What is love? It’s a question with no true answer, but one that has been examined endlessly in every medium. Some of these explorations are serious. Others are farcical. In director Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, modern love is dissected using both absurdism and satire to deliver a message that is both cutting and poignant.
In a dystopian near-future, The City controls all, including the personal relationships of its citizens. The most important thing a person can be is part of a couple. It is required by law. Those who do not naturally pair up with another are sent to The Hotel, a picturesque facility in the countryside, featuring a number of amenities and group activities designed to allow people to find a compatible partner. If they fail to make a match within forty-five days, they are transformed into the animal of their choice.
Thrust into this ticking-clock of a scenario is David, an overly-polite and miserable man seemingly incapable of attracting a partner. Paunchy and not terribly excitable, David’s love life has suffered ever since his wife left him for another man. He now spends most of his time with his brother, Bob, who was turned into a dog a few years past after failing to find a mate at The Hotel. The first half of the film follows David’s exploits as he navigates the terrifying unfamiliarity of The Hotel’s bizarre rules and regulations. Throughout his journey he meets a number of colorful characters, including a woman with a fondness for biscuits, a woman with regular nosebleeds, a man with a limp, and a man with a lisp. Through these interactions, he learns of another group of people who live in The Woods beyond The Hotel. This group rejects interpersonal relationships and physical intimacy in rebellion against The City’s laws. Through a series of events both thrilling and peculiar, David comes into contact with this group in the back half of the film and soon finds that their complete denial of all romantic feeling might be just as cloying and repressive as The City’s demand for coupling.
To say that The Lobster is strange is a gross understatement. It is absurd and bizarre in the extreme, but thankfully always in a way that serves the story, which in itself is a vehicle of metaphor. Every facet of the film functions as a metaphor or commentary on the absurdity of modern relationships and the awkward push and pull of human connection. The characters speak with an arch sort of bluntness that’s jarring at first, but like Shakespeare, the beauty of the language shines through as the scenes roll on. That archness is a way for the storytellers to give voice to the subtext that usually haunts conversations as people attempt to get to know each other. Here, the subtext is the text, resulting in hilarious declarations told in glorious deadpan.
Beyond the dialogue, the scenarios themselves all speak to different fears and desires for anyone seeking love. The ticking-clock of The Hotel represents the societal pressure placed upon people to find a partner. Failing to do so often makes people feel ostracized and removed from part of the human experience. That people who fail to find a mate are lowered to the level of “animal” is telling of how extreme the film is willing to go in terms of its symbolism, but it is a powerful storytelling-device and one used to great effect.
Though being single is not inherently bad or a measure of one’s value as a person, The Lobster’s brilliance lies in its willingness to explore the ugliness of societal and institutional pressures concerning romantic relationships. These pressures are so deeply internalized that they cause people to act in illogical ways in order to please people they barely know. However, despite the complexity of human behavior and personality, for whatever reason people are also often simplified to a sole, defining trait. The Lobster takes this literally; everyone in the cast besides David is nameless, defined by a single trait which is reiterated throughout the film. It’s a brilliant and often hilariously sad commentary on how people interact with one another, especially when they’re desperately seeking human connection. In one scene David’s quasi-friend, the Limping Man, takes interest in another woman who has a limp, only to later learn that it’s from a recent injury and will soon heal; with a sigh of disappointment, he acknowledges that they can never be and moves on. Simply brilliant.
In contrast, when David encounters the rebel group that lives in The Woods, their denial of all physical and romantic interaction proves to be just as caustic and damaging as The Hotel’s dehumanizing regulations. Perhaps a commentary on the “outsiders looking in” – the rebel group is literally called The Loners – these people are so disgusted by those that subject themselves to relationships that they persist in a state of perpetual, sneering judgment. Even when David encounters a woman who shares a common trait (they are both shortsighted) he is hamstrung by The Loners’ rules, putting him in a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t scenario that leads to a wildly disturbing conclusion that is sure to stick with you long after the film ends.
This film lives and dies upon the audience’s relationship with David. Thankfully, Colin Farrell is pitch-perfect in the role, turning in a nuanced, subtle performance that somehow manages to be understated and arch, yet human. In a snow globe of a world, David is the lone spec of warmth. Though he tries to follow the rules, he is one of the only people with any sense of curiosity and agency. Farrell deftly shows David’s rebelliousness in small gestures and line-deliveries that speak of a man trying his best to break out of his shell, yet not certain where to go or what to do once he does. Overall, it’s a masterful performance by a talented actor in a period of well-earned resurgence.
On a textual level, The Lobster is wonderful. Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou’s incredible script somehow manages to package everything described above into one dense, yet subtle package. However, it is Lanthimos’ artful direction and Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography that make the text sing. Orchestral interludes of slow-motion, picturesque beauty are spliced into stunningly filmed landscapes and haunting interiors. Everything is framed in such a way as to convey beauty, but also the distance and removal between the characters. The color palate is subdued and cold, accentuating the artificial, emotionally stunted nature of the relationships being explored. The score as well adds to this effect, featuring mournful string quartets that perfectly accent the reserved melodrama of what’s taking place on screen.
All of this goes a long way to say that The Lobster is brilliant and easily one of the best films released this (Oscar) year. It is thematically dense, darkly humorous, and sure to be a conversation starter among your friends, half of whom probably hated it. But that’s the beauty of the film. It exists on multiple levels and even if someone didn’t enjoy the film itself, its messages are worthy of conversation and critical thought. Most films don’t even get that.
A masterful work.