Reviewed by liam farrell
Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster may be the Greek’s first feature in English, but the film’s curtain-raising shot immediately lets us know that we’re in familiar territory. A woman drives her car through non-descript countryside on a murky day, pulls over to the side of the road, gets out of the car, and shoots a donkey dead with a handgun. The blank expression on her face is returned by another donkey watching on in equal nonchalance. Cue opening credits.
Lanthimos, best known for Dogtooth (2009), creates a near-future dystopia (appropriately, the whole thing was shot in Ireland) in which the notion of romance appears to be, it’s fair to say, in something of a crisis. Single people are given forty-five days in a drab hotel in which time they are expected to find a suitable companion to make up a couple. If they fail, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing, and sent off into the world to live out the remainder of their days. Sounds fair.
The film showcases Lanthimos’ ability to create worlds which are simultaneously horrifying and darkly hilarious has not diminished. Much of the comedy is derived from the elaborateness of the vision, as more and more of the conditions are revealed. The drab breakfast rooms and function rooms that seem more in fitting with rainy holidays, business conferences or wedding receptions are far from the most fertile places for love to blossom, yet they are made seemingly even more unappealing. The air of desperation oozes out of the screen.
We follow Colin Farrell’s pudgy widower David as he is welcomed into the hotel by having one hand tied behind his back to prove the benefits of operating in twos. Guests are assigned a uniform wardrobe, clamorous intercom announcements and shrill alarms provide regular interruptions, and the evening’s entertainment consists of the hotel manager and her partner (the fantastic Olivia Colman and Garry Mountaine) singing showband numbers with synchronised dance moves in a shaky soprano and an operatic baritone while backed by a handful of musicians in white labcoats.
The tone throughout is strikingly deadpan. The residents look like they are having about as much fun as you would expect in such dire circumstances. Romantic propositions are delivered in flat monotone (tongue firmly in cheek when jokes are delivered), with a level of enthusiasm that hovers somewhere between boredom and despair. The sexual encounters are alternately joyless or torturous. The cast’s faces bear the kind of distraught grimaces more befitting of rush hour commuters on rainy winter mornings, than the stars they are.
And what a cast it is. As the film’s publicity has wisely highlighted, Farrell is backed up by a host of familiar faces, including rising young stars (Ben Whishaw and Léa Seydoux), beloved British character actors (Colman, Michael Smiley, and Ashley Jensen), as well as the versatile and unclassifiable John C. Reilly. Whishaw is terrific as a young man with a limp who goes to painfully extreme measures to find love, and Angeliki Papouli (a Lanthimos regular) steals a number of scenes as a woman who is, it becomes clear, “completely heartless”.
Unfortunately, the film trails off somewhat in the second half, as the plot propels forward and the action moves out of the hotel. Rachel Weisz, who provides a pancake-flat narration that works as a nice comedic counterpoint in the first half of the film, appears as a brittle love interest in an awkward relationship with Farrell. When the action goes into the wild, The Lobster gets away from its brilliant central premise, and the budding romance seems unfittingly quirky, especially with the numerous and malicious threats hanging overhead. Here, the unusual delivery of the actors feels often like quite a hindrance to the action, and as the pace slows down, it begins to feel as though the film has run out of clever ideas. The exact target of the satire becomes somewhat muddied as we see more of the world outside the hotel, and we are left wondering exactly what message the film is trying to put across about the state of relationships.
By the time the stakes rise at the climax, The Lobster seems slightly too far beyond the bounds of credibility. It feels just shy of real brilliance. The film could certainly lose thirty minutes of its two hour running time, the second section suffering by comparison to the superb first. Still, Lanthimos proves himself a worthy talent, as the film evokes the masters of surrealist cinema, the deadpan, mundane comedy bringing Roy Andersson to mind, and a balletic hunting sequence being worthy of Buñuel. The Lobster’s twisted gaze at love and society proves a wickedly funny, if slightly flawed piece of satire.