When I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s breakout film, Dogtooth, I knew two things immediately: that I very much liked it and that I couldn’t find a way to describe it. I pawned the review off to my friend Sunrise Tippeconnie, whose words helped bring some clarity to the film for me.
I still haven’t seen Alps, Lanthimos’s 2011 follow up to Dogtooth, but I did finally head to the theater this weekend to catch the filmmaker’s English-language feature debut, The Lobster. While there are some little pleasures in the film, namely the performances, the film itself is incredibly bleak. Things go from bad to worse for our hero, with nothing learned except the futility of trying to escape your inevitable condition.
The premise is simple, and yet not simple enough. In the world of The Lobster, all humans must be paired off, either in a hetero- or homosexual coupling. If you cannot find a mate in the time allotted, you will be turned into an animal of your choosing. David, played by Colin Farrell, is our window into this world.
Once his marriage is finished, David is sent to a hotel with other single people of all ages. He is given forty-five days to find a new mate. In the hotel, everyone is given the same clothes to wear, the same food to eat. There are instructional assemblies on the benefits of married life. Singles are forced to introduce themselves from a stage, explaining anything unique about them. Pairings most often occur between people who share a physical trait, such as near-sightedness or having a lisp.
Meanwhile, there are revolutionaries who live out in the woods known as “loners.” They prefer to live as single people, shunning any possibility of coupling. In this society, they are criminals. The single people seeking a mate at the hotel hunt them down with tranquilizer darts, dragging them back to be paired off. Each loner you bag gets you an extra day before you are turned into an animal.
And so David goes through every strata of this world. He pairs off with the “Heartless Woman,” Angeliki Papoulia, who earns her title in spades. When their relationship goes south, he escapes to the woods to be with the other loners, where he meets the “Short Sighted Woman,” played by Rachel Weisz. They fall in love despite the dangers around them, all of which come to a head in the film’s final cringing moments.
If there is a moral to The Lobster, I would peg it as “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Either you’re forced into a loveless marriage so society will accept you, or you live a life of strict solitude. David says he enjoys being a loner because he can masturbate whenever he wants. It feels like a commentary on our actual world’s stance on those who prefer to stay single or avoid having kids, which is to say such a life is frowned upon in so many cultures. Yet the alternative, living in the woods under the strict gaze of a monomaniacal leader, Léa Seydoux, is no better. Life as a loner may be a step above being forced into marriage (or becoming an animal, for that matter), but it is equally destructive. Which is why this movie plays so bleak. There are no good options.
Colin Farrell’s David feels like the film’s weakest character. He has an almost passive role in this strange world Lanthimos and co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou have built. Things just sort of happen to him with short bursts of his motives and emotions dripping out. Farrell’s performance fits the bill. There is a quirk to him that’s implacable. Does he see this world as we do? Or is he more calculating. Lanthimos is sure to keep him a cipher. The world rolls over David. Even when he rails against it, some hideous tradeoff is lurking in the corner.
There is something much more authentic about the way Rachel Weisz portrays her Short Sighted Woman. Her whole body, especially her eyes, tell the story of where she comes from, the weight of her burden and her need to break free. It is an excellent performance that just gets better from scene to scene. Mind you, I think I’m reacting to her character, which I much prefer to David.
I thought, upon hearing the film’s premise, there was a chance it would be a work of magical realism. The main conceit, if you don’t find love you turn into an animal, sounds like some sort of wizardry. Far from it. If you don’t find a mate, you undergo a surgical procedure to put your brain into the animal you will become. It is medical, not magical, and yet another factor that keeps the film so dark and unforgiving. It’s dystopic science fiction, emphasis on the dystopic.
Perhaps The Lobster caught me at the wrong time in my life. Maybe I’m biased against it because I’m engaged to be married. Maybe there is so much bleakness in our actual world that I’d prefer to avoid it in realms cinematic. Or maybe there just isn’t that much to The Lobster after all. All of the above can easily be true.