“If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”
Whether it’s the whirling infantile mind or the daydreams of a bored office worker, this thought holds a primitive interest. Clearly it’s been on Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ mind. The Lobster places us in a world where relationships are so important that those who haven’t found a partner within an allocated time are forced to reincarnate as an animal of their choosing. The film follows David (Colin Farrell) as he’s sent to a hotel to find a partner in 45 days or face becoming his chosen creature—a lobster. It’s a wacky old concept, supplemented by wacky old characters in a wacky old world, but for the most part Lanthimos is on to something novel with his innovative take on black comedy.
The Lobster exists in an undefined dystopia. I was never sure whether I was in the near future or a tweaked parallel universe, but I knew that something wasn’t quite right. The film falls into that very specific imagining of dystopia where what we see is unquestionably (and superficially) recognizable, yet behind the façade something is amiss. Much like A Clockwork Orange, Alphaville or Fahrenheit 451, this is science fiction that’s rooted deep enough in reality to make it frighteningly possible. Except, of course, for the bit about transmogrifying into animals.
Lanthimos does an excellent job of bringing The Lobster’s bizarre world alive by, paradoxically, making it as sterile and bland as possible. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis douses the film in a wall chart’s worth of dreary colours: brown, grey and beige. The central hotel setting is similarly bland; its mere presence fills shots with an air of resignation. Even shots of the great outdoors, which depict a world remarkably like the Scottish Highlands, fail to expose that natural beauty. There’s no room for expression in this drab world.
This repressive atmosphere extends to its inhabitants, who are mostly defined by their most obvious trait rather than a name. Biscuit Lady (Ashley Jensen), Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and Campari Man (Patrick Malone) stand out among the soulless vessels drifting through the hotel corridors. Even John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, whose characters apparently have names, are reduced to their two most prominent features: Lisping Man and Limping Man (respectively). In this world obsessed with order, these simplistic characteristics are used to match people in a way not wholly dissimilar to the box ticking world of digital dating.
While satire hovers strongly over this approach to character development, it’s also a great source of humour. The absurdist nature of The Lobster comes into focus when Limping Man becomes visibly distraught that a new potential match has only suffered a temporary sprained ankle, making her obviously unviable. People are so narrowly pigeonholed that they begin to feign traits in order to successfully find a compatible partner. The frank robotic bursts that everyone speaks in only adds to bizarre commentary. Curiously surreal incidents and mundane events suddenly seem incredibly funny when delivered alongside jarring deadpan delivery.
Under Lanthimos’ unique vision the film excels. Farrell, his usual bravado replaced by a beer gut and glasses, fits snugly into the dysfunctional community of pathetic hotel guests. His comic timing is superb as he lurches between pathetic, truculent and sympathetic. The star-studded supporting cast all manage to leave a memorable mark, especially Olivia Coleman, whose matter-of-fact sternness as the hotel manager embodies everything awful about the setting and everything enjoyable about the film.
The Lobster loses its grip in its meandering second half. The action shifts from the urban world of relationships to the rural forests of outcasts militantly promoting single life. The satire and comedy remains sharp, but the narrative loses focus and drags its feet through a turgid romance. While the gang of singletons have their own bizarre rituals and rules (e.g. digging your own grave for when you eventually, inevitably need it), the impetus and intrigue don’t match that of the hotel. Crucially, the focal mystery surrounding animal reincarnation becomes largely irrelevant, which is a real shame when you consider how enticing the premise is.
The significance of the titular animal in The Lobster is never made abundantly clear. Perhaps the fact the crustaceans mate for life holds some sense of irony in contrast with this dating nightmare. Then again, Lanthimos is quick to prod and poke both sides of the coin; couples and singletons both get short shrift.
In a way this indiscriminate condemnation is part of The Lobster’s problem. It maintains a sly sense of satire throughout, but it never amounts to a clear commentary on modern love or dating. The ambiguity betrays the potential of the film’s premise. Like a lobster, boiled and plated in herbs, Lanthimos’ film is a beautiful and slightly enigmatic delicacy—outwardly majestic but lacking enough meaty sustenance to fill your belly.
Movie Verdict: Win
This review is part of Jonny’s ongoing coverage of the 2015 London Film Festival. For more reviews, click here.