Surreal, dystopian, absurd…The Lobster has it all. But, like its eponymous crustacean, this is two hours in which the viewer is plunged in cold water and boiled slowly to death, like a lobster jacuzzi. Society as a whole is steadily dissected ready for service at the hotel in which the film is set.
Hotel is a very loose translation of what is a luxury internment camp, quite unlike anything Solzhenitsyn would recognise, with spas, jacuzzis, golf courses and all the finery of five star style. It is bed and breakfast, but with the element of incarceration, it has the static, passive aggression of an overlong cruise in which everybody becomes frosty with forced fun. The carpeted corridors and overriding sense of sanitised threat to the residents’ sanity recalls Kubrick’s The Shining. Where leisure leads to lunacy.
The basic premise is that residents, the divorced, widowed or lifelong singletons are given 45 days to make a match or find themselves transformed into a beast of their choice. It is a warped rewrite of the Metamorphosis. David’s (Colin Farrell) brother didn’t make it. He is now Bob, the sheep dog.The film opens with a woman pulling up off the road and pulling the trigger on a random donkey. The ass topples and the film begins. Bizarre. A camel stalks the forest. A flamingo flares the greenish brown with a flash of pink.
If the film sounds kaleidoscopic, it is not. The colour is extracted in the choice of locations. Three societies evolve during the film. Firstly, the hotel, which has the stale, anodyne lifelessness of a corporate country retreat. The forest is second, where the ‘loners’ – those who choose to remain single – are hunted by the hotel residents in a drab, dank wood of woe. They are exiles from a society where everyone lives in happy coupledom. Devoid of happiness, society is a near-future dystopia: a netherworld of motorways, shopping malls and high rise blocks. Sound familiar?
Well, that is the major achievement of director Yorgis Lanthimos’ debut full feature. The film toys with societal norms through the prism of love and relationships. It is not with a playful, affectionate eye, but a bloated caricature develops that makes for horribly uncomfortable viewing. Huxley’s Brave New World is an obvious inspiration. Children are produced as tonic for struggling couples; intercourse loses any societal purpose. The motif of the countryside as a rural retreat for renegade romance (let’s say Shakespeare) is inverted as the recognisable bourgeoise community of loners live a life of misery and masturbation. They’re only recourse electro music because they can dance alone.
As the camera pans the forest, we see the society of loners jolting spasmodically to strong rhythms in isolated self-expression. The only audio is the tinny, white noise produced by the earphones. The disassociation between eye and ear renders the scene farce and familiar to anyone who has walked past a silent disco. It is with the camera where the film makers have the most fun. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis often opts to cut the head from speaking characters. This slight detachment from reality provides the surrealist edge to what is a sword struck right through the heart of humanity. The pithy parody masks the horror.
The horror is writ large in what becomes, not a romantic comedy, but a comedy of anti-romance. To find love prospective matches must pass the inspection of the Hotel Manager, played by an authoritarian Olivia Colman. This usually relies upon the most aesthetic of connections. A honeymoon yacht and a return to society awaits the successes in a superficial world reminiscent of Saturday nights’ Take Me Out. Ben Whishaw’s character, The Limping Man, knows he must find someone with a similar impairment and bemoans the fact that one of the new arrivals has merely twisted an ankle and will walk normally again soon. He resorts to feigning nose bleeds through self-harm in order to eventually partner Jessica Barden’s, Nosebleed Woman. Farrell’s everyman, David, chooses the lobster as his animal of transformational choice because he likes sailing, the sea and, significantly, it lives long while retaining fertility. Lust lasts. Romance is repugnant.
The central conceit becomes the choice between presence and absence. Human nature splits the self between moments when we are content to be alone, other occasions when companionship is preferable. Here, there is no nuance, no harmony between the two, it is an ideological schism that separates the two states of mind, played out in the opposition between the hotel and the wood, the wood and the world. The Lobster never attempts to contrive a stereotyped version of society, there are no cliché ‘happy’ couples, merely an unrelenting attack on the notion of love and romance. It is here that the film becomes one dimensional in its portrayal and the defining theme, the erosion of love, both erotic and romantic, is overindulged and loses impact. One look at Colin Farrell’s moustachioed face throughout the film proves the point.
Nonetheless, as the protagonist who intersects the three societies, Farrell provides the slapstick comedy to lighten the more macabre mood. Whether this be his awkward, physical dislocation when taking his trousers off with one hand or the film’s highlight. Courtship without flirting is comedic genius as he and Rachel Weisz, loners in love, discover an illicit attraction, outlawed in their community. The way in which both actors play the role of infatuation without any personality or emotional involvement is testament to their skill. Both are less recognised for comedy, but find a perfect balance of defeatist and deadpan.
And there we are. Back to the pan. The saucepan. The Lobster leaves a viewer hot under the collar in a paroxysm of societal discomfort. Romance may never look the same. Here’s hoping it never looks like this, anyway…