Do you know someone who insists that there’s no such thing as an original idea in movies anymore? It’s just the same six or so stories that they tell over and over, they say. If you do, look that person straight in the eye and tell them that they are dead wrong. Because The Lobster exists. This is a movie that almost defies explanation. The way it improbably blends romance, the blackest of comedy, and existential horror is spectacularly original. The Lobster is as haunting as it is unique, and it’s a film that won’t be easy for me to shake any time soon.
Set in either a dystopian future or simply a world wholly different from our own, the society in this story finds loneliness abhorrent. Anyone not in a committed relationship must check into a resort where they have 45 days to either find a partner or be turned into the animal of their choosing. It’s a delightfully absurd premise, which writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos sadistically uses to lull his audience into a false sense of security during the first act of the picture.
I laughed nervously as the hotel manager – played by English actress Olivia Colman with a perfect deadpan delivery – explained to the guests that no masturbation would be permitted during their stay. Another moment that I found oddly humorous comes when the hotel staff immobilizes one hand of our hero, David, by handcuffing it to the back of his belt. The handicap will remind him how much easier life is when there are two to share the work, they tell him.
The movie continues along this line of eccentric comedy by introducing us to Lisping Man, played by John C. Reilly. His speech impediment and ill-at-ease demeanor invokes more uneasy laughter until he is punished for violating the no self-pleasure rule. There is nothing funny about that moment, and that’s when I realized I was in for a radically different experience than the one I was expecting. That was also the moment of the first walk-out in my audience. I counted five during the film, probably twenty percent of the small audience present for my screening.
I don’t blame them for walking out, especially if the reason they came in the first place was because of the trailer for the movie. After seeing The Lobster, and knowing what little I do about Greek director Lanthimos, it would be hilarious to think he was involved with creating a purposefully misleading ad campaign that sold the picture as an oddball romantic comedy. And it is that, but it’s also much more. The people who walked out missed a sly and perceptive commentary on every aspect of our modern notions of singlehood, of coupling, which is worse, and the true price of loving someone so much that you’re willing to do anything for them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the world Lanthimos brings to life is how tantalizingly little he tells you about it. We never learn why this society prizes committed relationships above all else. Outside of the drama at the resort, and the peculiar group of “loners” that David discovers living in the woods when he decides to escape his fate at the hotel, we only get a few brief glimpses of the outside world. The Lobster is a movie that allows the viewer to fill in the gaps on his or her own, becoming more intriguing the longer you turn it over in your mind, and well after leaving the theater.
The whole experience could have been a disaster if the actors involved didn’t seamlessly glide between a pitch-black comedy, a love story, and a post-modern horror. Colin Farrell gives one of the best performances of his career as the melancholic David. Farrell is emotionally complex and deeply satisfying as David. First, he attempts to cheat the system by pretending to fall in love with someone. Next, he’s as helpless as the proverbial deer in headlights when he finally genuinely connects with another human being. Rachel Weisz plays Short-Sighted Woman, the “loner” forest dweller David improbably falls for, with a tough determination that speaks to her character’s will to survive.
Léa Seydoux is chilling as the leader of the “loners,” a group so committed to rejecting the norms of this civilization that they harshly punish those who show romantic affection toward one another. The Red Kiss is the price to be paid for even the most innocuous romantic lip-lock. This punishment involves the offending parties having their lips slashed with a knife, being forced to kiss, and then having their mouths bandaged shut until they heal. The Short-Sighted Woman describes a harsher penalty that we luckily never see called The Red Intercourse.
These horror aspects of The Lobster make it a movie that’s not for everyone. There is a graphic scene that involves cruelty to a dog that is particularly harrowing. The final scene, too, while not graphic, has a ghastly psychological effect that will haunt you for days precisely because you are allowed to decide for yourself what happens next. That sort of open ended interpretation, which the entire film lends itself to, makes The Lobster one of the most challenging movie-going experiences of the year. A work of art with this many fresh ideas about human interaction, and crafted with such a unique style, is always exciting to discover. It’s a perplexing look into a haunted imaginary world, but be warned, it’s a film that isn’t for the squeamish.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- The originality of the script, and the other worldly milieu of the whole movie are huge factors in my high rating.
- You know I value a rich sense of tone and mood in movies. The Lobster is on par with the best work of filmmakers like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick in this regard.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Several other critics have pointed out an obvious connection The Lobster has to an earlier master of the absurd: Luis Buñuel. A moment in that director's seminal work, Un Chien Andalou, is referenced very specifically by Lanthimos in his picture. I am forever ashamed for not having seen it on my own. But, hey, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic! My memory rarely serves me!