Let’s just say that there’s more than just absurdity for absurdity’s sake here — this is an exercise in wry Swiftian satire.
The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Loews Boston Common.
By Neil Giordano
It’s a tricky undertaking trying to make complete sense of The Lobster‘s splendidly outlandish conceit: in a dystopian society that otherwise looks no different from our own, single people are granted 45 days to find a new mate or be transformed into animals. Let’s just say that there’s more than just absurdity for absurdity’s sake here — this is an exercise in wry Swiftian satire.
This is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s fifth film. His first, Dogtooth, served up a similarly bleak and comic view of domestic relationships, The Lobster‘s impressive power is rooted in its script’s and actors’ deadpan fidelity to the set-up’s simple if delightfully weird premise. We don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the origins of the strange restrictions or how the punishment for breaking the rules are carried out (transformations occur in an unassuming fashion). Restrictions exist as a given; we and the story’s characters follow along.
Our protagonist David (Colin Farrell, in peak schlub form) finds himself alone after his wife leaves him. He is sentenced to a stay at a resort hotel in the European countryside. Singletons are required to register and interact with others in similar straits. It comes off as a nightmarish version of TV’s The Bachelor, though here the reality-show cliché about “making a connection” takes on a sinister urgency. The singletons undergo humiliating indignities on a daily basis while they seek a “match” among the others looking for love. David reluctantly submits to the regimen, his duty to society undertaken with little joy and much wincing.
The first section of the film rambles along like an extended Coen brothers sequence by way of Buñuel: there’s a room of hapless but hopeful singles identified only by their flaws (Limping Man, Nosebleed Woman), stone-faced administrators role-playing the experiences of coupledom, and the requisite get-to-know-you dance that features a lounge band of white-coated therapists. Excellent supporting performances abound: John C. Reilly is in his askew element as an awkward soul saddled with a significant lisp; British television actress Olivia Colman plays the true-believer hotel manager; and Ben Whishaw (The Danish Girl, Cloud Atlas) stands out as the Limping Man, delivering a heartfelt speech about how he injured his leg when his mother had been turned into a wolf (his father left her for another woman who was “better at math”).
The antic comedy eventually gives way to generic authoritarian drama territory. David escapes and joins an underground society of “Loners” led by a humorless Lea Sedoux. They rebel against that strictures of the larger society, vowing to stay unattached forever. Ironically, David makes a romantic connection with the Short-Sighted Woman, played by Rachel Weisz, who supplies her usual everywoman loveliness. Their secret romance — awkward yet tender — provides the otherwise chilly landscape with a sliver of warmth and heart.
Yet even their tender relationship can’t escape Lanthimos’s satire of the shallowness of dating, the torturous difficulty of establishing a deep connection with another human being. The ill-fated singles at the hotel desperately struggle to connect with each other, usually taking the easy way out by mimicking someone’s physical or superficial qualities. The Limping Man fakes chronic nosebleeds so he could get closer to Nosebleed Woman. Poor Lisping Man’s fate seems to be sealed because no one else has (or is willing to manufacture) a speech impediment. Even David’s forbidden romance seems predicated on the simple fact that both he and Weisz’s character are near-sighted. Despite their real affection for each other, they seem unable to overcome their deep-seated fear of passion. They end up giving into society’s demand of inevitable superficiality out of love.
Their romantic plight leads to a final shot that viewers will either love or hate (at the very least they will spend lots of time arguing over it afterward). The ending cements the provocative value of The Lobster, now hitting multiplexes in wide release after a year on the festival circuit. Here is an absurd fable about love’s enigma (or uselessness, depending on the viewer) that doesn’t dissolve into the comforts of sentimentality, but instead aims to leave us thinking.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.