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The Lobster

It's a jungle out there, lonelyhearts.  Or at least a forest.  Which seems better than the hotel.  But is it?  And the city - it's a cold, cold place.  But we all knew that, right?  The options are daunting for the lonely in search of real connection, those who don't necessarily want to go it alone and for whom couplehood, as it so often presented, seems the least appealing choice of all.  So goes the old story, rendered almost unrecognizably new by director Yorgos Lanthimos in The Lobster.

The Lobster is writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos' first film in English, the first produced outside of his native Greece.  Like his earlier Dogtooth and Alps (as well as Attenberg, by his colleague Athina Rachel Tsangari, a film in which Lanthimos deadpans his way through a secondary role), The Lobster sees human relationships stripped down to their basic truths and conflicts and given absurd projection, a kind of psychological caricature.  The Lobster is what you could call a European production, co-produced by principals from five nations.  Given that the United Kingdom is one of those contributors, one is reminded of another recent, absurd exercise in coupling and uncoupling.  Oppressively careworn as it has become, Brexit sounds a bit like a Yorgos Lanthimos film.  Alas, reality proves rather less entertaining and edifying.  And beyond the control of rewind.

Mr. Lanthimos' fiction has lost nothing in its translation to English and its move to more liberally-funded international production.  You'll read in some capsule reviews that The Lobster is a dystopian comedy.  Given the generally impassive trudge of characters through the early stages of The Lobster, the muted mood and look of the film, the labels are understandable enough, if a bit facile.  But really, there is a genre into which The Lobster more neatly fits.  It happens to be a genre called The Films of Yorgos Lanthimos.  The themes are relatively timeless, the dilemmas all too universal.  And yet they find expression in a paled, parallel world that the Greek filmmaker continues to build for himself. 

Our main character, our unhero, trudging through The Lobster is David (Colin Farrell).  The somber David is escorted (through a generic urban landscape that is slightly reminiscent of Jacques Tati; only Playtime has now become Depressedtime) to a seaside hotel where color has apparently also retired to die a slow death.  This while the body of his former relationship is still warm. In tow is a genial shepherd by the name of Bob (father and son pooches Jaro and Ryac, for the record), whom we find out is David's brother and a former visitor at the very unusual hotel.  Meet your mate during your stay at this hotel and back to the city you go, into the connubial sunset. Fail to do so within 45 days and you are transformed into the animal of your choosing.  Bob had made the obvious choice, as the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) informs David.  His designated animal , on the other hand, a lobster - which he selects for lifespan, blue blood and unending fertility - meets with the approval of the manager:  "I must congratulate you, the first thing most people think is a dog...which is why the world is so full of dogs."  Thus begins, among numerous other accomplishments, The Lobster's disregard for all cute little human companions, canine and child alike.  

Like those inducted into the military or getting serious attention in a hospital, new guests are stripped of their individual garments and left to slouch in relative undress after checkin.  So sits David amongst a batch of new arrivals, including "Biscuit Woman" (Ashley Jensen, even more affecting and downtrodden than she was as Ricky Gervais' pal in Extras) and "Man With Limp" (Ben Whishaw).  Mr. Farrell looks a kind of Groucho Marx negative with his glasses and jet, questioning eyebrows.  David's slouch only exaggerates his paunch.  One imagines Mr. Farrell having a very good time acquiring the extra weight.  

With us from the start of the film is narration provided by a character later to appear in the film (she intimates that David will eventually join her group), "Short Sighted Woman."  This Rachel Weisz,  speaking in kind of third-person flat.  It's a tribute to Mr Lanthimos' rigor and Weisz's commitment to character that even this narration is consistent with the film's sometimes droll, generally saturnine tone.  

