There’s a reason why Yorgos Lanthimos has a reputation for being a director who is drawn first and foremost to stories with unusual premises, but his English language debut The Lobster makes previous efforts like Dogtooth and Alps look like the works of a committed realist. One of the stranger films I’ve seen in 2015, it’s a satire about love, dating, coupledom and singledom, set in Ireland, and taking place either in an alternative present to our own or in the very near future. In this world being single has effectively been outlawed by the state and defiant loners live as fugitives in the wild; single people are forced to attend a kind of strictly-run dating camp in a rural hotel and may only return to the city if they have successfully coupled-up within 45 days. Those who fail to do so are turned into an animal of their own choosing, and there’s no explanation as to how or why this has come to be — it just is. Our guide comes in the (unusually portly) shape of Colin Farrell, whose character David is first seen being unceremoniously booted out by his wife of eleven years, who no longer loves him. Without much ado the newly-single David dutifully checks in to a giant spa hotel on the coast, where he is tasked with finding a suitable mate. Pressed on the matter he states that his animal of choice, should it be necessary, is a lobster, and he gives a number of peculiar reasons as to why that is the case. Most other people, according to Olivia Coleman’s stern hotel manager, choose dogs; and that’s why there are so many dogs in the world.
So far so odd. In fact Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut is overflowing with oddness, particularly during its hotel-set first half. Guests are referred to by their defining characterstics and include Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man, Ashley Jensen’s Biscuit Woman (she is a fan of butter biscuits), John C. Reilly’s Lisping Man, and so forth; it is these single characteristics that must be relied upon in order to find a match among the other guests. As a group they are given rather stilted demonstrations by hotel staff that show the benefits of being in a couple and must attend excruciatingly awkward dances in which all the men wear the same combination of blazer, shirt and trousers and all the women wear the same kind of dress. Meanwhile each day an alarm sounds and the hotel’s single guests are bundled into a minibus and driven to the nearby woods, where they must hunt loners; bagging a loner with a tranquiliser dart gives the captor an extra night’s accommodation in the hotel, thereby extending their stay of grace. And if you think that’s all very strange then wait until you see the delights of room service or the punishment meted out to anyone caught masturbating in flagrante.
Performances are deliberately stilted and the minimal dialogue is spoken by the actors in an awkward fashion. A female voiceover occasionally tells us how David is feeling but it too is suitably deadpan, applying a matter-of-factness to the whole coupling thing and the whole animal thing. I found the first half of The Lobster very funny indeed, but the appeal of its humour is far from broad, and I expect a lot of people will either dislike it outright or be left scratching their heads as to why pockets of audience members are chuckling away. However it helps that Farrell, Jensen, Whishaw, Coleman and Reilly have a very good grasp of the tone Lanthimos and his regular co-writer Efthimis Filippou are going for, and the utter indifference displayed by their characters with regard to the situation they are in helps to sell the outlandish premise.
I’m not the first reviewer to make the following point but sadly the film does lose its way when the action moves on from the hotel. The Lobster‘s second half, which introduces several more characters (played competently enough by the likes of Léa Seydoux, Rachel Weisz and Michael Smiley), simply isn’t as weird, as interesting or as funny as the first, and although there are amusing moments – the species of animals wandering around in the background in the woods grows ever more incongruous by the minute – it begins to drag long before the offbeat, dangling finale. Once Lanthimos has established the idea that there is great pressure on members of society to become part of a couple he labours the point that similar levels of pressure and dogmatism also apply to those who are resolutely celibate, and all-but forgets about the metamorphosis aspect of the screenplay; as the film moved past the 90 minute mark a few members of the audience in the screening I attended walked out, though in most cases that can be taken as a sign of an interesting film, for one reason or another. Still, it feels like there was a chance for something extra special here, a kind of Being John Malkovich for the modern day, but greatness just slips out of The Lobster‘s claws. That said there’s more than enough here to warrant a viewing and there’s plenty of arch commentary on the dating merry-go-round.
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ben Whishaw, Michael Smiley, Olivia Coleman, Ashley Jensen.
Cinematography: Thimios Bakatakis.
Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis.
Running Time: 118 minutes.