Prano Bailey-Bond's feature film debut questions censorship while also exploring issues of mental health, trauma, and perspective.
The Lobster. 2015. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Screenplay by Efthymis Filippou & Lanthimos.
Starring Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Colin Farrell, Rosanna Hoult, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Ewen MacIntosh, Imelda Nagle Ryan, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Rachel Weisz, & Ben Whishaw. Film4/Irish Film Board/Eurimages.
Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Yorgos Lanthimos is one of those writer-directors I wouldn’t consider palatable to everyone. Of course he has his fan base, after people discovered his uniquely odd stories and compelling way of directing them onscreen. But still, even with a movie featuring performances from big names such as Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, among others such as great character actors like John C. Reilly and the equally wonderful Michael Smiley, The Lobster both defies universal appeal and also fully concrete explanation. It isn’t one of those arthouse films that is completely unable to find explanation. Rather, Lanthimos has a definitive idea of what the story is, what it means, its implications. Yet it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
If you’ve ever seen anything by Lanthimos, you’ll know his style is abrasive, disturbing, unsettling. It’s also very thrilling if you let his atmosphere and tone set in. They aren’t easy films to digest. For instance, I personally hated his weird indie darling Dogtooth; it absolutely just did not work for me, and I even gave it a couple chances. His 2011 follow-up Alps was much more intriguing to me. Although it’s not much less weird, if at all. Through both these pictures, never mind how I feel about the first, his strangeness settles in and you start to understand, and expect, the oddities he brings out with each subsequent movie. The Lobster is an exceptional work of romance and science fiction mashed into the oddest of stories. Lanthimos works it into a genuinely magical cinematic experience that is both beautiful and a scary prediction of how a society exhibiting unhealthy preoccupations with the personal (and sexual) relationships of its citizens can breed a confusing existential situation for those who feel they exist outside the system. At the bottom of its intentions, The Lobster is a story which stands for love against all odds, love at any cost – love, love, love!
The marriage industrial complex has run wild in Lanthimos’ screenplay. In this dystopian future, not far off, being single is reprehensible. Is it because of sociopolitical views? It is out of necessity in a society where human life is waning and procreation is a must? Who knows. But this vision of society’s trajectory imagines the fixation on coupling, the idea that people must find a partner in order to live a human life, as having gone to the extreme. If these people at the Hotel cannot find themselves a mate they’re cast off, turned into animals. It’s hilariously absurd. Initially, the singles are cast out of society, literally ejected from the city and brought to the Hotel. After David (Farrell) experiences a divorce, he finds himself whisked off and given his societal ultimatum, forced into finding someone to live the rest of his life with – again – or else wander the wilderness. The even greater hilarity comes out of David and his decision to become a lobster, should he be cast out into nature.
What’s most intriguing is how everything people feel pressure about from society’s expectations becomes amplified. Now the threat of losing hair is suddenly the number one superficial threat against finding a partner. A sad conversation between David and a woman verging on her last night at the Hotel sees her questioning his possible future hair loss, bringing out a truly depression scene that’s also darkly funny. The entire thing is dark and comedic; sometimes one more than the other. And that’s part of The Lobster‘s appeal is the delicate balance between pitch black plot and the almost effortless, riotous comedy of the dialogue and interactions between characters.
Heartless Woman: “There‘s blood and biscuits everywhere”
David: “I hope she dies right away. On second thought, I hope she suffers quite a bit before she dies. I just hope her pathetic screams can‘t be heard from my room. Because I was thinking about havin‘ a lie down. And I need peace and quiet. I was playin‘ golf and I‘m quite tired. The last thing I need is some woman dying slowly and loudly.”
The dystopian horror of this future is not so much the almost quarantining of single people, forcing them into choosing a mate. More so it is the existential horror of being forced into molding oneself to the whims of someone else. And essentially, that is the bending of our personal will to society. David and the Heartless Woman are driven together, eventually discovered to be futile after David shows emotion – because she kills his brother – and they find out he’s let societal expectation push him to a fake love. In a sense, David is like the escaping prisoner trying to execute the plan to escape his chains. Likewise the Limping Man (Whishaw) also gets into a relationship under false pretense, only his is a bit easier to hold up against scrutiny. Regardless, the point is the same. People are pushed into relationships by the state’s system and they manufacture neat little families, fit for procreation, economic consumption, and so on. This is the ultimate dystopian element is that society is controlling every last aspect of life, down to the family, down to sexual impulse and control. One fo the more horrifying moments, to me, is when the Lisping Man (Reilly) is caught for frequent masturbation in his room; as everyone sits around eating their meals in the big dining hall, the Hotel Manager (Colman) and her waiters come out, burning his masturbation hand in a toaster.
Yet for all the Hotel/society’s madness, once David gets himself out into the forest and meets the rebel group, the Loners, he discovers there’s as much madness out there, too. People are subjected to the Red Kiss if they’re found flirting or kissing, et cetera: each person has their lips sliced open with razors, then they are forced into a kiss. Yikes. Worse than that, there’s something alluded to as the Red Intercourse. Not explained, though as the Loner Leader (Seydoux) suggests we can easily figure that out on our own. So even as David escapes the Hotel, the Loners are equally as strict. The movie has as much to comment about rebel and dissident groups as it does on the controlling arm of society.
While the Loners fight that good fight, their methods are no less controlling, nor are they any less cruel; in fact, their punishments are almost a little more hardcore than even the nastiness of the Hotel. So in a way, the Loners represent the idea that in this dystopian world being single is just as horrific as being forced into/doomed to a married life, willed into companionship. And above everything else thematically, Lanthimos expresses the futile existential struggle of worrying about whether or not finding a life partner is the be-all end-all of our existence on Earth. Because in the end, neither option is good for everyone. You cannot prescribe a system for discovering a lover, a lifetime friend and soulmate. It happens differently for different people, and the more society puts a hold on traditional, cookie cutter relationships the closer we get to a dystopian nightmare like The Lobster. This is why the burgeoning relationship between David and the Short Sighted Woman (Weisz) represents something outside the box. They’re drawn together outside the normal systemic process of relationships. And even though the Loners don’t approve, they still do it, so there’s no small box where these two can be crammed in and defined. They find love on their own terms. On secret missions to the city they’re even required to act like lovers, to make their appearance feel real and proper to anyone looking on. So within the system, and outside, they work towards a lasting, loving relationship. At least until the end where we’re left with an ambiguous moment: does David make the final commitment, or does he run from this relationship like the last to try and find another one? There’s no telling. I like to think he took the plunge, dedicated to his loving partner for all time; no matter what.
This is one of my favourite films of 2015. A veritable 5-star work of cinema. Lanthimos allows a romance to come out here while simultaneously exploring his vision of dystopian future. Some dystopian fiction feels far off. Somehow, Lanthimos makes The Lobster feel odd and science fiction-like in a social setting, all the while giving it a feeling that this is a future so close that it’s eerie. There are moments of very futuristic thought in terms of social and romantic relationships, as well as deeply affecting scenes of emotion. With people turning into animals, a rebel group living amongst the forest, a Hotel where singles are imprisoned in order to find a husband or wife, Lanthimos has a distinct concept of a couple-obsessed society where the government has completely breached the wall separating the bedroom and the state. While many might find this movie, and others like it, off-putting or too strange to enjoy, for those willing to get weird this is a fascinating work of art. Totally worth the experience.