a woman who loves biscuits (Ashley Jensen).
The idea is to find someone with whom you share common ground which isn’t always easy. The limping man hopelessly yearns for a woman with a limp, so he tries another tact and smashes his nose to make it bleed, thus attracting a young woman (Jessica Barden) who naturally suffers from nosebleeds.
Usually when someone creates an absurdist work, the initial adjective thrown at it is “Pythonesque” in tribute to the great British surreal comedy troupe. However this has more a feel of Chris Morris’s Brass Eye than anything else, such is the precision of the world building and the complete straight-faced performances of the cast as they deliver the material like a straight drama.
Lanthimous is noted for his off kilter black comedy explorations of worlds revolving around strict regimes and suppression of human emotions, and The Lobster is no exception. Its international cast of recognised faces and the main language being English makes this more mainstream and less trenchant, although the metaphors and allegories still possess a razor sharp edge.
The film subtly splits into two halves. The first is set at the hotel where the inmates are regularly taken out to the nearby forest where the loners (escaped singletons) dwell to hunt and shoot them with tranquiliser darts. Each successful target equates to an extra day’s stay at the hotel. Trust me, it makes more sense watching it.
Taking the limping man’s lead, David pretends to be callous in order to attract a woman with no feelings (Anjeliki Papoulia), but exposes his weakness when she kills his dog! With the unexpected aid of the hotel maid (Ariane Labed), he goes on the run and is taken in by the loners, (headed by Léa Seydoux) to begin the second half of the story.
Here they are free to do whatever they want except flirt, kiss and have sex with others, which proves a problem when David falls for a fellow shortsighted woman (Rachel Weisz, the narrator of the film). So, David goes from being encouraged to interact with women he doesn’t like to being kept at arm’s length from one he does – oh the irony.
Yet, this is the brilliance of the script’s acerbic deconstruction of society’s expectations and unwritten rules for love and relationships. One can also include arranged marriages in this as a bonus target, not so much the moral implications but the unnatural side of pairing people up for the sake of a union. If someone can go a lifetime without a partner a further 45 days won’t make any difference will it?
As absurd and scarily totalitarian as the central premise is, Lanthimous lightens the mood with the body reassignment concept that awaits anyone left single. In case you were wondering, David chose a lobster as his animal as they live up to 100 years, remain virile and are apparently marine aristocracy- but as limping man points out, someone will one day rip his claws off, boil him in water and scoop his insides out!
Similarly the humour comes from the absolute asinine drivel spoken with complete sincerity and seriousness by the cast. Olivia Colman is absolutely superb as the Hotel Manager, delivering her speeches by rote without any sense of irony, like a schoolteacher addressing a class of infants. The highlight is her cheesy out of tune singing alongside her operatic husband (Garry Mountaine).
Every one speaks in stilted sentences as if they were in a training video or language translation film, complete with metaphorical full stops, commas and forced platitudes. Colin Farrell is surprisingly good as the beleaguered David, a paunchy, bespectacled forty something with a desire to live outside of the rules, partnering up quite well with the always agreeable Rachel Weisz.
Léa Seydoux adopts a very convincing English accent as the Loner leader, whilst showing a rather impressive dark side to her acting repertoire. Ariane Labed is rather fun as the hotel maid as is Anjeliki Papoulia as the cold hearted woman and Extras star Ashley Jensen as the desperate biscuit lover.
Beautifully shot yet not without some quirky framing, the fact the world building is so detailed and Lanthimous directs it as straight as possible, makes the normal and innocuous seem funny and rebellious, while the ridiculous becomes the status quo. In this context everything is believable.
The lustre begins to ebb a little towards the end but overall, it was remiss of me to hold out for so long on The Lobster – a wonderfully creative, biting, intelligent, nonsensical satire that actually is quite heart warming in a uniquely maverick way.