The following is basically just musings of a fan with too much time to think about this guy, YORGOS LANTHIMOS, who is one of the most exciting people making movies at the moment. About a week ago I went, along with a Lanthimos newb, to see his latest: The Lobster. (No real spoilers, but a bit of summary of the first half or so.)
Among other scenarios, prior Lanthimos films have included: incestuous intercourse, a woman bashing out her own tooth with a dumbbell, for-contract impersonations of the dead, reenactments of murder, and homeschooling with intent to brainwash. So it is no wonder that The Lobster, Lanthimos’ English language debut, contains a crafted balance of the absurd and the violent, fusing the sinister with the recognizable. Bizarre sexual rituals? Check. Stilted, unnatural dialogue? Check. Sudden, unexpectedly brutal violence? Check. A note to the squeamish: think twice before viewing this or any of Lanthimos’ films. But know that they bring these elements to bear in a singularly poignant fashion, artfully, rather than the gratuitously shocking expressions that have come to be, perversely, expected in cinema.
The Lobster takes place in a dystopic near-future, a world in which romantic coupledom is compulsory. The City is where couples live, going about a recognizably normal modern life. The Hotel, run by a torturous and exacting middle-aged couple, is where singles end up, with 45 days from entry to find a partner. Failure to do so results in transformation of the individual (by a gristly, if scientifically vague, surgery) into an animal of their choice. The Woods are the fugitive space where Loners often flee to avoid becoming animals; each day, guests at the hotel are sent out with tranquilizer guns with the hope of catching some of these unfortunates. Each Loner they bag is rewarded with another precious day added onto their stay at the hotel.
Enter David (Colin Farrell), a man whose wife has left him for another man in the opening scene. Farrel checks into the hotel and, after giving his name, sexual orientation, and the animal he would most prefer to be turned into (you guessed it), meets two other men in similar straits. Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Limping Man (Ben Whishaw). The three band together in discussing their predicaments and strategies for their stay at the hotel. As in Lanthimos’ prior works, company is of little comfort; the paths of the three men quickly diverge as Limping Man contrives a match, and David, after an ill-fated fling, finds himself in the Woods. It is there that David meets his own match, a Loner woman, the narrator of the film.
The Loners, however, forbid any sort of romantic coupling, on pain of varying degrees of laceration. Their leader, a forbidding young woman whose parents live in The City, ruthlessly suspends the Loners in an unending, fugitive purgatory. They run missions against the Hotel, and enter the City in pairs to buy supplies so as not to attract suspicion. In this environment, David and his lover must find increasingly intricate methods of communication, and at the risk of great peril. Needless to say, things don’ t turn out as the two had hoped, but if you think you can predict exactly how things go wrong, then you don’t know Lanthimos.
The Lobster is a more eloquent and realistically pathological commentary on the future of love and partnership in the modern world than 2013’s Her, which arguably attempted a similar thing (albeit with a more limited scope). An underlying premise of Her was that the overwhelming power of fundamental human loneliness could override logic, physicality and sensuality, and reality itself. It purports a self-deceiving, and self-perpetuating, nature of love, romantic or otherwise (and in this way approaches truth). Discomfiting though the idea was, Her tickled an exposed nerve for those looking for love (or friendship) in the 21st century – those for whom this search often includes more time interfacing with the virtual than with anything outside the four walls of their screen, let alone the four walls of their living room.
However, none of this is anything new to the alert consumer or modern human (I’d prefer to keep these separate, if only in my mind). The idea put forth by Her is, if anything, too easily imagined, and in this way Lobster stands apart from any work in any genre. Do we believe in this imagined near-future? No, of course not. Er – well, not quite, anyway. Not in the way we believe in the world of Her. The world of Lobster is too fairy-tale-ish, too nebulous, too inhuman. And the ideas there, some of which are similar to the themes in Her – self-deception (and just good old deception) as an integral component of human emotional bonds, for example – have much subtler landings than comparable cinematic attempts at ‘love and the future’ commentary. People don’t behave the way we expect them to in Lanthimos’ world, and in this way he evades a terribly obvious allegory to life as we know it. There is no restrictive adherence to reality, yet neither is there careless abandonment of the premises of earth as we experience it. This is not fantasy, bur neither is it documentary. It is just strange enough to disturb.
Of course, reducing Lobster to the role of ‘commentary’ alone is to reduce Lanthimos to the role of moralizer and cultural critic, which would be unjust. His is a mind on the move, unpredictable, perhaps unmoored. All of his films are deeply rooted in animal physicality, depicting the human body as it might truly look, for example, when being bashed in the face, or when having uncomfortable, dispassionate sex. These are not scenes we have come to expect in mainstream film. We like our violence in glorious, justified excess, like scratching an itch; we are quieted when confronted with brutal self-harm. We like our sex mostly unseen, and unheard minus the invariably simultaneous moans that echo into the blackness of the screen. With Lanthimos, we get discomfort, funny noises, awkward positions – and not for the mere sake of humor. The commonality of these elements is the ability of this film to abjectly surprise in a way that evades the hedonistic excess encountered across modern media. This is not to totally condemn hedonism, of course – it has its delicious place – but simply to say that the reminder that one can still be surprised, at this point, is invaluable.
Those hung up on the obsessive world-building so common to some dystopic futurism will be disappointed. There is little description of the city, woods, and hotel: how they work, exactly; where they are; whether there are any other concurrent worlds; whether each city operates exactly like this one; whether, for some undisclosed reason, there are no other cities any more. There is one description of the surgery by which humans are turned into animals, but no serious attempt to make the details of the surgery scientifically legible. There is no backstory on the couple who runs the hotel. There is little backstory on any of the main characters, all of whom are white or white-passing. The lack of collusion between men and women (the movie focuses on no instances of homosexuality) also remains opaque. Why not simply pretend to have something in common in order to leave the hotel? Individuals may take the lie upon themselves (as Limping Man and Farrel each eventually do), but awkwardness and evasion abound in the hotel, as if being with a person one finds repugnant were a fate worse than death. (Perhaps there’s something to that, though.) My take on these ‘faults’ is that they are mainly faults if one is trying to put Lanthimos in a box, a science-fiction box, perhaps, or a social-commentary box. Yet the most poignant gift of his films is how beautifully they evade categorization.
In any case, if one were to go to the theatre, and one were to stumble into this film, taking some seats at the back where the light from the projector streams out and illuminates the dust in the air, and settle in for the duration – it would be more than fitting to do so alone rather than as part of a couple. Sit, breathe. See how it feels. Does Alone become you?