My recent coverage of the Seattle Shorts Film Festival reminded me of a favorite genre of the short-film medium – stories in which all of the characters share a commonly skewed moral sensibility. These people talk and think and act in a way that is inscrutable to the audience, and yet their identical dysfunction makes their world feel genuine and lived-in, and we learn a great deal about them through the lens of what they deem acceptable or mundane. Normally, a feature-length film would collapse under its own weight when trying to replicate this style. Indeed, even the dystopian genre tends to trade in familiar tropes, thinly-veiled historical references, or variants of 1984 or Battle Royale – all alarming, to be sure – but all familiar. Enter Yorgos Lanthimos, whose 2009 feature Dogtooth offered a most disturbing (but well-rendered) exploration of the backwards shared reality of a family that has kept its children sealed in a compound until their teenage years, teaching them a plethora of false and incomprehensible beliefs about the outside world. The Lobster takes this scenario further by landing its characters in a full-fledged absurdist dystopia, wherein people (voluntarily?) enter a hotel in order to find a romantic partner, and anyone who fails to do so in 45 days will be transformed into the animal of their choice. David (Colin Farrell), the only named character in the film, enters the hotel after his wife leaves him, and chooses a lobster, which the hotel pronounces “an excellent choice”. And as turns out, this society’s ability to magically transform humans into animals is actually one of the least bizarre things about it.
In essence, the film is about a pair of competing dystopias – the Attached (or soon-to-be-attached), who live in a gorgeous seaside resort/asylum, and the Loners, a ragtag band that live in the woods under an unnamed leader (Léa Seydoux). Each of these worlds is explored in great detail, and each comes with a litany of rules and practices that its participants struggle to obey. In the hotel, for instance, masturbation is forbidden, but every guest is seemingly required to have sex with the custodial staff. In the woods, you can dance – but it’d better be alone, to your own music – and no flirting allowed. There are many other rules, but I was more fascinated by the unspoken norms for how people in both worlds interacted with each other. Nearly every character in the film exhibits physical violence at some point, and whenever it occurs, the others seem alternately bloodthirsty or apathetic about it. They deceive each other, but badly – in fact, they seem so inclined to speak subtext aloud that they are best regarded as entirely guileless. Can liars be guileless? I may be trying to have it both ways here, but when David is approached by a police officer to inquire whether he is in a public shopping mall alone or with a companion, his response was awkward and unconvincing (like the majority of his dialogue), and yet I completely believed that the officer would buy it. This is a world that tells you exactly what’s expected of you, and doesn’t bother to question it as long as you’re playing along.
One of The Lobster‘s most effective satirical devices is the impersonal nature of the characters, who are literally credited as a single named attribute – Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Nearsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), for instance – and their deliberately shallow courtships. In order to be a match, the characters seemingly just want to have some superficial trait in common. Ben Whishaw‘s Limping Man despairs that he can’t find a woman with a limp, so – rather than expand his criteria, he smacks himself good and hard in order to effectively court Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden). This is a lie that he is willing to live for the rest of his life, if necessary. David attempts a similar strategy, but it doesn’t go well for him – perhaps because his defining trait, rather than nearsightedness, is unrelenting honesty, even when it harms his interests. This is Lanthimos’ cruel satire at its very best – it paints both relationships and singlehood as oppressive, shallow, inauthentic institutions, issuing strict, two-faced codes of behavior and exacting devastating consequences for those who inevitably fail to abide by them. You’ll find people in each institution who will support you – but only if you meet their precise expectations. Trip up, or attempt to live somewhere besides the precise extremes that they delineate – and they’ll throw you to the wolves. Or turn you into one.
Stick with this film. Your patience for its deliberate attempts to annoy and disturb you will be rewarded. After so effectively laying out this fractured fairy tale amid Thimios Bakatakis‘ breathtaking outdoor cinematography, which seems crafted deliberately to lose the characters in the mosaic scenery – the film surprised me once more by telling an uncompromising and beautiful love story. Farrell and Weisz’s performances are breathtaking, since these are characters that will always speak in subtext and reveal their exact motivations to each other. And yet, the small touches of intimacy between them – rubbing ointment on an injured back, butchering rabbits as gifts, etc. – seem even sweeter when they’re living in a society with zero tolerance for them, and when they’re quite possibly experiencing them for the first time. David keeps trying to ensure that he matches his new love’s shortsightedness, and this is perhaps the film’s final, cutting observation. These relationships seem shallow – defined by a single, superficial similarity – from both outside and in. Because even as these people are falling in love, with a thousand slender threads of commonality coalescing between them, they’re entirely too close to the situation to see it for what it truly is.
FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10