Date or die: 'The Lobster' explores society's fixation with matching couples
Issued on: Modified:
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has raised a cult following with his ingeniously quirky satires. His first English-language feature, which premiered in Cannes on Friday, is likely to draw new fans and frustrate old ones.
First came the festival director Thierry Frémaux's warning that “The Lobster” is “the kind of film one doesn’t fully understand” – seemingly suggesting we’d get little or none of it. Then, upon opening my press locker, I came across a curiously folded flier featuring an obscure dialogue between “the short-sighted man” and “the man with a limp”. As the mystery grew, so did the excitement among the swelling ranks of Lanthimos buffs.
In the end, “The Lobster” proved to be brilliant and often hilarious, but not nearly as cryptic as expected. It is a relatively straightforward satire of society’s obsession with couples, set in a dystopian world in which the single are arrested and sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a partner or else be turned into an animal of their choice. The premise is that monogamous relationships are what distinguish us from beasts. Those who fail to find a partner are therefore unworthy of the human race.
The hotel has strict rules, reflecting a society of uncompromising order, where conformity is primordial. Homosexuals are tolerated, but not bisexuals. Couples can play tennis, but the single are only allowed golf or squash. Male singles are routinely aroused by waitresses to ensure they still get erections, and then left aching for more. Those caught masturbating are publicly shamed and forced to put their hands in a toaster.
The guests each have a “defining characteristic” – a limp, a lisp or a passion for biscuits – and are trained to look for partners with the same trait. Most do so spontaneously, suggesting the social conditioning has had a profound impact. Others feign a matching characteristic in order to save their skin. Thus one man secretly bangs his head against tables and walls to court a young lady who is prone to nose bleeds.
Unlike Lanthimos’s previous low-budget, Greek-language movies, “The Lobster” is packed with international stars including Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux and Colin Farrell, who plays the film’s protagonist David. Farrell’s mild-mannered, deadpan performance fits in perfectly with the hotel’s elegantly eccentric environment. Forget the manly action-movie hero. Here is a lonely guy with nerdy glasses and a paunch who’s been dumped by his wife. If things turn out badly for him, his wish is to be turned into a lobster, because he loves the sea and lobsters live to be over one 100.
As his deadline nears, David escapes from the hotel and joins a group of renegade “loners” in a forest. They turn out to be just as intolerant as the hotel managers. Amorous liaisons are strictly forbidden and those caught kissing have their lips cut off. The loners’ dour, ruthless chieftain (Seydoux) leads them on raids against the hotel, designed to prove to couples that their relationships are founded on lies and deceit.
The film is teeming with Lanthimos’s trademark dark, absurdist humour, but less subtle, captivating and emotionally involving than his 2008 masterpiece “Dogtooth”. While the hotel scenes confirm the director’s mastery of closed, oppressive environments, the forest part is less disciplined. I was also annoyed by the ample use of voiceovers to explain what is happening. It felt like a marketing ploy to make the film more accessible to a broader, English-speaking audience.
Admittedly, much of this is nitpicking. That one should be looking for flaws in ‘The Lobster’ is a measure of the expectation generated by the Greek director. For all its shortcomings, his latest work is another brilliantly weird piece of absurdist black comedy. It is definitely prize-worthy, and a sure frontrunner for the screenplay award. But I wouldn’t put my money on it clinching the Palme.
One thing is certain. John C. Reilly is unlikely to get an award this year. With two films in competition, the veteran American actor had been billed as a possible contender for the male acting prize. By day one of the festival his chances had thinned dramatically after he was felled by a marine monster some 10 minutes into Matteo Garrone’s “The Tale of Tales”. He lasted a little longer in The Lobster, but his unglamorous, pants-down exit halfway through the film has surely ruled him out of contention.