The Lobster's international cast, its matter-of-fact narrator and other characters, don't necessarily speak as if English is a second language.  Consistent with the earlier work of Mr. Lanthimos, characters utter uncertain words and abortive sentences as if human communication itself were a foreign tongue.  A particular scintillating dance floor exchange between David and Nosebleed Woman after the latter has realized that she has bled on his white shirt "
I'm sorry, I got the blood on your shirtBut don't worry, there are many ways to remove blood stain from clothing.  One way is to wring the clothes to cold water, then rub in sea saltAnother way is to scrape the stain with cotton ball dip in ammonia...."  More such verbal foreplay ensues.  There are amusing if very dry exchanges in Lanthimos' Dogtooth in which the nearly adult children speciously name objects like the most hapless of language students, their ignorance reinforced by a father who keeps his wife and children confined to the well-appointed suburban compound.       

Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou grant the directors of the hotel no more grace with words, much as they demonstrate - completely oblivious to themselves  - sarcasm.  When two of the young hotel guests, Man With Limp and "Nosebleed Woman" (Jessica Barden) unite (Man With Limp pretends to be Man With Nosebleed), they are recognized at a hotel gathering prior to graduating to yachts moored in nearby water, the honeymoon quarters for those who successfully couple.  Their benediction from the hotel manager seems a valentine to the consciously (and sometimes contemptuously) childless in the audience:  "The course of your relationship will be monitored our staffs and me personally.  If you encounter any problems, any tensions, any arguing that you can't resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children.  That usually helps a lot."   

Amplifying the irony which Mr. Lanthimos allows certain of his characters to render with admirable deadpan consistency is a soundtrack whose greatest feat of irony, much like the film itself, is a mix of audacity and precision which at key moments coalesces to actual, deeply-felt sincerity.  There is an abundance of fraught string quartet music (Shnitke, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Shostakovich) usually accompanying the most mundane of acts:  the putting on of clothes, plying the aisle of a supermarket.  When we see the hotel guests go on their first "hunt," stalking the renegade loners in the nearby forest, the darkly-clad hunters emerge from the bottom of the frame in slow motion to the opening glissandos of  "Apo Mesa Pethamnos" (sung by Danai).  To this graceful, swaying old Greek lament we see the slowed, awkward flight and pursuit, faces juddering ghastly as bodies stumble and careen, silent screams and mouths agape at falls.  We see "Heartless Woman" (Angeliki Papoulia) exultant he she rifle-butts a loner to the forest floor and then deliver a right cross to her already bloodied face.   

Blunt as the violence is as delivered by Heartless Woman, this is certainly not Brett Easton Ellis (nor May Haron in the film version), serving us a course of sociopathic homicide to a pairing of Huey Lewis and the News, as is the case in American Psycho.  No, Mr. Lanthimos speaks (and sings) irony with the delicacy and fluency of a native.  

Occasionally, the director does indeed allow concord between image and sound,  those insistent strings slowing from ironic adagio to sincere lento or moderato pastorale.  Such is the case during the unconventional, sub rosa courtship of David and Short Sighted Woman, one that takes place in a kind of beautifully absurd semaphore amongst the other loners, fingers, hands and swiveling heads serving as flags:  "When we turn our heads to the left, it means 'I love you more than anything in the world.' When we turn our heads to the right, it means 'Watch out, we're in danger.' We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up 'I love you more than anything in the world' with 'Watch out, we're danger.'" 

Even during the moments of obvious irony in The Lobster -  image to sound, sound to image -  there is something clutchingly universal in the absurd or mundane acts  which resonate beneath the obvious incongruity of the music that accompanies the action.  So it is with the flight of loners from those desperate to couple (each bagged loner wins the hunter an extra day at the hotel to stave off transformation to an animal).  Who among us who has spent any significant portion of their adult life single has not felt oneself a threat to and occasional target of the nervous herd of the paired-off?  Who has not felt anxiety amidst the plenty of the super market?   

Prior to his sylvan romance with Short Sighted Woman, David manages to woo the seemingly unwooable Heartless Woman at the hotel with skillful indifference.  The first salvo of cold disregard occurs at the expense of poor Biscuit Woman, sprawled on the bricks beneath the hotel, her second floor suicide leap having resulted not in instant death but unbearable pain (and presumably later death).  This a promised jump after her attempts to attract David fail, blood and a telltale, forlorn atoll of biscuits about the woman's head to confirm what her screams indicate to everyone in earshot.  David's commentary to Heartless Woman?  A veritable love poem:  "I just hope her pathetic screams can't be heard from my room.  Because I was thinking about have a lie down and I need peace and quiet.  I was playing golf and I'm quite tired.  The last thing I need is some woman dying slowly and loudly."  The canny David then seals the dubious deal by refusing to act when Heartless Woman later seems to be choking to death in a hot tub next to him.  The Heimlich maneuver being for saps. 

