I like to think I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 Cannes Prix du Jury winner The Lobster at probably the most perfect time in my life to have seen it. Having spent the latter half of 2015 vehemently avoiding pirating the leaked copies from its release in its native Ireland (and I am sincerely disappointed in how many people I personally know who did so), I didn’t get to see the film until the Miami International Film Festival in March of 2016 – where I could only review it in capsule form at the time until its nationwide release, but that seemed way too insufficient for a movie like this.
By that point, I was literally reeling over a breakup that I probably gave more energy to worrying about than I should have. So I was in somewhat a state of mind where I was “feeling” single which isn’t usually something I feel so much as I just recognize myself as a single human being (even… hell, especially when I am in a relationship with someone). So I was in one of those funks where the empty space next to me was obviously attracting attention to itself and it was kind of nearly a herculean effort to get myself into the theater to watch Lanthimos’ film.
It was probably the perfect movie for me with that state of mind.
By the end of the film, I walked out thinking “whelp, definitely don’t need one of those”. I’d say the thought started entering my mind well before its unnervingly antagonistic ending, maybe even as early as its first scene.
But I guess I’m getting ahead of what about The Lobster made me think this way. Lanthimos and Efthymis Fillipou’s story simply begins by dropping us into a world that superficially resembles ours but the things they’re talking about are absurdly irrational. Our man David (Colin Farrell), a recent divorcee, is being checked into a resort where he is expected to find a mate within 45 days. If he is unable to find a match, the resort
offers him a refund will facilitate his semi-consensual transformation into an animal (David’s choice is the titular lobster and he gives a hell of a lot of thought behind his decision). This concept is way too silly to take seriously and we’d need a moment to arrange ourselves to this scenario if it weren’t for how coldly deadpan David and the employees of the resort, including the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) discuss the terms of his stay. And plus, the dog David brings with him for the stay is immediately identified as his brother, having been an unlucky patron.
And so the movie goes off being painstakingly literal about the commentary it has towards not only the construct of relationships and how the pressures of society to get people paired together even if it means effectively stifling out any personal identity or being based on the most arbitrary and inconsequential traits (to drive both home, David is the only named character in the film and everyone else is identified by traits. We even get the name of Ben Whishaw’s character at one point, but David remarks he already forgot it at one point and so have I truth be told after seeing the movie twice) and most desperately on crafting a fraudulent persona. “A relationship cannot be based on a lie” one character utters (ironically one of the cruelest in the film), but it’s not hard to imagine most of the relationships we do witness in this film are based on a shroud in one way or another. The performance style of literally every character feels so painstakingly restrained and cold – even against the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) – all the nuance and cadence behind each line practically cut off, all facial expression negated, every character has a mask to them so that all we do recognize is their physical attributes. David and his eventual love interest, the Near-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz, who also narrates the film) get some room for emotive performance, but even they have to succumb to a fussy lack of personality. These people were definitely already lying to earn their existence, let alone a mate.
The direct result is a uniformity of these characters and an alienatingly suffocated atmosphere aided by the costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop’s choice of indistinguishable suits and dresses for the members of the resort and even the raincoats for the rebellious Loners, who prowl outside of the resort and are hunted by its tenants. Thimios Bakatakis makes things even more dreary and cold by visually sapping away color from what little was in Blenkinsop’s costumes (the dresses ideally, but they were all the same already to the point of being outright boring and far from stimulating) and making technically beautiful shots of the Irish coastline just feel depressing and empty. Bakatakis does this without any cost of the sharpness or focus on the shots, he just removes all the lively color within the composition and we have ourself a hell of an alienating movie simply by its choice of visuals.
The indirect result is how this forced matchmaking affects the actual world of the film at large. Nobody feels like a person as a result, individuality is probably punished, and even the Leader of the Loners (my screen crush Lea Seydoux once again) herself, for all her proclamations of the rules of the group, is no less an element of this environment in her harsh attitudes and her hypocritical (and cruel) practices. Even trying to go against the social norm doesn’t prevent you from being tyrannical about your ideals and, even when Farrell and Weisz’s characters meet and eventually become romantically involved, nothing ever stops feeling unsafe. Love doesn’t suddenly fix things or kill the demon. In fact, it brings more complications leading to an especially shocking and cruel third act development, but I can’t give that away. All I can say is what you have to ask by the end of the film is how far has David, possibly close enough to being aware of this social absurdity though his actions constantly imply he either isn’t or doesn’t care, come to at least being his own person? And is the spot he now in worth it? That’s as far as I can say and the movie aggressively shoves these questions in your face before it wraps just as abruptly as it opened. The Lobster is a thoroughly antagonistic and cold movie to the point of affronting the viewer for being willing to enter its world expecting comedy.
Of course, here’s the crazy thing about The Lobster – it is a comedy. A vicious and gleefully cruel movie it is, but also a hilarious one and certainly a more digestible one than Lanthimos’ 2009 Un Certain Regard winning breakout grotesquerie Dogtooth. It’s very alluring with its undoubtedly beautiful aesthetic – even if its inhuman – but also in its sense of humor about all of it (when a movie wastes no time introducing you to its absurd concept, it has to be such a comedy), it’s just not comforting by any means. It’s a diversion, John C. Reilly’s obnoxious lisp, the silly slap fight between Whishaw and Reilly, the tense yet farcical makeout session Weisz and Farrell have in front of Seydoux’s family, all of it doesn’t save you from how harsh the movie is. Hell, one of the most hardest bits is to decide how to react about a shocking and violent moment of animal cruelty and how a character deals with it. This is a very very black film that also happens to be very watchable. You can giggle.
And so we are back to what I mentioned at the beginning of this review, where I had just dropped out of a relationship, was in the insane post-breakup malaise and The Lobster proved to be the movie that made me walk out going “Nope. Nope nope nope. I really don’t need those eggs, sorry Woody.” A movie that makes relationships so unpalatable in what they demand and society so offensive as to feel like a goddamn horror movie. It’s kind of miraculous with how close the real world resembles The Lobster‘s world except in the obvious that we’re not already there.
Maybe when God Emperor Trump comes to power.