By John Duncan Talbird.
A few years ago, I was with my wife in some Brooklyn hamburger joint waiting for our food. It was one of those places where you are given an electronic device that vibrates when your food is on the tray and ready to consume. My device vibrated and I dutifully approached the counter. There in the mood-shadowy alcove were four or five other customers waiting for their own food, all staring down into their phones. I was the only one who didn’t have my phone out, who wasn’t gazing intently into a glowing screen. This type of experience is not exceptional, is so common it shouldn’t be worth mentioning. It is so ordinary that it’s hard to explain how alienated and weird I felt in that moment. Prior to the hamburger joint, my wife and I had come from a screening of Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) in which a lonely, depressed man (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with the Siri-like voice (Scarlett Johansson) coming out of his phone. Being around all these zombiefied people so soon after this film caused a very powerful psychic displacement, a jolt in the scrim of the ordinary. It is very seldom that a movie makes us look at the world in a different way, even well-done movies, art movies, movies that aren’t meant for mass-consumption. Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, in his first English-language film, gets us to do just that in The Lobster.
Colin Farrell plays David whose wife has divorced him. Although David’s world looks a lot like ours, there are certain differences. In his world, single people are sent to the Hotel to meet other singles. Lest you think that this is a homophobic world, it should be noted that guests may declare heterosexuality or homosexuality at the entrance desk. Bisexuality, David is told, “is no longer available for operational problems,” a hilariously corporate explanation that makes the weirdness that much more believable. David is also informed that if, after forty-five days, he fails to meet someone to pair up with, he will then be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David chooses a lobster because lobsters live for a hundred years and because he likes to be in the water and lobsters mate for life. The hotel manager (Olivia Colman from the awesome BBC TV police procedural Broadchurch, 2013-) commends him on a good choice. “Most people have no imagination,” she says. “That is why there are so many dogs in the world.” Incidentally, we learn, the “pet” dog that David has brought with him to the Hotel is his brother who failed to find a partner during his own 45-day period of singlehood.
Like the previous two Lanthimos films (all three co-written with Efthymis Filippou), Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011), all the actors speak in a monotone. Like the other two films, The Lobster in interested in exploring the absurdities of modern life and the arbitrariness of our social relations. However, it’s much funnier than either of the previous films. The Lobster is a breakthrough for Lanthimos without blunting his satirical edge. In his earlier films, it seems as if the characters are puppets manipulated at the director’s will and whim; we can be repulsed, we can be amused, but we seldom truly care about these people. But in The Lobster, at the center of all the absurdity, all the affectless acting, all the ugly modernist architecture and tacky furniture, there is a real human heart. Whereas Dogtooth and Alps offered us strange worlds with thesis statements about the ugly and stupid nature of our own contemporary world, The Lobster makes us care about these doomed characters, makes us think about how we are also doomed sometimes or at least we doom those who don’t fit into our preconceived ideas about the way people should be. It’s the difference between reading a very good essay about Kafka and reading The Metamorphosis. The Lobster makes us think about how weird “normal” is.
And did I mention that it’s very, very funny and, on top of that, beautifully filmed? Whereas, in the previous two films Lanthimos seemed to be embracing an anti-aesthetic with washed out colors and characters’ heads cut off by the frame, in The Lobster he seems to have recognized that aesthetic pleasure isn’t necessarily selling out his vision. For instance, at random times at the Hotel, guests hear an alarm and they’re expected to immediately drop what they’re doing, get in a bus and head out into the forest and hunt Loners who have been spotted near the grounds. The scene of the hunt is both beautiful and hilarious as we see these pasty, flabby guests in their suits and dresses chasing singles through the forest in hopes of hitting them with tranquilizer darts – and thus earning extra days at the Hotel before they’re turned into an animal. The hunt is shot in slow-mo accompanied by a Greek torch song with piano and brushes, the characters hurling themselves through the woods clumsily, only one with any skill, the particularly vicious and sadistic Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia who fans will recognize from Lanthimos’ two earlier films).
David pairs up with the Heartless Woman, and that’s where things go wrong. Also, in this world, it has been determined that people should mate with those who share some type of, probably to most viewers, arbitrary trait. So whereas you and I might find it helpful to share political views with a partner or a sense of humor or religious beliefs, in the world of The Lobster, people pair up with partners because they both have nose bleeds or they lisp. Since David is attracted to the Heartless Woman, he feigns heartlessness. He pretends to be unaffected after another guest throws herself to her death from an open window and lies dying feet from him. He kicks a little girl in the shin. This makes him very attractive to the Heartless Woman, but you can guess how this turns out.
After David is found out not to be actually heartless at all, he leaves the Hotel and joins the band of Loners in the woods. That’s where he meets the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) and this is where we learn that this is the same woman who has been narrating the film in voice-over since the beginning. Since David is short-sighted too, they naturally fall in love. Of course, nothing is ever simple in a Lanthimos film. The Loners are not allowed to pair up. In fact, when David first joins their group, he notices a man with bloody bandages over his mouth. He is told that the man has been forced to perform the Red Kiss in which his lips were cut off for intimacy with another member. Loners are allowed to speak to each other, but nothing more intimate. Loners must dig their own graves. Loners only ever pair up when they go to the City. In the City we see a woman being interrogated by a cop, forced to answer questions about where her husband is. David is saved from similar treatment when, amidst another cop’s questions, Short Sighted Woman comes up and gives him a kiss, their first kiss. Loners only dance to electronica, each listening to his or her headphones and dancing independently, never together. There is a very funny scene of one of these dances. It’s also somewhat beautiful.
I think that’s what makes The Lobster so much more affecting than any of Lanthimos’ earlier films. Despite the violence and weirdness, there is also romance and a warm humor. Despite the cheap clothes and depressing architecture of the Hotel and the City (some of the least scenic areas of Dublin), there is also a lot of beauty in the film, for instance, one stunning shot of David leading the now-blind Short Sighted Woman through an overgrown field. The ending is devastating and ambiguous. Like other Lanthimos films, it is open to interpretation, but no matter your reading of it, it’s heartbreaking.
And so I left this press screening and walked through the streets of Manhattan to the subway to head back to Queens. I was by myself since there were no plus-ones at this screening (a bit of irony which I think had more to do with the popularity of Lanthimos’ films rather than any sort of pointed commentary). When I passed couples on the street, I felt so weird and exposed. I felt watched. How did I know that someone wouldn’t come up and force me to my knees, make me account for why I was here in the city walking alone? Some will call The Lobster science fiction. This is wrong. The Lobster is a fairytale or, better yet, a dream with a logic all its own. While we’re in the dream, it seems more real than our waking life.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.