But they don't call her Heartless Woman for nothing.  After a brief, heady romance consisting of alienating sex and frigid arm and arm walks (during which David further endears himself to his bride-to-be by kicking the shin of Mrs. & Mr. Nosebleed's little cherub of a conversation starter), David awakens one morning to find that the heartless one has dispatched his furry brother Bob from their lives with a brutality surprising even for her.  When he finally betrays sadness, Heartless Woman not only calls off the relationship but takes him by the ear to the Hotel Director's office, causing him to flee and seek asylum among the loners.   

Lanthimos has his share of fun with directors and would-be couples at the hotel.  Guests are edified with a pantomime of a woman menaced by man when walking alone and then moving in triumphant safety in the arm of a partner - "Woman walks alone; woman walks with man."  There is the matter of the ridiculous focus on the "defining characteristic," thus desperate Man With Limp occasionally having to bash his face against a hard surface so he and his paramour can bleed, nose by nose.  And, of course, there is the use of those rifles mounted to each hotel room wall, with the allotment of 20 tranquilizer darts, which is detailed though not initially explained as Short Sighted Woman runs down contents of David's room.

Yes, there's a kind of dour hilarity in the simple-minded direction offered up to the hapless hotel guests.  But Lanthimos really has fun with the loners, drilled with military rigor by Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux).  In his initial briefing, David is told that he is welcome to take a place among the loners, but there are rules to follow.  Talking is allowed, but no flirting. Dancing is okay, but..."We only dance by ourselves.  That's why we only electronic music."  That might be the joke of the year.   All the more so when we later get the visual echo, the loners, together alone,  thrusting their pale limbs into the night after a successful raid on the complacency of the hotel.  Here,  judicious silence to accompany the solo dancers, each moving in a solo dance club sanctioned by individual ear buds.  More wit and pathos in this joke and reiteration than is be found in the whole of the ostensibly comedic and vastly overrated Don't Think Twice, currently improvising its way through the art house circuit.  

Lanthimos drollery extends to other bits of visual deadpan, as when incongruous animals wander into the frame -  here a  Shetland pony, there a pink flamingo.  The transformed and released former hotel guests enjoy arguably the most pleasant fate in The Lobster.  

Better a drifting llama or peacock in the forest where human beings are the most sought after game.  The hunting parties from the hotel are no bargain.  Neither the emotional winter of the loners.  When Loner Leader begins to perceive the burgeoning romance in her midst, she chastens David by reminding him that he needs to find a suitable spot for his grave.  "Don't expect anyone else to dig your grave for you or to carry your corpse."  One's fellow loners might toss some dirt over you, but that' about it.  Ah, the single life.   
Don't get too nostalgic for your single days.  Colin Farrell practices burying
himself in The Lobster.  
Mr. Lanthimos is pretty rigorous himself, if ultimately more forgiving and - in his way - more fun.  The Lobster could have contented itself with its fish in a barrel shooting party that is life at the hotel.  But the writer and director illuminates and lampoons most every dark corner of our attempts to couple, be alone, simply be.  
Short Sighted Woman  suffers the wrath of the Loner Leader.  Ultimately David and his rather more than Short Sighted Woman flee the forest for the city.  Will David make a kind of leap, a desperate act and join the trusting woman, expectant at a restaurant table?  Traffic slides in the background almost hypnotically.  Two dump trucks would seem to move toward a kind of embrace as the screen goes dark.

We moviegoers are not so unlike Short Sighted Woman.  Sitting in the dark, hoping for the best.  Likely prepared for worse.  This world, of course, is so full of dogs.  But occasionally, we get a Lobster.  



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