An Excellent Choice
Yorgos Lanthimos does something that is almost unprecedented in film today: he makes movies that are entirely original.
Say what you will about his work — that it is ridiculous, that it is pretentious, that it is incomprehensible, that it is impenetrable, that it is cynical, that it lacks humanity — but you cannot accuse the Greek director of having anything but a unique sensibility. This is part of what makes him one of the most divisive filmmakers since Lars von Trier, and it’s part of the reason his excellent new black comedy, The Lobster, has become not only a critical success but a surprising hit. While it’s not competing with mega-blockbusters, it’s enjoyed decent box office and an unexpectedly wide release, and has probably been seen by more people than could ever be expected from such a deeply and enduringly odd film.
The Lobster, like all of Lanthimos’ work, takes place in a world almost entirely like our own, but with a fundamental strangeness that is completely accepted, barely explained, and crucial to our understanding of it: in this case, society does not tolerate the existence of single people. Any adult without a partner is sent to a stiff countryside hotel and given 45 days to pair up (with the person or gender of their choice, provided they share some entirely arbitrary defining characteristic). They can extend this deadline by hunting and capturing “Loners”, rogue singletons who roam the grim forests outside the hotel, but should they miss it entirely, they are taken away and transformed into a literal animal (most people thoughtlessly choose a dog; our protagonist, laconically played by a painfully awkward Colin Farrell, has chosen a lobster).
All of this is completely absurd, of course, and Lanthimos and his writing partner Efthymis Filippou go as far as to hang a hilarious lampshade on the zaniness of the premise. But of course, it’s all played completely straight — more than straight, indeed, it’s played with deadly seriousness. That’s one of the great strengths of Lanthimos’ deranged Samuel-Beckett-with-Asperger’s sensibilities: however lunatic the foundation upon which he sets his story, he doesn’t apologize, explain, or except. He embraces the craziness of it whole hog, and that’s why even the most over-the-top formal and structural elements work so well for me. Everyone in the dynamite cast, for example, speaks in an unbelievably stilted manner — they all talk the way ABBA sang — and while it’s distracting at first, it quickly turns into something perversely natural, and, as the tone the director strikes begins to shade towards surrealist romance from surrealist farce, it pays off in both humor and emotional depth.
It’s hard to explain exactly what The Lobster is about. It’s clearly a satire, but a satire of what? Of romance, surely, but it goes far beyond that and seems to become a dark tease of humanity trying to accomplish anything at all. When Farrell’s character grows tired of the brutal charade of the mating dance, he flees to the forest to live with the Loners, only to find that they are as oppressive, cruel, and overly concerned with meaningless rules as mainstream society. At this point, it looks like it’s going to turn into a rather rare form of political metaphor, but it never quite becomes that, either, with its devastating final scene seeming to be more of a general indictment of human weakness beyond anything else. Much of the time, The Lobster seems like a parable that isn’t particularly meant to illustrate any lesson.
Indeed, it’s a fiercely difficult movie to read on every level. I’m still a bit unclear as to what’s happening in a few scenes, especially since some critics seem to have an absolute faith in what happens during that last scene that I absolutely lack. Farrell is certainly an unreliable narrator, and the hilarious glimpses we catch of camels roaming through the woods (and the chilling implication that Farrell and his chosen mate, an otherworldly Rachel Weisz, are cooking and eating their former friends) battles with the deliberate vagueness Lanthimos brings into the process of transformation: we never see it happen, and for all we know, it doesn’t. The same frustration of articulation applies to its detractors; with most movies, I can defend my position vigorously against critics who felt otherwise. But The Lobster is such a weird and singular beast, I don’t think I could possibly argue coherently with anyone who utterly hated it (and there are lots of such people). It is unquestionably an acquired taste, like its namesake.
And yet: I can’t shake the feeling that it’s genuinely great. Almost everything about it clicked for me on every possible level, even the ones I couldn’t quite identify. From its creeping crypto-classical score to its much-improved filmwork (Lanthimos has taken a leap forward in his visual compositions, even if they’re as front-loaded as the script with formalist stiffness, and again, they reach a perfect apotheosis in that masterful final scene), The Lobster practically screams ‘this means something’, but my failure to completely establish what that something is doesn’t feel like amateur-hour pretentious pseudo-reference; it seems like a work that’s genuinely deep enough to welcome conflicting interpretations. (Lanthimos himself, typically, is disinclined to offer his own, saying he finds the very idea of explaining his films boring. I can’t argue with that, either.) It’s also alternately terrifying and hilarious, with deadpan absurdist comedy meshing with deep body horror and vicious cruelty both physical and mental at a level of clockwork precision. It gets great performances out of the people you expect them from (John C. Reilly delivers a top-notch variation on his hapless flailing loser persona, and Léa Seydoux is alien in her cruelty as the leader of the Loners) as well as people you don’t (Farrell has never been so relatable by being completely un-relatable, and Ben Whishaw is a compelling blend of aggression and neediness). That’s one mark of a great director. Another is that you can’t stop thinking about a movie days after you see it, and on that score, The Lobster is a masterwork. It’s the best film I’ve seen in 2016.