It feels like we've been waiting forever for the release of Yorgos Lanthimos's English language debut, "The Lobster." This time out, he tackles the subject of love and romance, and the results are just as dark and twisted as you'd expect. In the world of "The Lobster," pairing off is mandatory, and staying single is forbidden. Those unlucky enough to be single are sent to a hotel for 45 days, where they must find a mate. Those who fail are turned into the animal of their choice, but some run away to live as Loners in the woods, and are hunted and persecuted.
David (Colin Farrell) goes to the hotel after the death of his wife, where he meets the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) among the men attempting to make love connections. They are carefully watched by the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) to ensure that they are following the hotel's many regulations, and that the matches are genuine. Potential mates include the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), and the increasingly desperate Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen). Among the communal activities is regularly going out into the nearby woods to hunt Loners. Among these are the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).
I'm very impressed by "The Lobster," but at the same time it confirms for me that Yorgos Lanthimos is a director who has chosen to limit himself to making a very rigid, very particular kind of movie that isn't really to my tastes. I admire how he constructs these incredibly repressive, brutal, allegorical societies with ridiculous rules, which he uses to satirize elements of the real world. This worked very well in "Dogtooth," where the family was a microcosm of a tyrannical state, but it's harder to connect real world social rituals around love and marriage to the screwed up system in "The Lobster." I'm sure that there are people who really do view the business of finding a partner as this kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, where they are obliged to follow impossible rules and end up grievously harming themselves to conform to the established norms. I'm not one of them, and really had to engage in some mental gymnastics to accept the film's twisted logic.
For instance, there's the prevalence of coldly brutal oppressor figures in "The Lobster," all of them female. They employ shocking violence without a thought, only one of them with any hint of emotion. The men end up engaging in various types of self-harm in order to prove their love. Couples are deemed compatible based on seemingly trivial shared characteristics, and are viewed suspiciously if they appear too dissimilar. Initially the hotel seems like the major institution of tyranny, but David discovers that the Loners are just as bad in their own way. Having declared war on the system, they decide instead to outlaw romantic relationships altogether. It's a fascinating collection of ideas that don't quite all fit together, but allow the filmmakers to explore relationships from an angle I've never seen before. I especially enjoyed the ending, which the rest of the film slowly builds up to in such a gradual, systematic way, that I didn't see it coming.
Colin Farrell makes for a very fitting Lanthimos leading man, with his baleful expressions and nervous, guilt-ridden posture. David always seems obliged to hide his emotions from other people, so much of what he's feeling has to be conveyed silently, in subtle ways. All the characters are very detached and repressed in behavior, prone to seething privately, and lashing out when cornered. The participation of the name actors, like Léa Seydoux and Rachel Weisz, doesn't take away from the unsettling, paranoid atmosphere that Lanthimos creates. I love how quietly malevolent some of the characters are, and even relatively good natured personalities like John C. Reilly's poor schlub are eventually obliged to join in the violence.
Lanthimos's dark, dry sense of humor made the transition to the English language intact, and I continue to appreciate it greatly.I love the way that David carefully relays his rationale for choosing the lobster as his animal alter ego, as if he's reciting his driver's license number. The Hotel Manager or the Heartless Woman have the habit of making the most outrageous pronouncements in completely businesslike, disinterested tones. We don't learn much about what happens to successful couples, but the brief glimpses of family life we see are very telling. One particular line involving the topic of parenthood is completely absurd on its face, but in the world of "The Lobster," makes a sick kind of sense.
And once you do buy into this world and its demented logic - which is not an experience I would recommend to everyone, particularly sensitive viewers - the movie works. It's oddly comforting to know that Yorgos Lanthimos, as extreme as he is, does believe in love, and believes that it's something worth sacrificing yourself for. I found the movie too brutal to truly enjoy, but in its own special, horrific way, "The Lobster" really is lovely romance.