Funny how when we learn that a couple gets engaged or married, we tend to offer them congratulations. That implies that consummating a relationship in such a way is an accomplishment, something that one can achieve through deliberate effort, like a college degree. I believed this at one point in my life, and it led me to treat my interactions with my girl crushes as exams with specific right and wrong answers—as projects that involved contriving both my and the girls’ actions towards a preferred end goal. You can guess how that turned out. I’ve had dating experience since, and learned a critical lesson from it: love is a total crapshoot. It depends far less on what you do and don’t do than on chance, circumstance and coincidence—right place, right time. It happens by itself, and if you think you have to convince someone to love you, it’s not going to happen and you need to move on. It sounds cruel—but is the alternative really better? Our culture perpetuates an idea of singlehood and virginity as evidence of something off, when most would prefer the excitement of romance’s unpredictability to a situation ending in tears and divorce. The wait for The One is more worthwhile than the rush into marriage.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, like many of the great dystopian texts, is set in a society copied from ours, then taken to an extreme logical end. We’d like to insist that this world only exists in the film and we never have to worry about it—until we realize that the world’s social values and contracts mimic our own reality, and we are hypocrites to deny it. Set in an unnamed city-state (shot in Ireland), the story turns around a hotel where the powers that be send single persons and assign them forty-five days to find a spouse, after which those who are still single are transmogrified into animals. They individually get the solace of deciding which animal. No, wait—the attitude towards singles is even more insidious than that. In the forest beyond the hotel, there’s a rebel force called the Loners who commit to celibacy and suppress all sexual interest, and who the city’s unseen poobahs try to decimate by granting the singles one extra day at the hotel for each Loner they hunt down and shoot with a tranquilizer gun. David, played by a chubbier version of Colin Farrell, is our guide through this world. In the film’s first half, he searches for a mate in the hotel and (hilariously) makes little if any progress. In the second half, he is forced to escape the hotel and join the Loners, one of whom is Rachel Weisz, with whom he falls in love. This double irony anchors the film within a theme of reverse psychology. Coercion breeds rebellion, and no dictatorial apparatus, it seems, is too infallible for David to not fuck up just by being in it.
In The Lobster’s universe, first impressions are sacrosanct. Forty-five days go by fast, and the singles are half-encouraged by the careerist hotel manager (Olivia Colman) to not waste time thinking too hard and search for someone that shares just one distinct trait. It helps that most of the characters are boiled down to one definitive, physical aspect. One ostensible friend of David’s (Ben Whishaw) walks with a limp. He spots a girl (Jessica Barden) who looks hot doing a backstroke in a pool, strikes up a chat, and learns that she has a nosebleed issue. He proceeds to induce nosebleeds on himself with ridiculous masochism. She buys it; they elope. David fails to escape this need for cursory connectivity even while he’s with the Loners: his romance with Weisz (David is the film’s only named character) is based on their mutual nearsightedness, and that leads them into trouble. Lanthimos’ direction serves to call even more attention to the stifling, unreadable one-dimensionality of this ensemble. Everyone delivers their lines as if they’re doing a blind first reading of the script: the words come out as blank, monotonous filler, and the people seem to have no present knowledge of who they are and what they’re doing—instinct without introspection. Indeed, Weisz’ literary voiceover narration prompts us to read the film very much as a written text. At one point, she repeats the characters’ dialogue as a novelist would.
This, mind you, is not a weakness of the film but rather a calculated aesthetic choice that pays off in spades, as it reflects how we often perceive others through knee-jerk reactions and snap judgments. As The Lobster filters our intrusive obsession with marital unity through a surrealist smokescreen, its inhabitants are reduced to what they’re like when we first see them, or perhaps to how we’d like to see them for our own conveniences. There’s a pervasive sense of unreliability—a sense that Lanthimos is withholding stuff, and we’re not seeing the full story or its characters for who they really are. And still, we must spend two hours with these people, as married persons must spend time with each other, even if they’ve acted on impulse. (The lush, Villeneuve-like wide-angle photography of Thimios Bakatakis is the one refreshing counterpoint to this minimalist illegibility.) Such an approach relies less on keen acting than on keen (type)casting. The narrative rides roughshod on Farrell’s blasé Irish humor, Weisz’ decisive economy, Whishaw’s bluff British youth, Colman’s officious slime, and Barden’s self-deceptive charm—to say nothing of John C. Reilly’s under-the-radar physicality, and the feminine French steel of Léa Seydoux as the purely diabolical head honcho of the Loners. To see such a motley, unlikely ensemble come together game as they are for this cinematic challenge and pull it off as they do is stunning.
Lanthimos is the Greek auteur behind Dogtooth, an absurdist riff on homeschooling in which two evil parents keep their three children imprisoned in a lifelong farrago of indiscriminate, inaccurate linguistic associations. The Lobster intensifies that film’s mediation of potential real-world interpersonal situations through an uncanny surrealist bent. It is worth noting that Dogtooth had incest, unsimulated fellatio, and a climactic scene of dental gore that puts Marathon Man and Cast Away to shame—and it was nominated for an Oscar. Rest assured, he has not toned down the content for this film, his first major foray into the ultra-consumerist English language frontier. The violence done to human and animal alike is brutal, and the sex is cringe-worthy, and only more so when sterility is attempted. But none of this is gratuitous; all of it has a point—and that Lanthimos successfully plays this as a black comedy throughout vaults it over the top. Fellow hardcore cinema buffs: think Kaurismäki meets Samuel Beckett, but not as glacial. (The film’s funniest set pieces include Whishaw’s nosebleeds, a bullshit farewell letter read by Barden to an old chum who’s reached her last day, a solipsistic dance to electronica held by the Loners, a ludicrously stupid and sexist pro-marriage skit staged by the hotel staff, Farrell’s anti-reaction to a spectacularly failed suicide attempt, one moment where he and Weisz get a tad too cozy, and one moment where a man is asked to rate his wife “on a scale of one to fifteen” and gives the completely wrong answer.) That Lanthimos has gotten so much support from such acting heavyweights on merit alone, despite his serious anti-commerciality, is a testament to his artistic integrity and will to commit to his vision, yet also to his tact and his understanding of human perception and conditioning. Fact: Farrell has already signed onto his next film. This critic can’t wait.