Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first film in English serves up the richest, most heartily enjoyable kind of black comedy – one with genuine observations to offer on human nature, constant deadpan absurdity and the occasional punch in the head to keep the audience on their toes.
The Lobster (2015, Ireland/France/Greece/UK/Netherlands) directed by Yorgos Lanthimos / screenplay by Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthimis Filippou / starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Coleman, Arianne Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, Léa Seydoux, John C. Reilly / cinematography by Thimion Bakatakis / companies: Element Pictures, Canal+, Scarlet FIlms. Lemming Films, Film 4, Irish Film Board
Emerging from a dark cinema room and interacting with fellow humans after seeing a film by Yorgos Lanthimos is a distinctly surreal experience. It seems that no matter what gestures you make or words you say, the comfortable norms of your personality feel oddly absent and it’s easy to over analyse everything that comes out of your own mouth. Am I saying this just to be polite? Did that sound disingenuous? Because I’m pretty sure that that was genuine, what I just said. Did I really need that gesture or did it arrive too late to match with that thing I was saying?
The deliberately flat, emotionless line deliveries that so brutally dragged the viewer into the world of the grieving and abandoned in Lanthimos’ previous film, Alps (2012), here underscore the wickedly dry humor with which Lanthimos skewers the norms of a permissive but emotionally stunted society. In a blue and grey world of tastefully dressed citizens couples go about their business in The City and live as all happy people do, that is until they lose their romantic partner. As soon as they become single, citizens are transported to The Hotel, a pleasant resort with abundant amenities. There singles are given forty-five days to find themselves a new romantic partner or they will be transformed into the animal of their choosing and released into The Woods.
David (Colin Farrell, sporting a gentlemanly moustache and a pot belly) arrives with his brother, Michael, whose current form as a border collie suggests that he didn’t “make it”. Stripped of his personal belongings and installed in a single room, he opts to become a lobster if he doesn’t make it. So begins his search for a partner with which he shares some defining characteristic (as someone needing glasses, he is looking for a shortsighted woman). When not engaging in recreational activities (all permitted, except masturbation) or attempting to find a partner to dance with in the world’s least romantic music hall, the guests of The Hotel are required to hunt-down The Loners that populate The Woods. Capturing a Loner by shooting them with a tranquilizer gun can extend a guest’s time to find a mate by one day. As his last day draws nearer it becomes apparent that David’s only hope of remaining in human form is to join the Loners and partake in their sabotage of the relationships being fostered in The Hotel. It is with the Loners that he finds his perfect match, a shortsighted woman, played by Rachel Weisz.
There is a sly suggestion that David’s wife left him because he could not give her a child. But the reasons for the guests’ single status hardly matter. The death of one’s partner is just as likely to lead to internment in The Hotel as the failure of a relationship. What is consistent is that the characters are denied the time to grieve for the loss of their relationship and to use their time alone to regenerate and re-enter the world of dating in a way that is true to themselves. Loneliness, it seems, is suffered by society, not by the individual.
Ignoring the astonishing artistic craft of Lanthimos’ regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis and their painterly use of the Irish countryside is impossible. It is equally impossible not to enjoy Lanthimos’ and Efthimis Filippou’s cruelly surreal script. But The Lobster is worth the price of admission for the universally excellent performances of the cast alone. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz are two actors seemingly committed to choosing exciting projects year-in, year-out and both deliver what could be career-best performances here. What really sells the world that Lanthimos and Filippou construct is the subdued flair of the cast as an ensemble. World-class performers like Olivia Coleman, Arianne Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, Léa Seydoux and Ben Whishaw bring a wealth of tension to every scene and John C. Reilly’s depiction of a lisping sad-sack that wants to be turned into a parrot is as heart-breaking as it is hilarious.
Lanthimos’ singletons seem to fall into two different camps: predators and passives. Bakatakis’ cinematography uses controlled movement and deliberate but sparing close ups to underscore the personality most dominant in each scene. As an example of the aggressive determination encouraged in the society, John (Ben Whishaw) exudes tremendous menace in stalking and deceiving the partner he needs (it is telling that his character confesses how his mother was transformed into a wolf, when she didn’t make it). Certain that he will never achieve the happiness that beams out from the Couples’ dining room, David attempts to imitate the predatory nature that nets John a partner but, in his naïveté, he finds himself trying to match with the coldness and cruelty of a certifiable psychopath (the always inscrutable Angeliki Papoulia).
It is highly appropriate that Lanthimos should choose Ireland as the location in which to shoot such a macabre black comedy and, as with his previous films, the use of a chilly, muted colour palette creates a particularly visceral impact when the desperation and loneliness turn violent.
All-in-all, Lanthimos’ surrealist fable, at times Kafka-esque, proves more rewarding and enjoyable than most of the out-and-out comedies in recent memory. Lanthimos’ obvious respect for the sophistication of his audience is as strong as it ever was but the material here allows more balance between entertainment and exploration than his exploration of loneliness in Alps. As an added bonus, music lovers will be spoilt by music supervisor Amy Ashworth’s selection of melancholic and ominous pieces by the likes of Benjamin Britten, Alfred Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, Richard Strauss and many, many more. As an added bonus, the Loners’ silent disco in The Woods is among the comic highlights of 2015. “We have chosen to be alone. That is why we listen to electronic music.”
But there can be no humour without tragedy. Farrell’s facial expressions and melancholy delivery of every matter-of-fact absurdity that comes out of his mouth belie David’s desire for a life of contented subsistence if it will allow him to preserve his passions. In Rachel Weisz’ character, he finds a kindred spirit but the insular, anti-romantic lifestyle enforced by the Loners leads their relationship to an apparent impasse, engendered by the very society that criminalises the Loners. When absurdity has become a fact of daily life, the great tragedy is that two people genuinely in love still cannot see past the superficial differences they have been led to believe will find them their true soul mate.