Alibi V.25 No.22 • June 2-8, 2016 

Film Review

The Lobster

Absurdist romance makes monkeys out of us all

The Lobster ()

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw

The Lobster
Farrell and Weisz ponder love or shellfish in The Lobster

American rhythm and blues duo Mickey & Sylvia warned us back in 1956 that “Love is Strange.” It was true before then, of course, and remains an inescapable fact today. Rarely has the axiom been more idiosycratically imagined, however, than in Yorgos Lanthimos’ bleakly comic sci-fi-ish romance The Lobster.

A writer-director-producer of Greek origin, Lanthimos made his mark with the moody, broody 2009 thriller Dogtooth. In that meticulously composed waking nightmare, the filmmaker imagined a group of teenage siblings raised in perfect, Skinner-like isolation and misinformation by their mysteriously zealous parents. Now Lanthimos returns with his first English language film, a high-profile art house puzzler that plays out something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as directed by Lars Von Trier in one of his more misanthropic moods—with maybe a dash of Buñuel thrown in for good measure.

Wearing an indifferent mustache and an extra 20 pounds of paunch, Colin Farrell is at his least sexy as David, a middle-aged singleton dragged off (by some waiters, it seems) to a seaside resort that wouldn’t look at all out of place on Patrick McGoohan’s “The Prisoner.” David, you see, has the misfortune of living in a very odd, dystopian future world in which romantic partnerships aren’t just essential, they’re mandated by the government. If your helpmeet dies or leaves you (as is the case with our sad-sack protagonist), you’re given exactly 45 days to find a replacement. To help speed the plow, unfortunate bachelors and bachelorettes are taken to the drab, spa-like Hotel, where they’re subjected to a string of behavior modification exercises and encouraged to fornicate. Oh, and if they fail to find a partner within the proscribed time limit, they will be transformed into the lowly animal of their choice. (How does that work? Don’t bother to ask. The film doesn’t.) David, holding out little apparent hope, is planning on becoming a lobster.

Unlike real life—which would probably look more like any one of a dozen desperately carnal reality dating shows on FOX—no one in this mundane, flatly lit future seems in any particular rush to pair off and prevent animalization. David soon finds friendship with a couple of other dateless losers at the Hotel. There’s the “Lisping Man” (John C. Reilly) and the “Limping Man” (Ben Whishaw), who form their own particular strategies for survival. The Lisping Man figures he can extend his stay of transformation by getting good at the daily “hunts”—tracking down and tranquilizing the runaway “Loners” who haunt the woods around the Hotel. (Bag one and you get an extra day at the Hotel.) The Limping Man banks on the direct approach, faking an illness to get close to a young woman with chronic nosebleeds.

It seems that, in this world, romantic compatibility is equated with a single, dominant character trait. In order to hook up, you’ve got to find a mate with a similar trait. Both allergic to shellfish? Perfect. Both have an overbite? That’ll do. But what if you’re like David, a middle-aged nobody devoid of distinguishing characteristics? For a time he tries to muster up his sociopathic tendencies to court a Heartless Woman (the amusingly sadistic Angeliki Papoulia from Dogtooth). But it just doesn’t work out. So he goes on the run, escaping into the chilly forest to join the rebellious band of Loners.

There, he crosses paths with the strict Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux from Spectre and Inglourious Basterds) and finds himself attracted to a Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz from The Mummy and The Constant Gardener). Unfortunately, David has traded a romance-requiring society for a love-hating one. Fraternization between Loners is strictly forbidden, leaving David in a yet another romantic quandary.

The Lobster is billed as a comedy but is less “funny ha-ha” and more “funny bizarre.” You might tease a vocal laugh out of one or two of the film’s lines, but that’s not really the intention of the film’s deadpan surrealism. Instead, you’re asked to simply accept the film’s inscrutable rules and absurd imagery. Unromantic rebels huddle in the woods in rain ponchos listening to EDM while assorted camels, peacocks and other out-of-place animals—the remains of unlucky former Hotel guests, one assumes—wander by in the background. That’s the sort of world we’re in here.

It would be easy to write off The Lobster as some very strange, extremely slate-faced Monty Python skit. And yet, there’s enough substance woven throughout the weirdness to make it linger long after you exit the theater. What’s it all about? A vicious protest against traditional nuclear families? An anti-romantic fable about the over-intellectualization of romance? A morbid look at today’s corporate-controlled, algorithm-driven dating environment? It’s hard to reach a solid conclusion. The allegory remains prickly and hard to pull apart no matter what direction it goes in. Though the totalitarian government control of private affairs is clearly held up to ridicule, David’s lot in life doesn’t dramatically improve when he joins the Loners, an equally controlling lot who spend most of their time running absurd “hide and seek” drills in the underbrush to avoid capture at the hand of the Hotel’s gun-toting guests. Since the characters (other than David) are generally only identified by their weaknesses, it seems as if Lanthimos is say it’s our shortcomings and not our strengths that pull us toward one another—a cynical assessment at best.

So is The Lobster a comedy or a tragedy? A sci-fi film or a mind-bending fantasy? A romance or ... whatever the exact opposite of that is? Your guess is as good as mine.