The Lobster takes a while to get used to, but eventually, once a viewer understands its world, it is delightful and funny, even while it is always sad. It could be interpreted in a lot of different ways–as a satire of government over-reach, or as a commentary of the dangers of conformity, but I think, ultimately, it is a statement about the nature of love. I’m not sure if it’s for it or against it.
Written and directed by Yorgon Lanthimos, who made the very strange Dogtooth, The Lobster plays like 1984 re-imagined by Charlie Kaufman. It would seem that the government has outlawed single people. If you are not in a relationship, you are sent to a resort hotel. You have 45 days to make a match. If you don’t, you are turned into an animal of your choice.
Colin Farrell is our protagonist. Unlike his usual persona, Farrell plays a meek man with the air of an accountant (he’s actually an architect). His wife has left him, so he must go to the hotel. He brings along his brother, who is now a dog. He has chosen as his animal the lobster, because it lives a long time and he likes the sea. He is complimented on his choice.
The hotel portion of the film is very funny. The acting is all deadpan, with hardly an eyebrow or voice raised. Farrell strikes up a friendship with two men–Ben Whishaw as a man with a limp, and John C. Reilly as one with a lisp (names are rarely used). The men are so desperate they fake things to be more in common with the women. Whishaw slams his head against flat surfaces to give himself nosebleeds to make a match with, of course “Nosebleed Woman.” Farrell tries to ensnare “Heartless Woman” by being mean, but she eventually tricks into him revealing his emotions.
Farrell manages to escape and the second half of the film is in the woods, where he joins the “Loners,” rebels who maintain their singleness. They are hunted down by the hotel guests with tranquilizer guns. The Loners are just as resolute about their lifestyle as the couples-obsessed hotel–they allow no romantic or sexual attachments, and to remove the temptation of dancing listen to only electronic music. Masturbation is banned at the hotel (the punishment is a hand placed in a toaster) but encouraged among the Loners.
Farrell meets Rachel Weisz, and of course they will fall in love and be rebels among the rebels. This could be viewed as a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” thing or a profoundly romantic statement.
The only other Lanthimos film I’ve seen is Dogtooth, and there are some common tropes. For one, there is some uncomfortable scenes of animal abuse, and for another, people commit or try to commit self-mutilation (in Dogtooth is was pulling one’s own teeth, I’ll leave it for a surprise for The Lobster). What makes the film work, and keeps it humming, is the world that Lanthimos has created. Once we hear the rules it makes perfect sense, and it doesn’t matter that we don’t know the reasons behind it.
The Lobster also avoids some of the Hollywood standards–there is an epilogue that is never explained, and the ending is ambiguous (in this way it reminds me of the John Sayles film Limbo). It is also simultaneously silly and deadly serious–the stakes are real, even though we may be chuckling.