The premise of The Lobster wouldn’t be out of place in a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. Or perhaps Orwell would’ve come up with this dystopia, if he’d turned his attention to human pair-bonding instead of totalitarian regimes.
So, in your best Rod Serling voice, imagine if you will a society in which unattached humans are sent to a grim seaside resort and commanded to find a mate. Stripped of all possessions and reduced to one defining trait, singles are given 45 days to succeed. Once their time expires, those who have failed at this task are transformed into an animal of their choice.
When they’re not participating in desperate communal meals or ghastly dance parties, the singles tote tranquilizer rifles into the woods surrounding the resort and hunt poncho-clad “loners” who have rejected society’s demand to find a partner. For each loner they bag, the singles add more days onto their stay at the lodge, thus giving them more opportunities to pair off and avoid becoming an animal.
(Pretty weird, eh? My wife and I both agreed that The Lobster is the strangest new film we’ve seen in 2016.)
Taking center stage in this tenebrous comedy is Colin Farrell as David. Fresh from the end of an eleven year relationship and accompanied by his brother Bob who’s now a border collie, David is admitted to the resort by the officious Hotel Manager (Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman). When asked by the manager what animal he’ll become if he fails, she nods approvingly upon hearing his choice of lobster. In keeping with the subtle dark humor of the film, David rationalizes his decision by explaining that lobsters can live a full century, and besides, he’s always been a decent swimmer.
During his stay, David hobnobs with other guests, tellingly named in the credits only by their distinguishing trait. There are the guy with a lisp (John C. Reilly), the butter biscuit lover (Ashley Jensen), and the chap with a limp (Ben Whishaw), among others.
Eventually, David crosses paths with the loner group inhabiting the forest and discovers that their rules are as rigid as those at the resort. Flirting and kissing are punished in a sharia-worthy manner, with only superficial chatting permitted. Despite himself and despite the humorless vigilance of the group’s leader, David finds himself falling for one of the loners, played by Rachel Weisz.The Lobster’s director Yorgos Lanthimos makes sure that his film gives us no comfortable handholds. The unfriendly color palette is one of gray skies and seas, brown scrubland, and shadowy green forests. The dialogue and voiceover narration are stilted and awkward. There are occasional unexpected bursts of violence (mercifully, we’re mostly shown the bloodstained aftermath, rather than the violent acts themselves). Even the laughs are brief and a consequence more of surprise than merriment, as when the occasional human-turned-animal (here a pony, there a camel) traverses the screen.
Lanthimos has also chosen a disquieting soundtrack for The Lobster, predominantly made up of 20th Century Russian string compositions. Recurring throughout is a key excerpt from Shostakovich’s justly famous Eighth String Quartet, the three-note motif said to represent early morning door-rapping by Stalin’s secret police.
Even The Lobster’s main actors dial down their usual exuberance. Both Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell have shown that they can immerse themselves in passionately energized roles, in films like The Constant Gardener and In Bruges. And John C. Reilly, clearly going against typecasting, is best known for playing opposite Will Ferrell in silly comedies.
Here, by contrast, emotions are blunted, so we never get inside the heads of these characters. Even their identifying traits are so superficial that they tell us nothing meaningful about the people possessing them.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, The Lobster would not make for a great first date movie. And its odd, opaque qualities mean this is not a movie for everyone (validated by the handful of disgruntled walkouts at the screening I attended).
However, The Lobster has more than its share of insights for the thoughtful viewer. The soulless reductionism of the resort mirrors our pseudo-intimate online dating culture. The intense social pressure to form a couple, caricatured in Lanthimos’ film, can be attested to by anyone who’s been unattached in their 30s or 40s.
These features, along with The Lobster’s depiction of the dehumanization of out-groups, would make this an illuminating companion to an introductory anthropology or sociology class. Just don’t expect to be bathed in warm fuzzies and contentment as you reflect on the film afterwards.
3.5 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: The Lobster deserves its R rating, for its scenes of sexuality and violence. I recommend this film only for mature, sophisticated viewers.)