THIS ENGLISH-LANGUAGE debut for Dogtooth director Yorgoz Lanthimos is… well, odd. Very, very, very odd. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, and I ran the gamut of every recorded Beckettian play I could lay my paws in one gloomy month back in 2011. It’s also probably the French-est film I’ve ever seen, despite the fact that only two lines are in French, most of the cast are British and Lanthimos himself is, of course, Greek.
But if French can conceivably be used as a superlative adjective then The Lobster is seeping with Frenchness from every pore: from the stilted Wes Anderson-esque language and delivery, to the nonchalant absurdist tone and casual vulgarity; even down to the painfully lingering, pan-heavy shots, the fact that this film is not French is perhaps the most absurd thing of all.
David (Collin Farrell) is a recent divorcee in the not-to-distant future, whose only defining characteristic – in the future, people apparently have one defining characteristic and one alone – is his short-sightedness. As a newly single singleton, he is compulsorily booked into a hotel with other singletons. Here, like the other residents, he will either find a suitable partner and start a new life on a cushy yacht, or, failing that, after 45 days he’ll be turned into an animal of his choice for the good of both himself and society. His de-facto choice: a lobster.
But The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel this is not, thankfully. What follows is much more like beasts, posturing and grooming one another in a gilded cage than romantic or glamorous rom-com fair; which is precisely the point. These people have no real connection to each other and only vague, barely functional or absent sexual attraction – the Maid (Ariane Labed) is obliged, through thoroughly unerotic courtesy, to stimulate the guests whether they desire it or not: “David: Must you today? It’s so awful.”
It is, by turns, hilariously repulsive and repulsively hilarious to see what lengths the guests will go to in order to form the most arbitrary prescribed attachment and escape their strange and terrible fate. Along the way we’re introduced to some of the other guests, including the Limping Man (Ben Wishaw) who is happy to routinely batter his face in order to induce a nosebleed so that he has a shared trait with Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and, well, as much as I like the guy, there are very few incidences in which I could imagine Ben Wishaw routinely pummelling his own face not being funny.
Meanwhile, the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) and her partner (Gary Mountaine) organise queasy soirees and get their staff to perform ridiculous tableaus of: ‘Man eating without Woman’, wherein the waiter mimes suffocating on his food, or ‘Woman walking without Man’ wherein the thoroughly bored participants mime the least convincing assault imaginable.
It’s absurdist comic-drama in its purest, most deconstructive and didactic form. We can only laugh at the guests’ complacent certainty of the vitality of partnership, but the true joke of the matter is that this arrangement is, fundamentally, no more contrived than our own social concept of romance. That sounds a bit heavy, but to Lanthimos’ credit it never comes across as overbearing or pretentious and it keeps up a comic pace throughout. Well, at least in the first half…
It’s definitely not comedy for the readily offended however. I’m struggling to think of that Lanthimos doesn’t ascend in his quest to reduce man and woman to their bestial elements. The violent absurdity of the comedy is established immediately in the opening scene, where a woman drives up to a heath and shoots a hapless donkey – presumably a former-person – several times in the face. From then on there is always a threat of violence beneath the dreamlike triviality of proceedings, even as the narrator’s (Rachel Weisz) comically steely, clinical exposition keeps the tone both reflective and generally unoppressive.
Nonetheless, at its core the film is decidedly dark. The guests abuse themselves and one another in their efforts to find a mate, and these awkward, desperate attempts at courting are broken up by nights in the woods where the guests hunt escaped singles (or “loners“) with tranquilizer guns in a nightmarish, vampiric attempt to extend the length of their own stay. Having no luck in the hunts, David attempts to woo the aptly named Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) with grisly consequences.
The film only gets stranger in the second half. Rather than a benign, last vestige of a sane and conscientious mankind as we might expect from the likes of Fahrenheit 451, the loners are instead a literal antithesis to the mantra espoused by the Hotel. Here, intimacy or even co-dependence is punishable with mutilation and perhaps even death.
Despite the lingering threat of dreaded punishments – including the particularly dire sounding “red intercourse” – David ironically finds the genuine connection he failed to find at the Hotel, with the narrator Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). An awkward but almost charmingly stunted and childlike relationship follows with the two forming their own, ridiculously opaque, lover’s code: “Putting our left arm behind our back meant: we are in danger; whilst putting our right arm behind our back meant: let’s fuck. At first, we often got mixed-up.”
Where the Hotel is stuffily utilitarian and oppressive, the loner’s communally-enforced solitariness is comparatively liberating but also harsher, less comfortable and ultimately just as arbitrary. Perhaps the strangest figure of all is the Loner Leader (the gorgeous Léa Seydoux) who goes to bizarre extremes to ensure the independence of her pack and seems to take a certain iconoclastic delight in fracturing the partnerships of others, yet her motives throughout are thoroughly unreadable.
The less said about the ending the better, but it’s a beautifully shot moment of agonising suspense. This latter segment of the film garners less laughs, but is decidedly more thoughtful and the shots perhaps more striking. I’ve always put Keats’ whole negative capability thing down to the blend of opiate pipe dreams and tuberculosis-induced serotonin levels which pervaded the lives of the Romantics, but I’m rather lost for a better way to describe how gripping an influence The Lobster can exert, despite its honed sense of detachment and non-linearity.
The characters’ wonderfully jarring interactions ramp up the sense of bizarre, whilst the menagerie of post-beastified guests – flamingos, hogs and camels – wander in and out of sets, reminding us that what we’re looking at is mankind caught within his own zoo. A beast, like any other, but with an absurd obsession with conforming and a driving need to define ourselves by our relationship to others.
It’s a much more interesting and considered approach to dystopia and what dystopia might mean for human interaction than the standard ‘Merricans Fight for Freedom! fare you get from the Mockingjays of today. More importantly, it’s pretty damn funny, even if the humour is as black as pitch. Ultimately, The Lobster is an experience. A thoroughly bewildering, but very thoughtful experience, and one I’d certainly recommend, though I get the feeling it’s among the filmic equivalents of marmite.