An Uncompromising, Disturbing Look at Relationships
What if your romantic relationship defined every single aspect of your life? What if you lived in a society that based all forms of judgment upon whether you had found a partner or not? What would you do if forced to find a mate in order to avoid the slings and arrows of others? That all may not be far removed from real life, but these ideas are given a far more heightened and often disturbingly absurdist bent in writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, which seeks to scrutinize society’s approach to relationships through an original and often challenging approach to a wildly offbeat idea.
Set in a dystopian future where society has based everything on the idea of coupling, The Lobster focuses on David (played by Colin Farrell), a man whose wife has recently left him and must now find a new mate. In the world of The Lobster, all single people are sent to a special hotel where they are given 45 days to find a mate and fall in love. If they do not do so in time, they are turned into an animal of their choosing. David’s choice in the event of failure is a lobster, and his time at the hotel and within the confines of an extremist, emotionally stunted society allow him to examine himself and his own needs as a person.
Lanthimos’ film is in parts a black comedy, a pointed satire of contemporary culture, and a quiet examination of love and its shortcomings. However, Lanthimos approaches every aspect of his story with an extremely reserved yet highly confident approach. The last thing a person could call The Lobster is visceral. Above all, the film is restrained in emotion and flourish, much like its highly stunted characters. However, there is an unshakeable understanding of the human condition at the core of the film that infuses its many uncompromising choices with a resounding sense of truth. Lanthimos forces the viewer to engage with his material and constantly work through what the actions of a character truly mean, which in turn elevates the meaning of his story.
As a filmmaker, Lanthimos’ visual storytelling is impeccable. Large chunks of both plot and character arcs are told through solely visual cues, with small interactions and movements giving a greater context to both the story and the narrative’s larger world. Yet the information is always provided with a clear and often cheeky style that lets the viewer in on the subtle comedy often informing the message of the film. Simple movements, the presence of an actor (or animal) in the background, and minor character choices all lend to The Lobster’s distinct brand of subversive comedy.
That restraint extends to each actor within the film as well, which both works to strengthen the film’s style as a whole and restrain how emotionally invested one can actually be in its characters. Farrell does a marvelous job as David, changing both his look and affect in order to convincingly play a man who has been emotionally crippled by both the end of a relationship and a dysfunctional society. Full of quiet sadness and stunted interactions, Farrell says volumes with actually saying very little. While it’s often difficult to completely relate to the protagonist of a film that demands to be held at arm’s distance from the viewer, it’s Farrell who makes The Lobster as potently dark and relatable as it can be.
Outside of Farrell, The Lobster is populated with all manner of strange and resonant characters played vividly by an assortment of highly talented actors being asked to express as much as possible through as little emoting as can be done. Not the least of which is Rachel Weisz’s nameless Nearsighted Woman, who becomes the object of David’s affection when the narrative eventually shifts to life within a rebellious group who outlaw all form of romantic relationships. Weisz must also express worlds’ worth of feelings without ever truly being able to express herself and it’s her voice that adds another layer to the film as its almost storybook voiceover narration. However, Weisz doesn’t fare quite as well as Farrell due to less screen time and a story largely defined by the arc of its central protagonist. Like other costars within the film, such as John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and more, Weisz is a puzzle piece used by Lanthimos in his deconstruction of the ideas of romance, love, and compatibility. It often works incredibly well, but reinforces the idea that The Lobster is more of a film to be studied than to be experienced.
Those choices carry over to the way Lanthimos chooses to shoot his film as well. Filled with all manner of unconventional framing choices that often leave characters in awkward positions within the frame or isolated from one another in compositions that violate the standard manner of positioning a shot, it’s clear that Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis put careful thought into each shot that makes up the entirety of The Lobster. In its editing, the decision to stay on characters for long stretches of unbroken takes or to choose to not show crucial decisions that permanently impact the outcome of the narrative means that viewers are forced to sit with the characters and take them in as real people and also thoughtfully engage with the narrative.
Lanthimos’ story, which he cowrote with Efthimis Filippou, is all about upending expectations, carefully assembling its frequently horrifying world, and driving toward disconcerting conclusions about relationships. There’s drive and purpose to be found in each moment and the stamp of a creator with a powerful voice unmistakably informing each filmmaking decision throughout The Lobster.
Rarely does The Lobster tell you how to feel about its characters and the decisions they make. Rather, this is a film whose goal is to unsettle and provoke the viewer concerning its stark and broken depictions of love, commitment, sex, death, and intimacy. What the viewer decides to do with those strange feelings is up to him or her. Its coldness and calculated incisiveness may not be for everyone, but its wit and sheer skill mean that The Lobster is an unforgettable creation.