This is a repost of our November 6th review of The Lobster from AFI Fest.
It’s not exactly easy being a single person surrounded by couples. Nor is it exactly easy to make a relationship work. It’s also not easy being an outcast from society, and even collections of outcasts sometimes have restrictions that are just as exclusive as that society that shuns. Most of all, how can one be sure of what they’re looking for in life when they don’t know it themselves? These are all topics grappled with in The Lobster, the new film by Yorgos Lanthimos, a film that boldly defies genre categorization. Science fiction, comedy, drama, romance, horror, and tragedy are all rolled into one demented and marvelous motion picture, one that wouldn’t feel out of place in the filmography of Charlie Kaufman.
In a non-descript future in a non-descript location, a newly single David (Colin Farrell) travels to the Hotel. Upon check-in at the Hotel, guests are required to provide all kinds of personal information, including sexual orientation. As explained by the Hotel Manager (Olivia Coleman), the people staying at the Hotel are required to be there due to the fact that they’re single. They have 45 days to find a new match or else they’re transformed into an animal of their choosing and set free in the woods – if he doesn’t make it, David has chosen to become a lobster. David quickly makes friends with the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), each searching for their own match at the Hotel. For those incapable of finding a match within 45 days, extra days can be added to their stay simply by capturing a “loner,” a societal outcast living in the woods, with a tranquilizer gun during one of the Hotel’s organized hunts. There are other rules around the Hotel – a strict no masturbation policy and grave punishment for anyone caught lying about their matches. These scenes play out in as a blend of dystopian sci-fi and pitch-black comedy, like one might find within the best works of Terry Gilliam.
David’s attempts to find a new partner lead him nowhere worth going, and before long he finds himself exiled in the woods with the loners. Their loose-knit organization itself has strict rules against sex, with its leader (Léa Seydoux) dishing brutal punishment for kissing or flirtation. In the woods, though, David soon strikes up a friendship with the Shortsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), and their friendship soon blossoms into something more, something that can be dangerous for both its participants.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou slowly build upon the world they’ve created as the film ventures forward. And Lanthimos’ direction majestically conveys the claustrophobic feeling of the Hotel, with shots boxed in by external walls as if the frame itself is shrinking within that tiny hotel room. In a similar manner, within the woods the trees act as confining barriers, telling us that even in the vast wilderness the characters aren’t truly free. And therein lies the great struggle of The Lobster: both factions are as brutal and righteous in their own right that they’re just different sides of the same coin. They’re both authoritarian in nature and wish to mold people as they see fit with threats of violence.
Caught in the middle of two warring factions of similar ends and means, Colin Farrell gives an assured comedic and dramatic performance as David. Pulled both ways, David is unsure of what he actually wants, which in this world is practically a death sentence. But Farrell is so good as the soft-spoken and unsure David, able to get hearty laughter from an uncomfortable response. And the rest of the supporting cast of The Lobster is excellent as well. I’ve never encountered a movie that has been hurt from the presence of John C. Reilly, and The Lobster is no exception. Léa Seydoux and Olivia Coleman are each equally unsettling as the leaders of their respective factions. The film is also buoyed by a number of other solid supporting players, including Michael Smiley, Angeliki Papoulia, and Ashley Jensen.
At its heart, The Lobster is a tale about someone trying to find themselves despite the arbitrary dates that others have imposed. It’s a genre-bending trip that is distinctly human in its themes about isolation and togetherness. As much as the story twists and turns, the reaction of the view will twist and turn from laughter to horror to disgust to laughter to tears. The Lobster certainly isn’t a crowd-pleaser, but those that get it will love it.