The log line is absurd: residents of an unnamed city in the dystopian near-future must be in a relationship otherwise they’re sent to a hotel and given 45 days to find a mate. Failure to pair up results in being turned into an animal of their choosing. Lonely David (Colin Ferrell) chooses a lobster because they live to be a 100 years-old and have blue blood. Good choice David. In his English language debut, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos spins the heightened premise into a caustic comedy that’s as black as smoker’s lungs, lobbing satirical barbs at our couple-obsessed society.
The Lobster represents a gamble, gathering marquee-worthy stars like Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly to play often affectless characters in a low budget pseudo sci-fi dramedy that will likely seem impenetrable to mass audiences. But Lanthimos’ brilliance lies in the total commitment to his world and the characters within it, spinning a story that only seems straightforward while drawing you into a narrative that has lasting resonance.
Like Lanthimos’ previous movies Dogtooth (about extreme helicopter parents who raise their kids in total seclusion) and Alps (about people who impersonate the recently deceased to help the grieving process), The Lobster is similarly high concept. The heightened reality serves as a funhouse mirror through which Lanthimos observes and pokes fun at our ridiculous foibles, often at a purposeful remove. Speaking in stilted dialogue and following rigid societal rules, the residents of The Lobster‘s city are forced to conform to ascetic guidelines on how to date and who to shack up with. It’s the opposite of free love.
Farrell’s sad-sack David, having recently split with his wife, is banished to the hotel with his formerly-human/now-dog brother in tow. He’s given the spiel about having 45 days to find a partner from the stern manager (Olivia Colman) and has to declare his sexual preference upon arrival so that there’s no confusion. The dialogue is hilariously on-the-nose, as characters make plain their thoughts and fears while trying to hook up with someone who shares and is accepting of their damage, both physical or otherwise.
John C. Reilly’s character speaks with a heavy lisp while Ben Wishaw’s character struggles with a limp. When they introduce themselves to the hotel residents they declare their defining characteristics (nearly breaking the fourth wall) in the hopes that someone out there will identify with them. Courtship is, as expected, cringe-inducingly awkward and funny in equal measures as both the ticking clock and the strict rules against masturbation (lest they face the wrath of a unique brand of torture) mean that the spectre of living out the rest of their days as an animal hangs over everyone at the hotel.
Some residents plainly offer biscuits or sexual favours in exchange for partnership, while others choose to lie about their likes and dislikes or simply jump off a tall building. Another option is to run away to the nearby woods, living as a loner amidst a group of loners, obeying an entirely different set of rules enforced by another unsympathetic leader (Lea Seydoux).
The loners are forbidden to flirt with one another lest they be subjected to the “red kiss” (watch the movie for a gruesome explanation) and physical contact is strictly forbidden. For fun they trap and skin rabbits and listen to electronic music (and ONLY electronic music) on their headphones, swaying in time to beats only they can hear. Lanthimos must not be a Chemical Brothers fan. It’s within this other society that David, having previously tried to force a relationship, actually falls in love with Rachel Weisz’ character, a kindly woman who shares his short-sightedness.
Weisz brings tremulous heart to the movie, bringing vulnerability and intelligence to her character (as in Deep Blue Sea). She sees in David a provider and good match, and their growing relationship lends poignancy to a movie that had, until that point, been a dryly funny satire. In an absurd movie about turning people into dogs and lobsters and saddling failing marriages with mandatory children, suddenly the stakes are raised as sincere emotions break through the walls that both the characters and filmmakers had built up.
Lanthimos stays true to his warped vision and executes a quietly stunning ending that is open-ended and sure to inspire discussion. The Lobster is truly weird and idiosyncratic, a unique beast that grows in power the further removed you are from it, refusing to go quietly in the good night. Though it is exceeding quiet, using dialogue and score sparingly. Lanthimos know it’s what’s between the notes that matters, making the silences impactful.
The Lobster (2016)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Runtime: 119 minutes