It is almost certainly the case that you will not see a stranger English language film this year than “The Lobster.” That alone is enough for some people – I’m one of them – to consider it a recommendation. The idea that such exceptional resources – money, stars – could be devoted to a fable this peculiar is enough to bring cheer to those of us who cherish the survival of artistic ambition in movies.
That’s all that recommends it, though, to be frank. I was completely absorbed and fascinated during the first half of “The Lobster” and, in mourning for the film it had been in its second half. That’s when two loves find each other across a completely hostile society but the narrative has no place to go when they do. To call “The Lobster” an unsatisfying movie is understatement by a good deal.
It is the fifth film and the first in English by Yorgos Lanthimos, a 42-year-old Greek director whose film world is, at the very least, arresting. This is the first film of his I’ve seen but reading about others – especially “Dogtooth” and “Attenberg” – make them sound fascinating.
“The Lobster” is about a future dystopian world where love is compulsory and being single is dangerous. Colin Farrell plays a meek, nearsighted soul who is dumped by a longtime partner and is forced by society to try to find another at a highly regimented luxury hotel. The place is like a combination Alpine and Catskill resort where group activities are compulsory and heterosexual pairing up is mandatory.
The clock is running, too. You have 45 days to find a connubial partner. If you don’t, you’re banished to the surrounding woods to be a dreaded “loner.” And there you are hunted down and, quite possibly, transformed eventually into an animal.
Hence the title. One must, shortly after arrival, name the animal to be transformed into if you fail at romantic partnership. Most people, it seems, pick dogs – lovable, loyal, warm companions. Our new hero/victim (Farrell) picks the lobster as his animal. Why? The extreme longevity of the crustacean and his aristocratic stature among sea creatures. If you’re among those of us who might tend to point out the creature’s lack of gymnastic evasive skills and its frequent tendency to rendezvous with boiling water and drawn butter, the movie convinces you to stop being such a wise guy and just play along.
It is that animal transformation, in fact, that explains the film’s stunning opening scene. Without explanation, we see a woman drive to a farm, search out one particularly beautiful horse grazing in the grass and, for no apparent reason, shoot it dead.
An ex-husband, no doubt, we figure later.
In the fascinating first half of “The Lobster,” you’re introduced to the operation of the hotel where mating is virtually commanded. It is a maze of customs and rules, both social and administrative. To pair up under the gun, people feign the characteristics of others of the opposite sex to ingratiate themselves – a penchant for nosebleeds, say, or a complete lack of empathy for others. Some of the dramatic results are stunning to watch.
Our hero, when romance fails, becomes a loner in the woods and, sure enough, it’s there he finds a woman who is almost a perfect companion for him. But among the loners, you see, couple behavior is as verboten as long-term single behavior is among those to be paired off. In other words, no sex in the woods, no romantic affection either or else you get something called a “red kiss.”
It is life among the loners where “The Lobster” falls apart. What was once absorbing becomes aimless and slack and, as far as I’m concerned, lost before the ending.
So odd is “The Lobster” that it is natural to grasp for precedent somewhere – cinematic, literary, whatever. When our hero/victim is assigned to stay in Room 101, you don’t have to be a genius to remember Orwell’s Room 101 in “1984,” the torture room where you must endure the one thing one fears the most in life. As well, the general climate of writer J.G. Ballard seems similar to the goings on in “The Lobster.”
Throw in the films of Luis Bunuel too, as precedents for its deadpan tone.
Despite so much satiric intent, very little of this is funny. We don’t want to laugh at this world, we desperately want to discover ways to triumph over it.
The movie offers us something else entirely – so little that it comes perilously close to nothing.
What must be said though is that the mixture of so much invention and so much weirdness with so much nothing is bound to stay in your head for a while.
Memorability is something. Maybe it’s even a recommendation.
3 stars (Out of four)
Title: “The Lobster”
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content, frank dialogue and some violence.
The Lowdown: In a dystopian future, love is compulsory and singles are hunted down.