Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Ireland / UK / Greece / France / Netherlands. 2015
Colin Farrell, donning a rather “Joaquin Phoenix in Her” disposition and attire, sits on a couch, facing away from his presumed wife as she tells him the details of the man for whom she’s leaving. His responses are curt, wounded. Every word sounds like it’s dripping with phlegm. And soon enough, he’s taken away to a hotel, his fate hanging in the balance. Farrell is sent off to a hotel where he, and the people there, have 45 days to find a mate. Should they not fall in love before the time is up, they will be turned into the animal of their choice.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s film has a duality to it: it can exist as a microcosm to discuss the structural oppressiveness of (primarily) heteronormative couplings and the possibly equally unfortunate anarchic reactions it can spark. But it’s also about loneliness and social anxiety, where the social threat of being alone has internal – emotional and psychological – ramifications.
The Lobster is essentially Lanthimos’ Burn After Reading: the cruelty he unleashes on his characters and the idiocy with which he illustrates them is more reflective of the system in place. Not unlike the aforementioned Coen Brothers film, its sense of humor is caustic, each word written in acidic ink. Lanthimos has a skill for writing arch dialogue, but the archness serves a different purpose in comparison to his previous films Dogtooth and Alps: here, the disaffected quality of the characters and their line readings speaks to a hollowness of the social tradition of dating as a whole. Nothing is natural and everything is artifice (a character breaks his nose in order to court someone cursed with spontaneous nosebleeds), the end goal not even being to end up in a relationship. Sure, that’s the ostensible objective, but underneath it, it’s to live “respectably,” under the nose of whatever society deems acceptable.
Farrell’s performance in particular is interesting. He never stutters, nor does he ever sound confident, save for when he says what animal he would pick. There’s a reticence, an unsureness, and, yes, a kind of desperation. All the while, there’s an impression in his words of longing for the woman who left him. Farrell’s performance has an affect to it that is reminiscent of how paradoxical social anxiety is: a yearning to be with someone, or with people in general, and yet the physical, emotional, and psychological inability to take that initiative. It’s a social Purgatory. That’s what The Lobster is.
Conversely, the Loners, the group of the single people lead by Léa Seydoux, seek to upset that norm. Monogamous unions are implied to be somehow the downfall of a functioning society, and this is demonstrated when Seydoux and Rachel Weisz (as the Short Sighted Woman) reveal the dysfunction in this particular romantic and social structure using only a gun. And though it seems to subvert the norms of the world they live in, even their rebellion has rigid rules, rendering them the mirror image of the hotel’s system. Ambivalence is nowhere in sight.
Despite its high-concept nature, The Lobster has a bracing honesty with which it approaches the emotions the film examines. It’s through the artifice of dialogue, through the artifice of social traditions like dating, that the film is able to more closely study the impact of those long-held ideas and beliefs on our being. The characters in the hotel are obsessed with their “defining characteristic,” and yet none of them seemed to have conceived a full identity beyond the one characteristic. The film suggests that these characters, stand-ins for people at large, rely on their mate to find self-actualization. Hence the hollowness of everyone alone, and the disillusionment of those who are together. The films asks about what it mean to fall in love, on both a personal and a social level.
The cruelty inflicted on the characters of The Lobster isn’t mired in realism. It’s too absurdist for that. But there’s an emotional potency that should be noted. Lanthimos frames love as too painful and its social traditions too arduous to possibly be worthwhile, and then reveals that everyone is, at heart, a sadomasochist.
The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.