Dogtooth, a nightmarish study of three home-schooled teenagers who had no names, learned a false language, and regarded house cats as ferocious beasts to be decapitated on sight. Dogtooth was consistently fascinating, Alps intermittently so, but both depicted their human grotesqueries so persuasively that they were easier to admire than adore. The Lobster is different, even as it's more of the same. It retains the hypnotic surrealism of Lanthimos' earlier work, but it also possesses something even more startling: a heart.
All of Lanthimos' films operate on multiple levels, working as tidy,
intimately scaled pieces of off-kilter esoterica while also asking big,
loaded questions about social customs and human relationships. Here,
he's exploring the freighted topic of love. That's hardly a novel hook
for a movie, but The Lobster is less interested in defining love
than in examining how we view it as a symbol of status. And so it
inquires: Are married people truly happy? Are single people really
alone? When we claim that we are in love, what do we mean? Is coupledom a
shield against the sadness of isolation, or is it a prison that
suppresses freedom and individuality? And if you get caught
masturbating, shouldn't you be forced to stick your hand in a
Sorry, I got ahead of myself. But one of the impressive things about The Lobster
is how thoroughly it commits to its eccentric flourishes, treating them
as matter-of-fact realities rather than winking satirical constructs.
It is in a sense a fantasy film, and its dedication to world-building is
as meticulous as any superhero extravaganza or science-fiction epic. It
takes place in a dystopian universe where citizens are required by law
to live happily with a partner. Singles, labeled "loners", are outcasts
who subsist in the woods, while police officers prowl urban shopping
malls, demanding to see "papers" for anyone unaccompanied by a mate.
This creates a problem for David (Colin Farrell, superbly restrained),
whose wife has just left him for another man and who must check into a
very particular hotel operated by a polite, fastidious manager (Olivia
Colman, fresh off her spy-tinged gallivanting in The Night Manager).
She informs David that he has 45 days to fall in love with a female
guest (the bisexual option has been discontinued, sorry for the
inconvenience); if he fails to do so, he will be transformed into an
animal of his choice. He's familiar with this twist on Beauty and the Beast—the dog who loyally trots after him is actually his brother, who failed to find love as a man two years earlier.
As I said: absurd. But to fixate on The Lobster's delicious weirdness is to risk overlooking
both its formal beauty and its thematic resonance. Narrated in a flat,
intentionally mechanical monotone by Rachel Weisz, it tracks David's
hotel sojourn with anthropological detachment, which feeds gracefully
into Lanthimos' crisp, clinical style. For someone whose films are so
outlandish, he is remarkably assured with the camera, favoring long
takes and elegant compositions. His visual discipline both punctures and
accentuates the strangeness of his subject matter, and it also elevates
his deadpan approach to comedy. (As a sampling of the film's black
humor, couples who find themselves struggling are assigned children—"it
usually helps.") The Lobster is often hilarious, largely because it rarely feels like it's trying to be funny.
"That's awful," David complains after one such session with the maid.
It's hard to disagree, though it is also hard not to smile at Farrell's
soft-spoken, tender performance. Wearing weak glasses, a strong
mustache, and a paunch, he relinquishes all vestiges of vanity, and he
proves an invaluable anchor of restraint amid a roiling ocean of farce.
Blue Is the Warmest Color's
Léa Seydoux, wonderful) who assures David that he is now free, and it
would be easy for Lanthimos to paint the loners as proud anarchists,
chafing against society's senseless strictures. Yet as David soon
learns, the loners have their own insidious agenda, as well as their own
unbending laws: They are as forbidding of romantic attachment as the
city-dwellers are of isolation. And once again, David finds himself
clashing with his society's values, as he grows attracted to a fellow
loner (Weisz, now in the flesh), a bright-eyed woman who hunts rabbit
and who shares David's defining characteristic of being shortsighted.
Eventually, The Lobster transitions into something even weirder
and more beautiful: a love story, one that is both bitterly cynical and
heedlessly romantic. It conceives of a world where romance is a function
of obligation rather than a source of true happiness, which makes the
blossoming affection between David and Shortsighted Woman all the more
joyous. But can they really find bliss when such a union is anathema to
the loners' culture of aloofness?