A woman driving in the countryside pulls over and, like a scorned lover, shoots a donkey three times before it dies. As she storms away, another donkey slowly wanders over to its fallen partner. This is significant, because that donkey used to be a person. Its fellow donkey also used to be a person, most likely. David (Colin Farrell) is newly single, having just been left by his wife, which is unfortunate in most societies. In this one, it’s also forbidden that he be single. Like all single people, he is sent to a hotel on the outskirts of the city where he has 45 days to find a partner or else he will be turned into an animal and released into the wild for a second chance at love.
The Lobster is the first film by writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos that I’ve seen. Each of his films I look at and think, “I need to wait until I’m in the mood for this.” So I wait. His is a unique breed of surrealism and absurdism, crafted into a thoughtful and unforgettable world all his own. Himself and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis shoot much of the film with natural lighting, but skew the shades and coloring just enough to their own ends to inform you that their world is a few steps away from our own. They shoot much of the scenery and interactions in flat angles, subtly reinforcing the deadpan, hilarious gallows humor The Lobster thrives on. It simply wouldn’t be as funny if they didn’t frame it so matter-of-factly. As heartbreaking as The Lobster gets, it never loses its sense of masterful absurdist humor.
Farrell hasn’t been quite like this before, delivering perhaps his greatest work as the frumpy, pudgy David, carrying himself with a sense of resigned defeat. Farrell just so naturally adapts himself to this physicality, trudging through the motions of trying to find a mate. When someone hugs David, he can’t fully reciprocate the action, his arms just kind of hang frozen in midair, not wrapping them around the person. In posters for The Lobster, Farrell hugs a shapeless void, accenting this sort of sense of disconnect and vacancy. He just fully embodies the despair of David, happy to be a sort of comedic punching bag for Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou’s script. In one scene the hotel maid comes in and rubs her butt on David’s crotch in order to “help him achieve an erection quicker,” thus helping him find a mate, this whole activity a seemingly normal routine at this hotel. Once he gets hard, she gets up and leaves. He asks her not to. “That’s awful. Just awful.” he says as she leaves in a line delivery that both reveals his crippling alienation while garnering one of the hardest laughs in the screening I attended. A talented ensemble including Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, Michael Smiley, Jessica Barden and Ariane Labed all contribute to this hilarious, heartbreaking and bizarre heightened reality.
There’s a tremendous amount of world-building done for a film with only a few different settings. Every day guests at the hotel hunt single people who are living in the woods as fugitives with tranquilizer guns. For every one that you capture, you get an extra day at the hotel. One woman who is described as “heartless” is an expert hunter and keeps racking up days. “It’s no coincidence that the targets are shaped like single people…and not couples.” says one of the staff to a guest at target practice. The loners in the woods have their own rules – no romance at all – and listen to electronic music on their CD players. There used to be a bisexual option at the hotel, but not anymore, which disappoints David, a look of slight frustration coming across his face as he has to immediately decide between heterosexual and homosexual. These bizarre constructs of the characters and script all add to the amazing fact that you never stop to ask how or why this society exists, you’re already so caught up in the curiosities and idiosyncrasies of how it functions to protest.
Everybody talks to each other in an overly cordial, observant and almost seemingly rehearsed manner. Small talk is boiled down to essentials like similarities and common interests, becoming the foundation of each relationship. One couple finds romance because they both get nosebleeds a lot. It’s as if they’re reading from a script provided to them on how best to find a mate, but delivering the key words and phrases in the most stilted manner possible. It’s a transfixing, hilarious aesthetic that the cast nails and Lanthimos excels in creating.
There isn’t a single screen, computer, tablet or cell phone in The Lobster, yet the film manages to delicately examine what love, connection and romance mean in today’s world. In their 2nd day at the hotel, new guests introduce themselves. One leads with a tragic tale involving his mother, her getting turned into a wolf, and him getting a limp when he entered a wolf den at the zoo to hug her. He motions to his limp and ends his presentation with “This is my defining characteristic.” It captures the essential ingredient of what dating is now, a presentation where you highlight yourself in your social media bios in a hopeful attempt that someone will click like or swipe the desired direction. Lanthimos isn’t necessarily judging this reality, but he is curious about the “why” of it all.
There’s one line that continues to stick with me. “It’s harder to pretend you have feelings when you don’t than it is to pretend not to have feelings when you do.” The Lobster gets at the truth of how difficult it is to connect with other people, and how simultaneously absurd yet necessary it is that we want to be together. Why is so much importance placed on being with other people? It’s incredibly difficult to find the happy middle ground between being by yourself and trying to be in a relationship. It’s difficult to say if there are answers in The Lobster to these existential questions, but The Lobster understood these problems on an intimate level that few other films have. The screening I attended was filled with laughter, but how much of it was to keep from crying?