MIFF 2015: The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek-born film director, is interested in social politics, sexual codes and systematic repression imposed upon individuals. It’s in his breakout film Dogtooth, in which a handful of children are trapped within the confines of their property’s walls for their entire life and force fed a peculiar version of reality. It’s in his Golden Lion-nominated Alps, a film that sees its main characters offering a service of substitution for people who have recently lost loved ones and cannot bear their sudden passing.
And it’s definitely in his newest, English-language film The Lobster, a film so focused in its satire that its skewered vision of a future Earth seems entirely plausible. Ostensibly the film follows David (Colin Farrell), a recently single man who has now been forced to check into a hotel full of other single folks just like him. He’s given a deadline, a certain number of days to find a mate, after which he will be turned into an animal of his choice. An earnest request to become a lobster ensues. He takes his brother with him, a dog, and begins the odd, awkward series of exchanges that will come to seal his fate, in one way or another.
What’s immediately noticeable is the world that Lanthimos builds, an airtight institutional situation that is never questioned, neither by the audience nor the characters within. The hotel is like any other, a lavish, well-maintained space with all of the amenities, except for some off-bounds areas and activities for the single people. Couples have more freedom in this hotel, and after proving their compatibility for a series of weeks are allowed to re-enter the city, now apparently deemed fully fledged, functional human beings.
Oh, and there’s also the self-dubbed loners, those who have chosen exile over sexual imprisonment, forever forced to roam the forests in waterproof gear, dancing alone to electronic music, and attempting to avoid being captured by the hotel guests. The detail contained within the film’s construct is astounding, as Lanthimos builds a rich mythology communicated not through production design but rather situational drama and character interaction.
It’s a highly sterile environment, neurotic and tangled, watched over by the rigid hotel manager (a wonderful Olivia Colman) and her husband. The hotel itself appears to be a by-product of a systematic situation, a state-controlled entity that re-enforces a dominant social and sexual code. The Lobster maintains some fairly strict visual references to The Shining throughout, both in the framing and layout of the hotel and the oppressive musical score. The connection is fraught with tension, dredging up Kubrick’s nightmarish psychosexual battlefield and re-purposing it for Lanthimos’ own explorations. The comparison is apt.
What results is a situation that expresses love as fascism resulting in an Aspergers-like behavioural display from all involved. In The Lobster people have either forgotten how to communicate or have been forced to unlearn its intricacies. In a post-social media world, it isn’t totally impossible.
In fact, much of what’s spoken feels like its being delivered verbatim off a message board or comments section; devoid of emotion and only able to exist in polarities. It’s either congenial or it’s explicit. When one of the guests attempts to seduce David she tells him that she’s happy to come to his room and give him a blowjob, or let him fuck her in the ass. There is no nuance to her request, nor is there any refinement in his response. The ballet of conversation is lost.
Understandably, then, most actions undertaken by individuals in The Lobster are ones of desperation, as they attempt to find mates simply to avoid being knocked down a few levels in the food chain. Most of the time people resort to fabricating parts of their personality to find a mate, one of many mirrors Lanthimos holds up to our own world.
That being said, this is not totally an environment devoid of desire. But what The Lobster really shows us is that suppression of that which makes us human, either systematic or not, cannot exist if we are to maintain our biology and our psychology. Even David’s choice of animal illustrates this; the lobster being a creature whose libido and fertility rate increase as it ages, unaffected by the juggernaut of time.
It’s when David’s self-exile occurs, and he meets the unnamed character played by Rachel Weisz, that The Lobster really begins to express itself fully. Up until this point Weisz’s character has been narrating our story from afar, recalling David’s journey from a point in the near future, perhaps a happier time.
When the two finally meet, Lanthimos has them communicate through a series of well-coordinated bodily cues, a sort of sign language that compensates for their inability to verbally communicate. It’s the first instance in which we feel an authentic connection between two humans, one that isn’t dependent on shared interests or oral compatibility. Love here is blind, deaf and dumb, and as far as we can tell, real.
As their relationship grows, so to does our fondness for them, enriched by their fumbling exchanges and awkward games. We’re all familiar with the explosive, technicolour confusion that is falling in love, yet in The Lobster’s environment that notion is heightened to gleeful degrees. Lanthimos presents all of this to us with the most skilful of visual and semiotic clues, leading all images to become charged with meaning.
It’s the mark of a great filmmaker, one whose images of violence become gut-wrenching proclamations of love and whose images of affection are expressed through symbolism rather than action. With The Lobster, Lanthimos has transitioned from a director whose work showed great promise to one that exudes great confidence. The kind of film in which its maker exerts control in order to be free, The Lobster is a truly unique and exhilarating event.