If we’ve come to idolize marriage in contemporary Western society, The Lobster has come to desecrate it.
This is another work of social-experiment cinema from writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps). In each of those movies, we observe characters operating in a deranged and highly unrealistic scenario. Yet the stranger things get, the more their behavior and motivations look uncomfortably familiar.
In the world of The Lobster, it is apparently illegal to be single. And so those who find themselves without a partner — by way of divorce or death or some other reason — check in at a hotel with other singles, where they have 45 days to find a companion. If they fail, they will be turned into an animal of their choosing.
This is the situation facing a recently divorced architect named David (a dryly funny Colin Farrell). Nerdy, soft-spoken and cloyingly polite, David — along with everyone else — easily acquiesces to the strict rules of the hotel (overseen by a solidly united couple, of course). All the men must wear the same shirt and pants, while all the women wear the same dress. Attendance at a creepily joyless dance (a Lanthimos specialty) is mandatory. Masturbation, perhaps the purest expression of a solitary existence, is forbidden.
The humor, and there is plenty, falls somewhere between deadpan and absurdist. John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw play fellow hotel guests, and their ridiculous conversations about their animal choices, had in robotic monotones, have a hint of comic surrealism. (Much of The Lobster recalls the work of cinematic surrealist Luis Buñuel.) Part of the hotel’s indoctrination regarding the merits of coupledom are ridiculous skits miming the dangers of being single. In one, a man eating alone pretends to choke on his food. With no one at the table to help him, he “dies.” It’s like watching a lobotomized Saturday Night Live sketch. In many ways, The Lobster is the funniest of Lanthimos’ most recent films.
Another humorous moment — and a throwaway one — reveals how precisely conceived the picture is. Checking into the hotel, David is asked whether he wants to register as heterosexual or homosexual. (Nothing “in between,” such as bisexuality or even half sizes for shoes, is allowed.) He pauses for a moment, mumbling something about a homosexual experience in college, when we hear the clicking of high heels off screen. David glances to the side and then answers, “Heterosexual.”
The humor falls somewhere between deadpan and absurdist.
The movie’s precision is also visual. Lanthimos, true to the laboratory nature of his narratives, is a compositional clinician. Every image is neatly arranged and organized. The hotel’s dining room is aligned with rows of tables for one. At the enforced ball, chairs are lined up on opposite sides of the dance floor like battalions ready to engage in warfare. In their matching floral print dresses, the women look like Stepford wives, fresh off the assembly line.
One of these women tries to subvert the hotel’s rules. Known as the “Heartless Woman” (Angeliki Papoulia, who also starred in Alps and Dogtooth), she refuses to find a partner, but manages to stave off her transformation via a loophole. The hotel conducts periodic hunts in the nearby woods, where the hotel guests track down “loners” (runaway singles), tranquilize them and bring them back to the hotel to be turned into animals. With each loner that a guest bags, they get to add a day to their stay. The Heartless Woman has bagged a lot. David admires her, and begins to wonder if they might be match.
A different sort of absurdity takes place in the forest, where peacocks and camels occasionally wander by (former hotel guests, presumably) and a band of these loners have set up a feral community in which romantic relationships are strictly forbidden. David encounters this group via a plot development I won’t reveal, and though they offer protection from the hotel, their approach to human relationship isn’t much more appealing — especially after he begins to fall for a beguiling loner known as the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).
So The Lobster backs off a bit from its bitterly comic, anti-romantic first half. Early signs the movie might head this way are the occasions in which we watch David, alone in his room, struggling to apply pain-relief ointment on a hard-to-reach part of his back. At some level, the movie recognizes both our desire for relationship and our need for it. What the movie objects to, it seems, is the way relationship has been propagandized, commoditized and narrowly defined in contemporary society.
As the focus turns toward David and the Short Sighted Woman, don’t worry that The Lobster goes soft. The stabbing, classical music chords that punctuate much of the movie come to fruition in an excruciating final scene (one that also directly references Buñuel). When the movie finally comes to its merciful end — merciful only in that we no longer have to watch what was happening in that scene — all you can think is: thank goodness we don’t live in a world like this. Or do we?