Movie Review: The Lobster (2015)
Though you might not consciously be aware of it, most modern societies are constructed around the favored legal restriction and enforcement of monogamy through the governmentally approved promotion of its desired outcome: marriage. It’s a now unspoken social contract that has infiltrated the developing human brain over the course of centuries, where the practice, exercise, and ritualistic acceptance of this institution has successfully subverted the natural evolutionary inclination to have multiple partners. Removing the debate over whether this has brought positive or negative consequences from the table, we can then simply recognize that this societal emphasis creates, mostly subconsciously, a desperate pressure to find “the one” in order to not be isolated or even ostracized in loneliness. In chasing the calculated dream of marriage and an avoidance of being alone, we’ve trained ourselves to seek out traits of commonality—even the most insignificant and superficial kinds—as well as seeking out any fortuitous sign that our partner is, indeed, our advertisement defined soulmate. Essentially this is the principle behind the algorithmic pairing programs of our technologically advanced age—including Tinder, eHarmony, and OkCupid—in which speed and precision are the leading considerations in finding a match as high in percentage as they are in signature romantic prospect. Romantic bliss has been eroded from instinctual passionate connection into a more logic oriented domestic synchronization that resembles the antiquated coupling of station enhancement, only now it’s one’s station of personal convenience instead of one’s class consideration.
This societal pressure for union, the marketed illusion of love, and a desperate aversion to loneliness is what resides at the center of Greek filmmaker and satirist Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest disturbing farce entitled The Lobster. Like most visionary auteurs with an acute perspective, Lanthimos has the ability to create artfully defined fictional worlds that place a scornful mirror in front of our beloved institutions and break them down through tongue-in-cheek farcicality and inventive storytelling. He first found prominent international attention for this tactic in the film Dogtooth (2009), a pitch black satire that craftily disassembled the family unit, and later expanded upon it to tackle death and the culture of grief with his last cinematic outing Alps (2011). None of his satirical targets are trivial, and he aims with a biting point of view guided by extremist absurdism blended with a touch of philosophical deconstruction. Following in the same logical footsteps as other famous deconstructionists, including philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida, Lanthimos adopts a method of re-evaluating and critically analyzing our accepted conceptual systems, mainly in the assumed moral constructs of the West. It’s a rare quality in modern cinema (minus the works of Todd Solondz and Lars von Trier), and it’s an effective tactic where unease leads to introspection.
The Lobster possesses this wicked deconstructionist wit as it turns the tenets of love, marriage, and mortality upside down through a defined world of a pitch-black, bone-dry, straight-faced dystopian satire that builds absurdity upon absurdity. Written by director Lanthimos and co-collaborator Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth, Alps), the palpable reality they’ve concocted feels as if the satire of Johnathan Swift demonically procreated with the ethereal strangeness of Franz Kafka. Its setting is the undefined near future and society is shaped around the canon that people cannot be single, so an autocratic rule forces singles into a hotel prison program where they must find a mate in 45 days or else they’ll be turned into an animal of their choosing. Our protagonist is David (Colin Farrell), a rather pathetic, mild-mannered, shortsighted individual whose wife has left him for another man after twelve years. He enters the hotel with his brother Bob, a recently turned Border collie who failed to find a partner of his own, and awkwardly meanders around the surrealist hotel in order to find his match amongst the identically dressed women (the bisexual option was shut down after operational difficulties). Time is ticking, and if he fails to mate he will be turned into his chosen animal: a lobster
Guests are encouraged to find a companion who imbues the same defining characteristic, because as the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) states, “A wolf and a penguin can never live together, nor could a camel or a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.” And so distinct superficiality traits, insignificant definers, and ownership of one’s distinct flaws guide each singles decision making in fulfilling the notion of the perfect match. Inside the hotel amongst David’s newfound colleagues there is Robert the lisping man (John C. Reilly) and John the limping man (Ben Wishaw), with the latter of the two becoming greatly discouraged to find that a new guest with a limp has simply sprained her ankle. Desperate to remain human and find a matching partner at any cost, John begins to con a woman who gets impulsive nosebleeds by smashing his face repeatedly to entice blood from his nose. It seems to work, at least in regards to the extension of his stay, and so David, with time drastically running out, attempts to adopt a nihilistic cold-heartedness in order to match with the woman whose defining characteristic is heartlessness (Angeliki Papoulia). As you can imagine, that sort of charade is doomed for exhaustion, and David finds himself running from the hotel to join a group of hunted singletons known as the Loners.
