The Lobster

October 23, 2015
Colin Farrell in 'The Lobster' (2015)
Colin Farrell in 'The Lobster' (2015)

Yorgos Lanthimos could never be accused of a lack of originality. All over the world, one imagines viewers wandering out of The Lobster, asking: “So what was that about?” If I say it’s an allegory, that will do little to ease the confusion. Think of the late, deadpan surrealist comedies of Luis Bunuel and you’ll be in the right zone.

The story is set in a not-too-distant future. In this world, men and women who find themselves single, either through death or divorce, are sent to “The Hotel”, where they are given 45 days to fall in love and pair off with a new partner. If they fail to do so they will be transformed into the animal of their choice.

The guests can buy a little time by shooting “Loners” with a tranquilliser dart when they are taken out on hunting trips to the woods. The Loners are rebels who have opted out of the system to live in small groups in the wilderness. A hotel guest can extend the date of their transformation by shooting and capturing Loners.

We enter the Hotel with David – played with glasses, moustache and paunch by Colin Farrell – who has recently separated from his wife. He is accompanied by his brother Bob, who has been transformed into a dog. For David’s first night he must have one hand tied behind his back, which makes undressing for bed into a gymnastic exercise.

The guests wear the neat, ordinary clothes provided in a wardrobe, and eat in a large dining room where they are entertained by the manager and her husband, with a highly original rendition of Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart. They will also be shown instructive vignettes on the advantages of being two rather than one.

Guests are identified by their traits rather than names. John C. Reilly is Lisping Man, while Ben Whishaw is Limping Man, who fancies his chances with Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden). David, for his part, will set his sights on the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), who is a champion shooter of Loners. Much of the conversation revolves around the guests’ choice of animal for possible transformation. David has decided to be a lobster, as he has always liked the sea. He appreciates the fact that a lobster lives for a long time, enjoys life-long fertility, and has blue blood like an aristocrat. At this point, viewers may be thinking of Salvador Dali’s lobster telephone.

Before he reaches the final stage David flees the hotel and joins the Loners, who prove to be just as intractable. Their leader, Léa Seydoux, enforces a strict no love, no sex, policy. Everyone must dig their own grave, as a condition of membership. Now that he is prohibited from falling in love, David promptly forms a perilous attachment with Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weiss).

The Lobster envisages a world that treats being alone as a criminal act, in which those who fail to comply forfeit the right to be human. The tyranny of the one-to-one relationship is absolute, as is the urge to match people with similar traits. Limping Man, for instance, gives himself nose-bleeds to attract Nosebleed Woman. This need to share one’s faults leads to alarming conclusions in David’s choice of partners.

Having escaped the land of compulsory couplings, the Loners are no less doctrinaire in ensuring that individuals avoid every trace of romance. Their act of rebellion means submission to another form of mind control.

Lanthimos, and his fellow scriptwriter, Efthymis Filippou, have isolated a social attitude and extrapolated it into an oppressive law. The human fear of being alone has bred a society in which solitude has been vanquished, while the logic of the dating agency, with its mechanical listing of shared interests has become a New World Order. In the benign concentration camp of the Hotel, this matching of personalities has become fixated on shared disabilities. Beneath the surreal trappings it’s a highly recognisable scenario.

The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou
Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weiss, Léa Seydoux, Ben Wishaw, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia
Ireland/UK/Greece/France/Netherlands,
rated MA 15+, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 24th October, 2015.