Off-Kilter And Slightly Sinister, 'The Lobster' Turns Romance On Its Ear
American pop movies have settled into patterns of action and rhythm so drearily predictable that just about anything different comes as a relief – no matter how bizarre or even cruel.
It’s never obvious – or even clear – where The Lobster is heading. In his first English-language feature, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos rejects lots of typical moves. He builds basic action in unexpected ways, as if he’s reinventing parts of the grammar of film. He rarely puts the camera where conventional filmmakers would; the story doesn’t turn where you think it might. You can’t coast while you watch, you have to be alert to stay with the basic storyline. At that point, the film has you right where it wants, for surprises that smack you in the gut. It’s fascinating.
The Lobster takes place in a near future where single people are rounded up and taken to so-called hotels. They get 45 days to find a mate, be they gay, straight or bi-sexual. No issue there. If the person fails to find a mate, he or she is then turned into an animal. New inmates have to choose on day one what that animal will be.
David (Colin Farrell) chooses a lobster, because lobsters live long, have blue blood, and he likes the sea. The surprised clerk says most people choose dog.
The intake sequence, like the rest of the film, is an off-balance mix of the shocking, tense and banal, all colored by the humor of finding the familiar in the heart of the bizarre. When David is asked what size shoes he needs, he says 44 and a half — this is England. The worker says they don’t have half sizes. The camera meanwhile, looks over David’s right shoulder from behind, a composition you seldom find in a movie. This film avoids the typical ways of seeing.
The Lobster plays out under flat, uninspired light. Characters speak with little affect. No one screams or even gets excited, except for some dutiful applause for mindless little parables about the horror of being single performed in something like the hotel ballroom. In one, a man eating alone chokes to death on his food, but the next playlet shows the man with a woman companion who deftly performs the Heimlich maneuver.
Another fun activity in the hotel is for the inmates to go hunting – for single people called loners who hide in the forest. The goal is to shoot them with tranquilizer rifles and bring them into the fold. The loners have their own society out there. The film's one predictable move is when David escapes and joins the loners, only to find that as rebels they are just as rule-bound and punitive as the folks who run the match-making hotel.
The Lobster would seem to be about the necessity for spontaneity and love, but that too is uncertain.
The film knocks the audience around pretty good. Bits of dark humor clash with those pictures of harsh, genuine malice. The movie has little faith in the goodness or the flexibility of human kind. There’s no indication that humanity might realize its better self. There’s no wistfulness, or even faint hope for surviving the present, like at the end of François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with all the book people quietly reciting their books as snow falls.
The Lobster finds no hero to rise to save human kind, and the film even rules out that possibility from the start. Bespeckled David, speaking slowly, with no insight, or any show of spirit, could never become the guy who overturns the blank-eyed monotony of his world. Plus, The Lobster has none of the rigid logic of stories like 1984 or Brave New World or even The Matrix.
The Lobster drops you right into the heart of random absurdity – there’s no way to see through it.