One of the most unique, unsettling, and subtly disturbing films I’ve seen in the last few years was 2010’s Dogtooth, a Greek film about an isolated family and the odd dynamics of it because of the self-imposed seclusion by the parents upon their three teenage children. It was a well-crafted, bizarre, and surreal viewing experience created by director Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos, who also made a 2012 film called Alps, has returned with a film that won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and has finally made it to theaters, The Lobster, a darkly surreal satire.
Set in a near-future, dystopian, nondescript location somewhere in Europe, David (Colin Farrell) is sent away from The City when his wife leaves him after having an affair with some to live at The Hotel. The Hotel is a countryside resort where single people are sent where they are given 45 days to find a suitable mate or they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. Accompanied by his brother, Bob, now a dog, David soon falls into the peculiar way of life at The Hotel. That way of life includes social activities (dances, dinners) meant to promote individuals becoming couples, but also includes hunting trips where the residents take tranquilizer guns into the woods and attempt to capture single people who have escaped. Every single person someone catches is another day that is added to their stay, buying them time. Everyone is defined by their one major characteristic, in David’s case, he is short-sighted. He makes acquaintances with Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Limping Man (Ben Whishaw). Also at the hotel are Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend, Biscuit Woman, and Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). As the days pass, and his options dwindle, David manages to escape and joins the freed singles in the woods, led by Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux). In the loner group, couples are not permitted and anything approaching that is punished. But David soon finds himself attracted to Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).
The premise of this film tickled my interest as soon as I heard about it. It was so outlandish and absurd on its face that it immediately struck me as funny and fascinating. That it was from Lanthimos was the final nail in the coffin for me, and that Farrell was the lead was icing on the cake. While I was interested, I mostly avoided press and previews for it in the year that I have been awaiting its release. Dogtooth was such a unique experience that I wanted to go into it as blind as possible. I was not disappointed. Even though I have only seen two of his films, I can say with confidence that a Lanthimos film has a tone and style that is unique to him. Even if there are some hints at other directorial influences, he has his own unique voice. What stands out to me is commitment. As outlandish and out there as the premise of his films can be, they are completely committed to it, no matter how crazy it may be. Here it’s pretty out there, but in the way that good dystopian satires are supposed to be.
The performances really stand out because every single one is largely emotionless and deadpan, as if everyone were channeling Bill Murray’s delivery in Ghostbusters. There is a detachedness and demand for conformity that hints at classic dystopian literature like 1984 and even a bit of The Giver. While it is not overtly funny or a straightforward comedy, I found the satire and surrealness of it all deeply funny. The hotel staff depict scenarios that stress the importance of having two people around, in absurd demonstrations of one waitress (Ariane Labed) being raped pretending to walk home by herself. One of the staff points out at target practice that it is notable that all of the man-shaped targets are single. Colin Farrell kicks a little girl in the shins at one point. There are quiet moments of characters doing mundane things and assorted animals will meander by, from peacocks to pigs to even a camel at one point. After one resident at the hotel gets turned into a pony, I nearly burst into laughter when the pony appeared later on in the film. John C. Reilly gets to play with a lisp; what else needs to be said there?
As a single person in my 30s, I felt uniquely attuned to this film’s vibe, and found it deeply satisfying. Yes, relationships are desirable and something to aspire to, but there is also no denying that some married people have a weird fixation about “fixing” their single friends. There is significant societal pressure to be a couple and not just an individual, and there is a lot of commentary in this film about that. There is also substantial commentary on the flip side of that too, being too much of an individual that you become a loner. When David escapes from The Hotel and the pressures of that place and he enters the Loner world, he enters an equally absolutist society, a society that only allows people to dance individually, which is why they only listen to techno. Seydoux’s Loner Leader is as much of a zealot as the Hotel Manager (Olivia Coleman).
This is where I think the film finds its sweet spot. Yes, the blossoming, oddly sweet relationship that begins between the characters of Farrell and Weisz is strangely charming, especially when they develop their own coded system of communicating their affection for one another through gestures that even a third base coach would shake his head at. But what near-future or any futuristic films are supposed to do is hold a mirror up to our current world. The world we see in The Lobster is one of polarization. Everything is an extreme. Find a suitable companion or suffer the consequences. Remain a loner or suffer the consequences. These are the poles we find in this world. In our world, we see so many aspects of our society becoming more and more rapidly polarized, from our politics to our entertainment, to our opinions on just about anything. People abandon the middle ground and the common ground for the extremes and insulate themselves in a cocoon of the like-minded. Despite their desire to break free of the structures of The Hotel and later of The Loners, David and Short Sighted Woman are not able to break free of the mindset that they must be appropriately suitable for one another by sharing a defining quality. When obstacles are thrown in their path that change their circumstances, they search for a new common trait to share.
The Lobster has been on my radar for over a year, ever since I heard about it coming out of last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The name Lanthimos alone was enough to get me interested, but the absurdity of the concept sold me too. It is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it is the kind of darkly comedic film that is just the right kind of offbeat for me. It completely commits to the absurdity of its storyline. The world, the characters, the performances, the story, the direction, the dialogue, the visuals, and the score all strike this oddly perfect balance and made me love everything about what I was experiencing with this film. It made me laugh at things I should not have been laughing at, it made me uncomfortable, it made me squirm in my seat. I even appreciated the abrupt ending, the kind I usually dislike. In short, it appealed to everything I love about movies. I had been anticipating this film for over a year since hearing and it did not disappoint. I am notoriously tough when it comes to handing out overall grades for films. The Lobster is the best movie I have seen so far in 2016, and because of that, I am awarding it my first ever 5 star review. I loved everything about this bold, ludicrous, entertaining film.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars