Film Review: ‘The Lobster’

The Lobster Cannes Film Festival Dutch
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Yorgos Lanthimos' first English-language feature is a wickedly funny, unexpectedly moving satire of couple-fixated society.

Longevity and lifelong fertility are among the reasons why a human may wish to become the eponymous creature, explains Colin Farrell’s protagonist at the outset of “The Lobster.” The tasty crustacean’s rich associations with the Surrealist movement appear to have slipped his mind, but not that of Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose supremely singular fifth feature — his first in English — takes his ongoing fascination with artificially constructed community to its dizziest, most Bunuelian extreme to date. A wickedly funny protest against societal preference for nuclear coupledom that escalates, by its own sly logic, into a love story of profound tenderness and originality, this ingenious lo-fi fantasy will delight those who already thrilled to Lanthimos’ vision in “Alps” and the Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth,” while a starry international cast should draw as-yet-unconverted arthouse auds into his wondrously warped world.

As in Lanthimos’ other features, it’s only once the complex (yet firmly cemented) rules of his narrative universe become clear that his characters’ actions accrue practical and psychological reason; “The Lobster” is a film in which nearly every scene requires bookmarking, to be intuitively cross-referenced at a later point. The stark, arresting pre-credits opener sees an unidentified woman (Jacqueline Abrahams) drive agitatedly through a stretch of soggy countryside, stopping abruptly to shoot a donkey in a field before moving on. The act is never referred to in the ensuing two hours, yet it comes to encapsulate all the film’s roiling emotional stakes in miniature.

From this point, Lanthimos and regular co-writer, Efthimis Filippou, waste little time establishing the laws of a mundane dystopia that doesn’t look severely different from the world we live in now: one of low-level shopping malls and slightly chintzy resort hotels, in which marriage and procreation is still the prized objective of polite social activity. Yet the powers that be have taken a somewhat more regimented approach to the latter institution, by which single folk are actively punished for their failure to pair up. Restricted to the rural outskirts of a damp, unnamed city, they are literally hunted down by other unattached prisoners of the Hotel, an aggressively beige institution where inmates are given 45 days to find a mate within their ranks — or be turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild.

If that seems ridiculous, the Hotel — and, by extension, the film — nonetheless have strict standards of what constitutes rational and irrational occurrence. While no one bats an a eyelid at the transformation of humans into flamingos, the two-by-two mandate of Noah’s Ark still applies: A wolf and a penguin cannot live together, decrees the no-nonsense Hotel manager (the splendid Olivia Colman), “because that would be absurd.”

The recipient of this lecture is new captive David (Farrell), a mild-mannered divorcee who seems less desperate to secure a match than some of his fellow guests — including a young man with a limp (Ben Whishaw) and a middle-aged one with a lisp (John C. Reilly). Only Farrell’s character is named; others are billed solely by their chief disability, also the principal criterion by which compatibility is determined here. Lovers are not mutually drawn by their most attractive virtues, Lanthimos appears to argue, but by the shortcomings that they recognize in each other. If common myopia or vulnerability to nosebleeds seem tenuous bonds on which to build a relationship, are they any less so than shared enthusiasms for Mexican food or long walks on the beach?

Thus does Lanthimos’ confounding setup emerge as a brilliant allegory for the increasingly superficial systems of contemporary courtship, including the like-for-like algorithms of online dating sites and the hot-or-not snap judgments of Tinder. If the unreasonable pressure on single people — particularly those of a certain age — to find companionship has already driven humanity to such soulless means, perhaps the scenario outlined in “The Lobster” isn’t so outlandish after all. One thinks back to the worst-case nightmare of fiction’s most fretful singleton, Bridget Jones, whose fear of being found “fat and alone and half-eaten by Alsatians” may indeed be wittily (and quite literally) referenced here.

When David’s last-ditch attempt at forcing a union with a cold-hearted inmate (played with hilariously stony relish by Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia) comes to naught, he escapes the Hotel grounds only to found that society is no less forgiving on the other side of the conservative pro-couple barrier. In the forest, he falls in with a militant opposition group known as the Loners, led by Lea Seydoux’s unsmiling anarchist, whose rigid rules forbidding any form of romantic interaction prove no less oppressive than the ideals of the Hotel. It’d be unfair to further unpick Lanthimos and Filippou’s beautifully structured tangle of poetic ironies and reversals, except to say that the payoff is at once crueller and more rapturous than in the director’s previous, fiercely disciplined work. Via the character (and enigmatic narrating voice) of Rachel Weisz’s questioning Loner, “The Lobster” gradually sheds its chilly shell, building to a soft tumult of feeling.

Lanthimos’ films are such pristinely mannered directorial creations — unmistakably bound by their deader-than-deadpan humor, tweezer-set visual composition and stark stabs of violence — that it never seems his actors should be permitted to do much more than hit their regimented marks. Once more, however, his terrific ensemble surprises with the intricate human detailing they achieve under his seemingly distant steerage. Colman is first among equals in a bigscreen role that finally requires the knack for exquisitely oblivious comedy she has repeatedly demonstrated on British television, but no role of any size is wasted here: In particular, fellow Britcom graduate Ashley Jensen etches a haunting, fine-scale study of desolate singledom in a few brief scenes. Taking over from the initially cast Jason Clarke, Farrell once again proves that hangdog vulnerability, rather than rakish heroism, is his strongest suit as an actor; he’s the porous lead this potentially airtight construction needs.

Shooting largely on the wind-tousled, gray-flannel coastline of Ireland’s County Kerry, Lanthimos’ favored d.p. Thimios Bakatakis is once more an invaluable ally in establishing the spatial and social architecture of his director’s story world. His boxy, formal framing and bilious color palette reveal much about the restrictions applied to the people within them, as does the tidy, function-first bleakness of Abrahams’ production design.

As usual, Lanthimos eschews an original score in favor of existing classical and pop compositions, which aggressively punctuate an otherwise quietly thrumming soundscape with brute impact. Beethoven, Shostakovich and Stravinsky all put in prominent appearances, but the most evocative selection here may well be Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s morbid country-Gothic ballad “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” with its plaintive plea for unrestrained love: “Do you know where the wild roses grow, so sweet and scarlet and free?” Perversely romantic almost in spite of itself, “The Lobster” doesn’t offer the answer, but it suggests we keep looking.

Film Review: 'The Lobster'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 15, 2015. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

(Greece-Ireland-U.K.-Netherlands-France) A Film4, Irish Film Board, Eurimages, Netherlands Film Fund, Greek Film Center, British Film Institute presentation of an Element Pictures, Scarlet Films, Faliro House, Haut et Court, Lemming Film production in association with Protagonist Pictures, Limp. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, Ceci Dempsey, Yorgos Lanthimos. Executive producers, Andrew Lowe, Tessa Ross, Sam Lavender. Co-producers, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Leontine Petit, Carole Scotta, Joost De Vries, Derk-Jan Warrink.

Crew

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Screenplay, Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou. Camera (color), Thimios Bakatakis; editor, Yorgos Mavropsaridis; music supervisor, Amy Ashworth; production designer, Jacqueline Abrahams; costume designer, Sarah Blenkinsop; sound, Mervyn Moore; supervising sound editor, Johnnie Burn; re-recording mixers, Burn, Danny van Spreuwel; visual effects supervisor, Olivier Cauwet; visual effects, BUF; stunt coordinator, Giedrius Nagys; line producer, Cait Collins; assistant director, Owen Magee; casting, Jina Jay.

With

Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, Ashley Jensen, Michael Smiley, Jessica Barden. (English, French dialogue)

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  1. It’s pretty obvious what the reviewers, ad nauseum,tell us what it is about; sure it is dystopic, surreal and
    all the rest! But to KEEP an audience watching and involved for two hours, with all the red herring(–not lobster–) shots? That’s the test of a director, keeping faith with, and not playing games with , the audience. After the lst premise scene sets up the film, the film fails the viewer 95% of the time, until various walkout times ensue. What’s happened to the “responsibility” of the reviewing enterprise to call a
    spade a spade?

  2. Sara says:

    Seriously a film capturing the fear and sadness that arrest multitudes with disgust and shame that tames others.

  3. Lonely in Atlanta seeks same for sad experiences in the woods. says:

    It was really funny, but maybe a little too accurate in it’s satire. It bummed me right the hell out. Probably a great movie, though. I’m honestly not sure. The line readings were so deliberately stiff that it was difficult to read the intent at times. I guess that probably WAS the intent. Regardless, I guess I’d recommend it. Probably not to my more alienated and depressive friends. I keep wondering if it would’ve affected me the same were I not currently single. Maybe. I’ll watch it again one day when I’m not so alone. SO ALONE. Excuse me while I go to the woods. I must find rabbits and dance by myself while observing emus that may-or-may-not have once been Best Buy customer service representatives.

  4. Jon Sullivan says:

    Interesting premise, but this pernicious “problem” is only pertinent to a certain subset. The issue is less the set-up culture than the rules of the set up culture. In real life, who are the caretakers of this conservative hotel? It’s young females with mates, whose sole mission in life seems to be setting up their female friends with (usually) the opposite sex. The “right” members of the opposite sex, of course (the suit clad hunk navigating through the field in the photo above will have the set-up queens working overtime). Mr. Joe Average has no worry of being set up by the feminine table setters, as they don’t look right on their imaginary tablecloth. Character and career are secondary…looking good in a 3 piece suit, or cargo shorts and t-shirt are paramount (Ms. Jane Average faces similar obstacles of being in the “not worthy of being set up with a man” camp). Thus, being set up isn’t a problem for the 75% who lack the looks to be a local hook up star, much less a Hollywood stud in an indie film. But we feel bad for those targeted few, we really do.

  5. SanPedro says:

    Reading some of the reactionary, angry, posts here tells me that the director has touched a nerve with some This movie sounds fantastic but its just a movie. Calm down. I think the people that are bagging on this film might regret their monogomus, monotonous, situation.

  6. L32 says:

    The studies show that it turns out gays are just as prejudiced and bigoted against polygamous marriage as straights are.

  7. Clearisabella says:

    I’m Not sure this reviewer has it right. The satire could be aimed at those who would satirize traditional coupling.

  8. Mike says:

    Yet another heterophobic pile of horse dung.

  9. Sherri says:

    Looking forward to this! Sounds like a fun, weird ride. Also great to know that Olivia Colman is back in film; her television work is outstanding (best part of a very uneven second season of Broadchurch) but have always been hoping she would do more films after Tyrannosaur.

  10. Walt Marx says:

    Wow! This one sounds like it will be widely and justly ignored.

  11. I’m sorry – this film sound like a waste of time and resources. How many millions were spent developing a platform for the worthless insights of a director/writer. If one is going to be this pretentious at least get a philosophy degree from a worthwhile university.

    Mr. Lanthimos – next time – write an essay.

  12. joe says:

    Author! Author! Let’s celebrate how this helps transport us to a brave, new world where our outdated concepts about life, marriage, God, and morality are finally destroyed, once and for all. Pay no attention to those who say our society is becoming more haughtily decadent in the extreme. No, the past is completely discredited, and only by destroying every last vestige of it will we finally be liberated and live in a utopia. Praise Science!

    • Socraticsilliness says:

      Another tired artsy-fartsy waste of film to be seen at midnight at worn campus theaters. Numbnut directors/writers who can’t figure out what that thing between their leg is for.

    • sonnyboy says:

      “To achieve world government, it is necessary to remove from the minds of men their individualism, loyalty to family traditions, national patriotism, and religious dogmas.” – Brock Adams, Director UN Health Organization

      • Max says:

        It’s very ironic you or anyone else would equate “individualism” with “national patriotism”, because nationalism and all types of conservatism seek to destroy individual differences….

      • Max says:

        If someone is born in a country, they have to be “loyal” to that country, to regard people from other countries as “not one of us” or even their enemies? Do you realize how short-sighted and disgusting your defense of “national patriotism” is?

  13. επιδεικτικός says:

    The guy is totally discriminating and alienates us mortals who don’t have the intelligence to understand his beauty. And yet…I can’t look away…

  14. Lucky says:

    One of my most anticipated of the year. A truly unique and talented filmmaker, and in English this time!

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