The Lobster

Posted by Joel Copling on May 27, 2016

In "The Lobster," social mores and constructs are black-and-white. Upon reaching a certain age, the inhabitants of this alternate version of the world are sent to an institution for a certain number of days. If, by the end of their stint in the institution, they have not found a suitable mate, they are turned into an animal. The process by which this occurs is explained rather bluntly halfway through, and it is a grotesque process that almost assuredly involves state-mandated murder. The film is a diseased black comedy as conceived by screenwriters Yorgos Lanthimos (also the director) and Efthymis Fillipou, and its satirical target, for the first half, is very clearly the construct of marriage and, for the second, the intentional solitude of singlehood.

The film is sardonic and straightforward on this point. The residents of the institution who manage to find a mate as a human are monitored closely a third party (the hotel's management). If they appear to be having troubles, they are assigned children (although it seems oddly informal to call them "children," not "offspring"). "That usually helps," claims the hotel manager (Olivia Colman), whose no-nonsense attitude toward the guests seems mirrored by the film's own toward its audience. It might not be kosher to spoonfeed to a viewer who might like the film to show, rather than tell. Here is a film that does both. Even its narrator is given the job of dictating to the audience what is happening to such an ostentatious degree that it is immediately clear that the screenwriters are poking fun at what has become an ostentatious gimmick in itself.

The particulars of the rules that govern this institution are even more absurd. Our hero is asked about sexual preferences, as the guests must be accomodated to fit their own, he admits to an experience involving another man during college. Is there a bisexual option, he asks; no, they reply, due to "operational problems," and they leave it at that. "So the question now," they say, "is do you want to choose 'heterosexual' or 'homosexual?'" Similarly, when they become an animal, they may find choosing a mate to be an easier process, but they must find an animal like their own; a pony and a hippotamus would be absurd, the manager. The absurdity of the choice (and the comically long beat before his answer to both) are the places where the film resides. This is sometimes savagely funny stuff, tearing open social graces to examine their entrails. The conclusions reached are surprisingly bleak, and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis reflects that bleakness by effectively casting everything in muted colors of gray and dark blue.

The plot, such as it is, follows the bespeckled David (Colin Farrell), who enters the institution after finding out his wife has been cheating on him and chooses to be a lobster, as opposed to a dog, which is the most common choice. He never learns the names of his fellow guests at the hotel, but he does associate them with their "defining characteristics" (which they must share with their potential mate in one way or another). There is a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw), a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly), a woman who likes to eat butter biscuits (Ashley Jensen), a woman who suffers from chronic nosebleeding (Jessica Barden), and a woman with no feeling toward other humans (Angeliki Papoulia), with whom David is eventually set up. The hotel staff also includes a maid (Ariane Labed) who performs functions such as the cleaning of rooms and the sexual gratification of the male guests in the house.

David is eventually cast out to the woods, where the guests "hunt" single people with tranquilizer guns, and learns the rules of solitude from a leader of loners (Lea Seydoux), which is that no one in their camp is permitted to flirt. The penalty is quite distressing, so when he meets a woman whose sight is imperfect (Rachel Weisz, who also narrates with a flat monotone), the pair must come up with a form of pantomiming to express their affection. This segment of the film goes on a bit and stretches its own metaphors to bending point, but it doesn't really matter. Lanthimos, who is not new to building this kind of enclosed society with absurd bylaws, garners some worthy performances from his actors, all of whom seem to be on each other's wavelength with regard to selling such bleakly funny material. The final scene of "The Lobster" presents a choice for each of its participants. Neither makes it onscreen, each has a 50/50 chance of making it work, and that's the kind of compromise, the film reckons, that makes most marriages tick. How fitting.

Film Information

Colin Farrell (David), Rachel Weisz (The Short-Sighted Woman), Lea Seydoux (The Loner Leader), Ben Whishaw (The Limping Man), John C. Reilly (The Lisping Man), Ariane Labed (The Maid), Angeliki Papoulia (The Heartless Woman), Jessica Barden (The Nosebleed Woman), Olivia Colman (The Hotel Manager), Ashley Jensen (The Biscuit Woman), Garry Mountaine (The Hotel Manager's Partner).

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Fillipou.

Rated R (sexual content including dialogue, violence).

118 minutes.

Released in select cities on May 13, 2016.