I find it unfortunate that this was my first chance to experience a film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, as the concepts behind his pieces have always struck me as rather intriguing. Whether it’s teenagers isolated by overprotective parents in Dogtooth or people impersonating the recently deceased to help loved ones process their grief in Alps, he’s always seemed to thrust his characters into deliciously extreme and extraordinary situations in order to (and I can only speculate) incisively explore ordinary emotions and human experience. The Lobster proves to be no different.
Colin Farrell stars as David, a newly single man who’s whisked away to a hotel in the countryside to find a suitable mate. If he and the other single people at the hotel fail to fall in love within 45 days of arriving, they will be turned into the animal of their choice and released into the wild. Elsewhere, a group of Loners escape society and embrace a life of singleness in the woods, harshly punishing those who dare to fall in love. It might seem garishly simple-minded to describe it as “high-stakes eHarmony,” but I think that’s exactly what Lanthimos is going for here, a send-up of modern dating, especially of the online variety.
Everyone in the hotel is brutally black-and-white and complementarian in their presentation of romance, and the civilisation in the film has an apparent zero-tolerance policy on singleness. The hotel manager curates a number of events and activities extolling the virtues of romantic relationships, including exercises and skits to teach the guests that “two is better than one,” severely disciplining those that violate the strict guidelines for pairing up, literally hunting down and capturing Loners with the incentive of earning more time to find love at the hotel, and even sexually teasing the singles to give them some extra motivation. Alternatively, while the Loners possess their own freedoms, they also have their own medieval disciplinary procedures, including something called the “red kiss,” which involves lips and razor blades. As much as the characters may tend toward it, there is no middle ground offered here.
In many ways it reminded me of my experiences in a conservative Christian college and the stereotypes revolving around the dating culture there, where marriage was often idolised and departure without a significant other is practically a condemnation to a life of solitude and celibacy. By placing the characters into such absurd circumstances, Lanthimos develops a brilliant criticism of the (albeit far more subtle) demonisation of both singleness and dating/marriage within different sects of Western culture, making a case for the moderate approach that we all seem to want but can’t seem to endorse. It’s wonderfully subversive.
What makes The Lobster effective is its deliberately awkward presentation, perfectly mirroring the forced interactions involved in things like online dating and speed dating. While the premise is acutely surreal, the film is shot with a frank realism that left me to deal with warring tones. The performances are universally wooden, with characters just spitting out their dialogue in hopes that something will eventually stick or some connection will be made. Normally that would sound atrocious, but here it works thanks to the clever setup and perfect timing, though I couldn’t say any particular performance stood out above the others. The photography works wonders as well, generally utilising still shots while capturing characters at uncomfortable angles, approaching from above and behind the back or leaving a lot of empty space in the frame. One shot in particular that stood out to me had a character comfortably sat on an operating chair, and then the doctor adjusts the seat and raises them out of frame, creating agitation for the audience. It’s lovely little touches like that which make The Lobster great.
It’s the kind of film experience that will make you squirm in your seat (I actually did), and as Lanthimos throws in surprising and inspired humour or harrowing moments of trauma, I could only respond in nervous laughter or stare on in shock, unable to process how to feel in that moment as it lingers on and on and on. But perhaps the very thing that makes the film a delight is also its undoing, however slight. With so many jarring juxtapositions and and purposefully off-putting constructions, I found it difficult to truly latch on to the beautiful and thoughtful little romantic drama that was buried underneath. Don’t get me wrong, The Lobster is a fantastic film and comes with a high recommendation from me, but it’s just lacking that small detail or flourish to drive it home, instead ultimately becoming a victim of itself.