The Lobster: Is it Brilliant or a Mess?

THE LOBSTER (2016 US Release)
Directed by Yorgos Lanithimos
A24, 119 minutes, R [Sexuality, language, animal cruelty]
* * *

I often leave the cinema without a completely formed opinion about the movie I've just seen. Sometimes a provocative film needs 24-48 hours to marinate before I fully appreciate its nuances and complexities. It’s rare, though, that more than a week later I’m still not sure if I actually liked a movie. You can toss The Lobster into that sparsely populated tank. It might be brilliant. It might be rotted seafood disguised in a visually appealing casserole. I suspect it’s actually just a middling film—hence my rating—but I could be talked into a higher or lower rating. The only thing of which I am 100% certain is that if you are the sort of person who gets deeply disturbed by cruelty to animals and images thereof, you should give The Lobster a wide berth.

This film stars Colin Farrell as you’ve never seen him before: pot-bellied, laconic, and passive. It is set in a future dystopia. Or is it a perverse nuclear family utopia? Society requires adults to live as couples, with the added proviso that the couples must have aligning characteristics. John C. Reilly, for instance plays the role of Lisping Man (no one except Farrell has a name) and must find a soul-mate who shares that impediment. What about those without partners? That’s the dystopian angle and the dilemma facing David (Farrell). He is unexpectedly single because his wife left him for another man. By law, single people must check into a sanitarium-like facility, where they have 45 days to find a new partner or they are surgically transformed into an animal of their choice. David arrives with a dog in tow that is actually his brother Roger. Should David fail to find a near-sighted person such as himself, we will become a lobster!

Okay, that’s deliciously weird and surreal, as are some of the rituals of the hotel. Residents must sit through insipid skits purporting to show the virtues of couples and the dangers of being alone that, I suspect, are intended as barbed commentary on the banality of the Religious Right. Even weirder, the facility forbids masturbation, but requires males to be sexually stimulated by a maid, but not to orgasm. The place is crawling with desperate people like Limping Man (Ben Wishaw) and Nose-Bleed Woman (Jessica Barden). David finds himself stalked by the frumpy Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), but he’s so hollowed out from being cuckolded that he gravitates toward Heartless Woman (Angelika Papoulia).

The film never fully explains how society came to be this way or who is in charge, but, as convention dictates, an authoritarian state begets an underground resistance movement. In this case, it is the Loners, a loose band living in the woods that swings entirely the other direction by demanding solitude, and forbidding any sort of intimacy or coupling. Léa Seydoux is the Loner Leader—a droll oxymoron—and she plays the part with icy intensity and a detached willingness to impose barbaric penalties for those who break the band's code. David escapes to join the Loners, but how will he respond when he meets Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz)? The film ends on a Lovecraft-like note that is terrifying in its ambiguity.

Sounds intriguing, yes? And so it is, though whether this is a great film is less certain. This is the first English-language project for Greek director Yorgos Lanithimos, who has done a decent job, though I constantly wondered what Joel and Ethan Coen would have done with the same material. (I also thought of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose Delicatessen is a spiritual cousin.) The Lobster is an Irish, English, Greek, French, Dutch joint venture–ironic in that some of my reservations lay with the manner in which the film flirts with several moods/genres without being fully any of them: black comedy, surrealism, social commentary, romance, tragedy. I admired its ambitiousness, its ambiguities, and its artistry, but I remain uncertain as to whether it’s a brilliant pastiche or a failed synthesis. I highly suspect the latter but, like I said, I could be persuaded otherwise.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The British Academy honored Olivia Coleman with a Best Supporting Actress prize for her role as the sanitarium manager. This is puzzling, as her role was relatively minor and Seydoux, Papoulia, and Jensen are each more deserving.

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