Back when Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos first clambered barefaced upon the international stage with his daring Dogtooth, quite a few hastened to mention its striking resemblance to Arturo Ripstein’s similarly self-contained The Castle of Purity, made some 35 years earlier. In the wake of his first English-language effort The Lobster, one might even go further and compare all that Lanthimos has done thus far to Ripstein’s film: the imposed isolation behind walls that are both physical and psychological, creating a world whose structure is founded upon seemingly intransgressible rules and boundaries. Despite the jump in locale and language, The Lobster is very much a continuation or extension of the themes found in Dogtooth: the sequestered family abode is replaced by an isolated hotel complex; the overprotective father by a domineering hotel manager – the brilliant Olivia Colman. Perhaps the most significant difference, at least on first glance, is that Dogtooth appears set in the present, whereas The Lobster unfolds in an unspecified dystopian future where singledom is not only frowned upon but considered illegal: bachelors must commit themselves to the hotel and find love or risk being surgically transformed into an animal of their choosing, while uniformed officers comb the nameless nearby city in search of those without proper documents, or indeed a partner.
Enter slack-shouldered David, played by a corpulent Colin Farrell, who checks into the hotel with his brother Bob in tow – once a man, now an understandably melancholy border collie. Farrell does the impassive straight-man-with-a-heart well, through isn’t quite given the tools in terms of dialogue – despite its similarly deadpan nature – to show the same comic timing we saw during In Bruges, for example. Businesslike moustache in common, the character recalls Joaquin Phoenix’s recent outing in Spike Jonze’s Her: both are emotionally starched, but we do long for the kind of straight-faced humour that both Farrell and Phoenix are more than capable of. Still, The Lobster represents what is perhaps Lanthimos’ most humorous and also absurdist outing to date. The same kind of monotone delivery we’ve seen in Dogtooth and Alps is maintained here, perfectly complementing what is a generally hopeless air around the hotel and its time-pressed lodgers, who must resort to underhand means in order to find a mate and progress to the relatively idyllic solace of a honeymoon yacht. Many of the laughs come courtesy of the misshapen trio formed by Farrell and fellow lodgers Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly, who play the limping and lisping man respectively, and who when sitting and contemplating their joint fates resemble Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Joe Harper – or perhaps simply just the three odd kids at the end of the playground.
The hotel is a cinematic staple in terms of solitudinous settings and as such represents perhaps a logical step for Lanthimos, whose characters are often part of some small community but at the same time very much alone. And while the hotel here doesn’t quite become an entity in itself, as perhaps that of Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, or something titular like Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel and Jessica Hausner’s Hotel, it remains an important framing device. Lanthimos has also mentioned popular British fly-on-the-wall series The Hotel as a particular influence while writing the script, which is perhaps a nod towards its reality show flavour. There are also a few curious parallels between The Lobster and Elina Psikou’s The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, a recent Greek film where an estranged talk show host (Christos Stergioglou, Dogtooth‘s dictatorial patriarch) stages his kidnapping and retreats to an empty hotel, only for his mind to unravel in solitude. Hotels are also places of transience, lest we forget, and can be grouped with the various grey streaks of highway, shiny shopping malls and featureless car parks we glimpse on the occasions that Farrell and co. visit the city. This is offset by the stunning surroundings of Ireland’s County Kerry, whose heathlands recall those seen in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin – another film about finding a mate, as placed in the context of life and death.
As can be denoted from its eponymous crustacean – that which Farrell’s protagonist confidently chooses, apparently for its lifespan and monogamy – The Lobster returns to the idea of animals as symbols. It opens on an apparently unconnected, unpremeditated slaughter of a donkey, which both sets the tone and recalls the brutal slaying of a cat in Dogtooth; also, similar outbursts of violence involving animals in the films of Michael Haneke. Then there is the two-by-two idea of Noah’s Ark (in this case, yacht) and the pairing off of different species, with the rest left to drown. And this is really the underlying critique here: that of a society whose members have become obsessed with companionship in an age of dating apps; of swiping left and right. Without harking back once again to Spike Jonze’s Her, we are isolated by our current social media lifestyles, but still intent on using these networks to find “the one”. Even if the thought of finding him or her on Tinder seems as ridiculous as simply knocking on random hotel doors , even if that hotel is one purposefully filled with desperate single folk.