MOVIE REVIEW: "The Lobster"

The Lobster is one of the most bizarre films I've seen in my life. Starring Colin Farrell, it takes place in a world where socially-enforced views on relationships are codified into natural law and legal precedent: all single people must check into a mysterious hotel, where they have 45 days to find a perfectly suited partner, or are turned into the animal of their choice. As the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) informs David (Farrell), his choice of a lobster is a good one. Apparently most people choose dogs (like David's unfortunate brother) and species are endangered on Earth, it seems, if only because people aren't choosing to become them when they fail to enter relationships. Lobsters live for a long time and are fertile throughout their lives, David says by way of justification, indicating that while he's resigned himself to loneliness and loss of humanity, he at least hopes to have some sort of fulfillment even in animal form. A less creative director and writer would have gone full dystopian aesthetic, replacing all recognizable settings and clothing with concrete cubes and gray cotton. Not so with this film. Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed as well as co-wrote the script with Efthymis Filippou, wisely has chosen to really make the film hit home in a way that seems all too possible by setting it in a world virtually indistinguishable, save this caveat, from the one we live in.

While it is by no means a perfect film, The Lobster is an important one, as traditional definitions of relationships and marriage fall by the wayside with each passing generation. Is it better to be alone and independent, or to have a partner to perform the Heimlich maneuver or rub balm on your aching back? What does it mean to be perfectly suited for another person--and does it really matter that much whether you are? The Lobster sees the fairy-tale idea of finding one's perfect match subverted through the actions of both hotel inhabitants and staff alike, as the glasses-wearing David comes to realize that perhaps near-sightedness in a partner is not the most important factor when it comes to finding someone. Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man takes this fanciful logic to greater heights as he bangs his head on whatever he can find to give himself a nosebleed, thus presenting himself as a suitable match for a woman who spontaneously gets nosebleeds. David pushes the limits of said logic to the most extreme point as he pretends to be heartless and violent in order to attract a woman with the same quality.

The Lobster seems like two films placed end-to-end: the highly regimented, darkly humorous hotel sequences, where the viewer learns the rules of this strange world and observes compulsory monogamy, and the looser second half, which takes place in the forest by the hotel where David manages to escape after trying to partner with the heartless woman. The second half serves as a direct contrast to the first: while David is awakened every morning in the hotel by an announcement letting him know how many days he has left to find a partner, the sequences in the community of "loners", led by Léa Seydoux, or people who have escaped the hotel and are determined to remain single in the woods, are incredibly loose and unstructured. It is impossible to determine just how much time passes after David joins this community, which, though it seems to offer him salvation from his failure to find a relationship in the hotel, comes with its own harsh rules and punishments for failing to conform to their values: in this case, being single is a requirement, with falling in love rendered a punishable offense. The film thus shows, almost to the point of parody, the evils of trying to control human behavior in affairs of the heart: David's time in the hotel is a ticking clock leading to the loss of his humanity, while David's journey in the woods, where he meets and falls for the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), seems to stretch on forever in the bleakest possible way. 

The performances are strong, with a schlubbified Colin Farrell bringing the perfect combination of dry acceptance and pathetic longing to the central role. Also good are Léa Seydoux, brittle and menacing, and Ariane Labed’s hotel maid, whose neutral façade slowly dissolves to betray a keen desire for something other than the relationship--and job--she has. Aggeliki Papoulia, as the Heartless Woman, manages to telegraph such self-loathing and sorrow in her eyes that despite the cruelty and unnecessary violence of her actions over the course of the narrative you almost feel sorry for her--she, just like every other hotel inhabitant, wants to maintain her humanity, even though she had already lost hers long ago. Slightly underdeveloped, however, is Rachel Weisz’s character, whose personality really only comes through during the flat-voiced narration she provides for the first half of the film; for the second half of the film, which is really only where we see her, she is a cipher, and as a result the audience just doesn’t really understand what would draw her to David and risk everything to be with him.

Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis creates an evocative and suitably mood. The score, which includes classical strings from the likes of Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Stravinsky, creates a keen pervasive sense of anxiety that permeates the film even during the more humorous moments. The most striking shot of the film is the last: Rachel Weisz, having escaped the woods with David for the unnamed city, sits in profile in a diner booth in front of a large horizontal window. The shot to lasts a long time and reminded me of the ending of the late Chantal Akerman’s 1975 Jeanne Dielman: the suddenly yellowish, warm light passing over Weisz, her intentional, almost majestic stillness, combined with the ambient sound and visuals of cars and trucks moving behind and above her in the window, seems to me to be a direct reference to this famous long take.

The Lobster cost around 5.5 million dollars and has thus far earned back twelve million, making this independent film a success. However, I couldn’t help but notice during the opening credits that there seemed to be about a hundred production companies and cultural organizations whose financial aid had made this film possible. A co-production among five countries, with support from six production companies, it certainly seems like small-budget, high-concept independent films such as The Lobster must rely on many sources of funding just to get made, whereas every summer there are seemingly endless blockbusters with double- and triple-digit budgets running out of the gate. Fortunately, the film has been snapped up by A24, who is quickly becoming a smart distributor of acclaimed films such as Ex Machina, Room, The End of the Tour, and Amy, among others. I can only hope that the gamble so many different people took on The Lobster will bear fruit come awards season, and hopefully its summer release period won’t diminish its chances of being rightly honored for its creativity.