Yorgos Lanthimos once again proves himself to be an adept social satirist with his latest film, the romance-skewering The Lobster. His first English-language feature, the film sets a wide target, aiming at societal constructions of romance and the way in which people alter themselves to find love. It’s misanthropic, as expected, but perhaps the most broadly funny film from the Greek filmmaker yet. Working with an international cast, and shot on location in Ireland, The Lobster eschews the expectations of Lanthimos’ previous films, a narrative shapeshifter that gleefully toys with its audience’s perception of love and themselves.
Colin Farrell plays David, an architect and university lecturer whose wife has left him for a man whose appearance, we’re told, is fairly similar to David’s. In the wake of his sudden singledom, he leaves for a strange seaside hotel designed as a matchmaking facility. As becomes quickly apparent, the matchmaking process is a trial by fire in more ways than one. The primary threat, and the one nestled into every logline for The Lobster, is that if the participants do not find love (more specifically, “a perfect match”) within 45 days then they are transformed into an animal of their choosing, though they can extend their time by hunting down the ‘loners’ that hide in the woods. David is set on the titular Lobster, his fears of isolation and death assuaged through a creature that lives for 100 years and is ever-fertile, though as another man in the hotel (a strange and emotionless Ben Whishaw) tells him, a lobster is a stupid choice – it will just be caught, cooked and eaten by other people.
Lanthimos usually frames his social satire through the worldview of a small cluster of characters. In Kinetta, his solo debut feature, it was three people involved with a seaside hotel in the off-season (naturally there are parallels with The Lobster in location), in Dogtooth it was a terrifying take on a nuclear family, and in Alps it was a troupe of pseudo-performers unveiling the absurd human response to grief. The Lobster, though, is different right from the get-go, the mass of residents of the hotel all (to an extent) willing participants in this bizarro-romantic process. A sequence in which hotel staff (led by the ever-impressive Olivia Colman and Lanthimos regular Ariane Labed) act out scenes in which a single person would die or be raped receives reflexive applause from the desperate throng. In the film’s back half, Lanthimos suggests it’s not merely the hotel that perpetuates this ordeal but society itself, one obsessed with order, which can be maintained through co-habitation.
The earlier, hotel-set, section of the film is where some of Lanthimos’ sharpest observations arise. Each resident introduces themselves by trying to explain their “defining characteristic”, the film quickly asserting that the quickest route to faux-love is mutual affectations or ailments, a concept that those hellbent on survival begin to exploit. The hotel bans masturbation yet maids are instructed to arouse the men each afternoon as an incentive to find love. Paradoxically, and hilariously, the hotel encourages these base animalistic desires as a means of escaping being transformed into an animal.
The film completely changes its narrative tack and structure in its second half, though, signalled through the transformation of Rachel Weisz’s character from narrator to actual on-screen presence. There’s a richness in the world-building in this section that is worth experiencing as a surprise, though the pace of the film slows considerably and the film loses some of its biting wit in favour of scenes of physical (though still bleak) comedy. That said, the back end is also concerned with rules and obedience, Lanthimos driving home this idea of the inescapable pressures of society, as much driven by an authority as a tacit and unquestioning acceptance from the population. This throughline ensures that, in spite of the digressive feeling in this section, the film remains potent in its entirety.
There’s a viciousness on show through this film that’s markedly different from his previous work. Lanthimos, and co-writer Efthymis Filippou treat their characters with brutality; there are flashes of violence that call to mind Dogtooth (in particular a visceral moment at the film’s conclusion) but the misanthropic view of humanity in The Lobster is something far darker than expected. This dourness is greatly enhanced by the surreal natural landscape surrounding the hotel, which is wonderfully captured by Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematogaphy, and the production design in the hotel itself, courtesy of Jacqueline Abrahams. The film’s score, if you can call it that, is also a very effective tool for the creation of mood, an intentionally unsubtle burst of violins overlaid onto tension-less scenes in the hotel, a pulsing reminder of everyone’s countdown to animalia.
With the ensemble cast assembled here, there were always going to be a string of impressive performances. Farrell is a consistently impressive and amusing presence, his character reveals himself to be less sympathetic over the duration of the film, Lanthimos probing the audience as to their own theoretical response in a totalitarian, romance-based society. Whishaw and Lanthimos’ long-running collaborator Aggeliki Papoulia are the best of the hotel residents, though it’s unfortunate that some of the other supporting roles don’t develop beyond a string of punchlines, John C. Reilly chief among those. Weisz achieves a fair few laughs playing off-type, though her narration in the film is something of a distraction, the images alone are strong enough to convey the a strange nature of the hotel and David’s mental state, something proven in the film though some unsettlingly long shot durations.
Luckily in the translation to English-language filmmaking, Lanthimos hasn’t lost his discomforting and amusing approach to dialogue and movement. Almost every character in the film speaks in a stilted and discomforting manner, any sense of personality slowly draining away just as every resident wears a matching set of clothes based on gender. For the world of The Lobster, and perhaps the world we live in today, love can only exist away from the social construct of romance, which reinforces a theory of a perfect match and a binary of either being alone or together.
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