By Noel Vera
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
YORGOS LANTHIMOS’ The Lobster is his unique brand of bizarre deadpan humor translated into feature-length English. The premise is imaginative: in a faintly futuristic society single adults or freshly single adults are checked into a resort and given 45 days to find a suitable mate; if they fail, they’re turned into animals, literally, the only upside being they have a choice of which.
“…have you thought of what animal you’d like to be if you end up alone?” the protagonist David (Colin Farrell) is asked.
“Yes. A lobster.”
“Why a lobster?”
“Because lobsters live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”
Good answer, never mind that many end up not so much propagating their race as steamed and served with a boat of melted butter. David knows what he wants in case his priority want — a mate to replace the wife that left him — ultimately fails to happen.
Lanthimos has set his black comedy in a seaside resort, a cross between Basil Fawlty’s Torquay inn and the Overlook Hotel — an at first glance perfectly comfortable place (actually the 120-year-old Parknasilla Hotel, in County Kerry, Ireland) with more than acceptable accommodations (the guests have every need provided for; when things get dull they are handed tranquilizer guns and organized into hunting parties to cull the bands of renegade singles roving the surrounding forest).
About the time when the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) is accused of masturbating and meted punishment involving a toaster (don’t ask), Lanthimos’ first major point hits home: never mind the comfy rooms, never mind the highly structured schedule and low-key takeover of most decisions in your life — any appeal this mildly unsettling somehow charming lifestyle might hold for the viewer flies right out the second floor window the moment you see someone maimed for a minor infraction.
David flees that scene but finds that the renegades’ situation isn’t much better, despite the plentiful fresh air and enforced outdoor activities: their social structure is designed to avoid physical and emotional intimacy, to the point that kissing is punishable by what’s called a “Red Kiss” (don’t ask about that either). Which brings up Lanthimos’ second main point — there’s not much difference between extremist groups beyond the details; they’re pretty much interchangeable, and all unbearable.
Bringing us to Lanthimos’ third point and narrative twist: David finally finds love wandering among the loners, in the form of the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Man’s passions and desires are in effect yet another form of extremism, with their own perverse rules to be ruthlessly followed, never mind the consequences.
Critics expressed disappointment that the director after setting up such a brilliant premise should settle down into yet another you-and-me-against-the-world love story. I disagree for two reasons: 1.) I find David and his girl (as played by Farrell and Weisz) to be remarkably convincing, a pair of childlike lovers deadpanning their melancholy way through an uncaring largely malevolent universe, and 2.) I consider Lanthimos’ moves here every bit as perverse as anything he has ever done, committed this time not against the audience as a whole but specifically against his fans, who wanted more of what they had found in Dogtooth. Granted command of an international production and a cast of mostly Hollywood actors (a talented lot, to be honest) one may want to ask: is he selling out with this second story line, or parodying a unique filmmaker selling out? I say the latter, if only because he plays the role with such persuasiveness (I know how it sounds: “Is he giving a shallow performance or parodying the idea of a shallow performance?” “I say the latter, because his shallowness is so convincing”).
As to the question of whether or not Lanthimos has a limited bag of tricks, I have to ask: isn’t that what we often say we value artists for (but really don’t), that they hold fast to their “artistic integrity” in the face of prodigious resources? So then isn’t his defecating in the face of expectations something of a retreat but not really a surrender, something of a reason to celebrate but not really condemn? So we end up with a surprisingly poignant love story instead of one of Lanthimos’ twisted black comedies — is this such a bad thing?
For the film Lanthimos tailors the spare surrealism of Dogtooth to the lush precipitously coastal landscapes of Ireland. We don’t get too much of the head-on diorama-like Wes Anderson-style shots Lanthimos is so fond of, but we do get the sense of everyday order underlining bizarre phenomena, in this film’s case a beautiful resort town swarming with unexplained unexpected animals: donkeys, rabbits, fish, ponies, cats, dogs (by far the most common, being the most popular choice of failed guests), pigs, peacocks, at one point even a camel. Yes, The Lobster is worth seeing, if only for the sight of a camel grazing the undergrowth on the semi-civilized Irish coast.