I had heard a lot about Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut The Lobster before I was finally able to sit down and watch it last week.
Surreal and absurdist, The Lobster falls into one of my favourite genres; dystopia. Rivalling Charlie Brooker’s cynical Channel 4 series, Black Mirror, the film offers its viewers a critical reflection of the society in which we live, questioning our contrived rules for social relationships.
We are presented with a near-future world in which citizens cannot be single. For those “left on the shelf”, it’s off to a seaside hotel where you are given 45 days to find a mate or be turned into the animal of your choice. Our protagonist, David, played by Colin Farrell, chooses to become a Lobster. The movie is an intelligent demonstration of the long-standing social construction which pushes single people into an oppressed group.
This twisted satirical world is carried tremendously by heavyweight actors such as Olivia Colman and Colin Farrell whose contrivances are angular in nature and void of emotion, a less-than-subtle indication that the rules of society have long forgotten their origins. Relationships aren’t for love. Leisure is compulsory.
It is the latter that it particularly well highlighted through the structure of the hotel in which much of the action of the first half of the film takes place. All guests must engage in the activities, such as dancing, hunting (the guests are given an extra day for every wild, escaped singleton they are able to catch in the woods) and eating in the restaurant. The guests perform their staged lives, mirroring the location of hotels and their corporate furniture in general, in which the separation of the private and the public space is blurred and contorted.
The characters’ contrived mannerisms and behaviours reminded me of Straub-Huillet’s 1968 Die Bräutigram, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp), a film which I studied during the final year of my undergraduate degree. In this short film of 10 minutes, actors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder were made to repeat scenes to the extent that their words and mannerisms appeared and sounded mechanical, creating a Brechtian effect which questioned the very idea of film and narrative itself and therefore the subjects they portrayed, such as the social constructs of marriage and relationships as absolute and truth, and removed viewers from the plot to the extent that critical engagement was unavoidable. However, my lecturer pointed out that in the case of Die Bräutigram, Straub-Huillet have created perfect fodder for cinephiles to “headwank” to (the use of said phrase is the reason I’ll never forget this lecture or lecturer), rather than a material for entertainment. The Lobster tries to provide us with a similar offer, yet the one-liners and comedic nature of the film allows the film to remain accessible to a wider audience.
For me, Lanthimos gave us ambition, comedy and beauty in his creation which puts our universal obsession with relationships in the spotlight. However, I felt the film smacked a little too much of the whitewashed worlds of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. The hotel scenes were marginally superior to those in the woods, and I felt the film began to lose its way in the latter half. I would have been interested to see a further analysis of society’s prescribed gender dynamics, although the difference in female and male relationships was touched upon through the introduction of “Nosebleed Woman” and “Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend”, whose relationship contrasts that of the friendship Farrell’s character strikes up with two other single males in the hotel in that their lives do seem to intertwine to an extent that the actions of one of the girls occasionally has a visible effect upon the other (whereas the males seem barely emotionally register the others, despite going through the motions of friendship such as eating together and trips to the beach).
However, dig a scratch deeper and it seems that the relationship between the girls is equally vapid. Their connection is pushed along (yet somehow simultaneously undermined) by the repeated declaration that they are “Best Friends”, yet the “Nosebleed Woman” is quick to leave this behind when she finds a partner and therefore a new label, highlighting that although women may excel (or have long been said to excel in) communication in relationships, anything real is still ultimately quashed by society’s constructions.
Colin Farrell, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, has commented that Lanthimos’s work manages to “linger”, and that his films “aren’t just houseguests where once the meal was finished they left. They stick around. They’ll see you through the night.” This is exactly what a dystopian piece should do, and I won’t manage to forget this oddball film in a hurry. It seems to me to be a clear warning against squeezing and contorting humankind into carefully labelled boxes, which may distort us into something else entirely. But perhaps not a crustacean.
5 September 2016