This is where Lanthimos’ satire takes a darker, more germane, turn as the initial absurdity twists into sharp cultural commentary that cuts closer to our collective societal bone. The Loners are living in defiant opposition to the forced coupling of society, and so they have swung the pendulum of extremes by enforcing a puritanical authoritarianism on any sexual activity involving another partner. Suggestive flirting, kissing, and, especially, sexual intercourse is forbidden, creating a harsh prohibition environment enforced by cruel punishment (the “red kiss” is the slashing of the lips for a secretive kiss and there’s something called the “red intercourse,” though no one has seen it happen yet). Because this kind of corrupt system exists in our actual world The Lobster’s musings become increasingly disturbing. There’s also a message of cruel irony that Lanthimos is getting at in regards to David’s fate, which is that in escaping one oppressive system to venture freedom he has landed in a place equally, if not more, tyrannical. Humans tend to find oppressive self-corrections in response to previous extremes, and David is caught adrift between these two horrid realities. It also leads to a case of double irony that once he’s there he finally meets a shortsighted woman (Rachel Weisz) who shares his distinctive characteristic, and love begins to enter the equation.
Even the introduction of a seemingly conventional romance or a potential hope for happiness for David and the shortsighted woman can’t seem to avoid the cruel intentions of Lanthimos’ farce, which in itself is a commentary on the Hollywoodized expectation of resolve. Without giving anything away, the ending brings with it a pessimistic question: is it cruel to be unwilling to alter one’s self for another or is it cruel to expect altering in order to show dedication? It’s this kind of integrity to art, especially the art of satirical ridicule, that is required to create a complete meaningful piece. Every chosen detail, visual texture, and awkward performance works in unity to the director’s expressionistic tone and dour vision: the clashing color palettes of Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography of interior greys and exterior earth tones; the chillingly dry portrayals of character, most notably from Colin Farrell, Ben Wishaw, and Olivia Colman; and the unmentioned subtlety of occasional animals moving into frame, from a beautiful multi-colored blue peacock to the gorgeous blonde mane of a Shetland pony clearly belonging to a recently transformed Irish guest of the compound. It’s all cleverly defined, and ultimately brings to mind some of the later works of Luis Buñuel, including The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). But the renowned Spanish filmmaker possessed a care-free artistry, one that was able to mix critical viciousness with a polished disposition, and that’s a quality Lanthimos still has yet to artfully grasp.
It goes almost without saying that The Lobster is an acquired cinematic dish, a film that lacks any sense of consoling embrace or optimistic break from its practically joyless and constricting atmosphere. Certainly the film’s humor is ferocious, witty, and calculatingly absurd, but the reactionary instinct to laugh brings with it a truly awkward realization that the extremist absurdism within this fictional reality isn’t necessarily a far cry from our own partially oppressive existence. Lanthimos has created a truly grim, but thoroughly artistic, form of satire that demands your discomfort by portraying a potential theoretical outcome of a society that thinks it knows best how to regulate, run, and control the lives of its citizens. Basically there’s an incredibly thin line of principle that separates the suggestive promotion of marital union through tax benefits and the enforcement of singles to find their partner or else face punishment. Encouragement and punishment are two ends of an extreme, and Lanthimos brilliantly shows that running from one oppression most likely will lead to the reactionary opposite form of oppression. It’s grim, overt symbolism at its finest, and Lanthimos has proven yet again that he’s a new voice in cinema that will be heard even with all of its disturbing, thought-provoking conceit.
Note: The title says 2015, but this film will be released in the U.S. this weekend (May 13th, 2016)