** out of ****
(for sexual content, sexual dialogue, strong language, and some violence)
Released: May 13, 2016 limited; June 3 expands
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Lea, Seydoux, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, Jessica Barden
Well that was weird.
But then weird is what Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos traffics in. Or maybe bizarre is a better word. Disturbing definitely fits. You’ll also hear film critics (Lanthimos is an international critical darling) also throw around adjectives like “hilarious” and “hysterical”. This, too, is weird to me, as I find any sentiment describing Lanthimos’ work as “funny” to be a bit alarming. When it comes to his unnervingly inventive gift for torture and humiliation – psychological, physical, sexual and otherwise – I guess I’m just not in on the joke.
At the very least, having seen Lanthimos’ previous (and heralded) film Dogtooth (which, Lord have mercy, I don’t even want to get into here), I can’t say The Lobster came as a surprise in any way. It’s exactly the kind of heartless nihilism I was expecting, another entry in his Cinema of Sadism, stretching the genre term “dark comedy” to its most pretentious limits. Lanthimos – in his English language debut (with notable actors to boost its profile) – seems almost as if he’s daring his acolytes to come up with praise or to articulate insights, and no doubt there are plenty who are willing to step up to the challenge. Some will try to pitch you that this is a stirring love story for our post modern age. Don’t buy it.
Yet for as repulsive as I found The Lobster, it certainly can’t be docked for being boring. On the contrary, it is relentlessly compelling – and not just for its shock value. This may be heartless nihilism but it isn’t mindless; Lanthimos is clearly up to something. I just wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s actually on to something. His dystopian parable is simply too far removed from the actual complexities and instincts of the human condition (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually) to be able to make a resonant commentary – let alone a revelatory one – on said human condition.
So what’s this all about, anyway? The Lobster takes place in a not-so-distant future, but The Orwellian State is in full bloom – and boy, it’s a doozy. It has the totalitarian grip of a North Korea, or what the world might have looked like had the Soviet Union won the Cold War and draped the Iron Curtain all around the globe – with a repressed control of sexual relationships and ethics as a cornerstone. Its culture attempts to construct normality in the most abnormal ways.
The story here is laser-focused on one aspect of the society: what it does with its singles. All adults – yes, all – must be paired up. Mated. Betrothed. Sexual preference is neither here nor there; it’s being single that’s the great shame, and it can’t be tolerated. So when every person reaches adulthood, or when a spouse passes, these individuals are sent to residential resort hotels that specialize in helping people find new mates, all under the auspices of “finding love” (although their “love” bears no resemblance to ours; it’s seen more as a commodity based on distinctly – and arbitrarily – shared traits).
But here’s the real kicker: you must find a partner and mutually agree to wed within six weeks, or you will be turned into the animal of your choice. That’s the fate of all mankind: be married, or be your Second Chance Animal.
Lanthimos’ narrative doesn’t even attempt to explain how this is achieved…although one inevitably guesses it can’t be. It would seem the Second Chance Animal option is merely a cult-level form of manipulation over the brainwashed masses, and that the tragically unpaired rubes are doomed, to be killed off and disposed of, while their remaining loved ones will walk around wondering, “Could that dog be my brother?”
But again, this is pure conjecture on my part or any viewer’s. As far as the film is concerned this is the reality, along with the litany of other peculiar, illogical and, at times, scientifically impossible regulations, laws, etiquette, mores, and consequences. Credit Lanthimos for defining the world and its rules clearly (through casual bits of conversation or stilted formalities, not laborious exposition), even as he avoids explaining how much of it could even be possible. And by defining the “what” while ignoring the “how”, Lanthimos only heightens his story’s incendiary magnetism.
Colin Farrell plays David, the titular character (his Second Chance Animal is a lobster) whose wife has just passed, and the film follows his journey at one of these hotels. People in this world do not act as we act, and do not express emotions as we do (although they do have them). Interactions are impassive, detached, almost like Vulcans but not intellectually engaged. It’s not particularly autistic, either, as their personalities aren’t obsessive, nor are there meltdowns. Everything is matter of fact, including how feelings are shared. People are blind to emotional cues yet feelings are most definitely expressed, and shared, with subtextual hints of underlying empathy.
Needless to say, The Lobster starts strange and just keeps getting stranger, and it takes a perverse mind to forge the trails it goes. There’s no denying that Lanthimos is a true artist; his films are too intentionally designed and crafted to be the work of a lazy, flippant firebrand. Yet I can’t help but think that whoever dreamt this up, in all of its aberrant and cruel detail, must be really messed up.
Even so, I can understand the appeal to actors; this is daring stuff, so completely out of the ordinary. The Lobster offers its cast a one-of-a-kind experience, something that’s truly demanding in every regard. Farrell and Rachel Weisz are superbly on-point as they navigate through this world’s harsh calculations, and John C. Reilly impressively tweaks his comic talents toward the vulnerable and poignant. Lanthimos provides a truly rare opportunity that, in its own right, must be exhilarating for the actor who’s truly looking to be challenged. It’s one whale of an exercise if you’re willing to sign up for it.
But in the end that’s all it feels like: an exercise. Sure, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker actually confront society’s notions about singlehood (as if it’s a disease to be cured or vaccinated into oblivion), or the impulse to conform. And yes, it’s admirable to explore if Love can survive even under the most oppressive societal dictates. The problem is that it’s impossible to buy into, even as a parable on its own terms, because the parallels between its world and ours are so deficient. Plus, the longer it goes on the more redundant its observations become. By the second hour, The Lobster struggles so hard (and in vain) toward a point that it’s ultimately pointless.
Look, generally speaking, a movie need not make “a point” to be valid. It can be enough to provoke and question, just on principle alone. But when a filmmaker like Lanthimos goes to such deviant extremes – where violence, sex, and shame go hand in hand – well, it then necessitates a point. Lanthimos doesn’t make one (or, at least, not one profoundly unique), leaving him nothing more than being an artful provocateur, signifying nothing.