Published Sep 12, 2015Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is not a fan of convention and insincerity. Dogtooth, the dark 2009 comedy that made him known around the world, told a story of canine confinement, with a patriarch hiding his adult-children from the world and inventing wild tales and justifications to control and repress their desire for freedom. With ALPS, he tackled notions of appearance and perception, allowing the form — the artificiality of actors pretending — to match the content — people filling in for the recently deceased to help the living cope with loss — thereby analyzing our tendency to project, wanting only to see ourselves in others and acknowledge ideals.
The Lobster, his English-language debut, is equally inventive and incisive, existing in an adjacent reality in which single people are forced to move into a love hotel and find romance within 45 days, lest they be turned into an animal of their choice and let loose in a nearby forest. The title refers to the animal that David (Colin Farrell, looking better than usual with a bit of extra weight) chooses to be if he fails to find love after getting dumped. His identity is summarized by his short-sightedness, which is ultimately how he's defined by those around him, much like he defines his new acquaintances — the limper (Ben Whishaw) and the lisper (John C. Reilly) — by their most apparent signifiers.
To exaggerate the peculiarity of the situation and reinforce themes of social normalcy as an alienating, dehumanizing force, the actors — much as they were in Lanthimos' previous works — aren't allowed to act. They're deadpan and dry, reciting their dialogue, most of which is hyperbolic pleasantries and small talk made hilariously absurd devoid of human emotion, without any sort of inflection, save obvious instinctual reactions, such as pain or fear. This removal of body language and familiar expression demonstrates just how ridiculous these mindless, but pleasant, exchanges between people really are.
The ultimate pointed comment of this film, one that propels The Lobster forward and instigates conflict, is the bizarre logic — a logic that critiques our real world tendency to project expectations, moral certainties and arbitrary rationale onto couples who exist mainly to reassure a collective lie about romantic love — we apply to how people partner. Not wanting to turn into an animal, the limper repeatedly gives himself nosebleeds to attract the nosebleed girl (Jessica Barden). Similarly, David decides to operate like a sociopath in order to attract a woman known for being heartless (Angeliki Papoulia).
While this template ultimately fulfils its promise of surrealist comedy and occasionally jarring horror (heartlessness isn't just a gag for comic fodder here), the intriguing part about this wildly inventive film is its cyclic nature. As in Lanthimos' preceding films, he doesn't see an escape from the evils of insincere socialization; this is represented by a shift in focus in the latter half of the film, wherein a group of single people, including a short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) and a controlling loner (Léa Seydoux), have an equally rigid and arbitrary set of rules that they're expected to adhere to.
The absurdist nature of this story could easily fall into the trappings of broad, mainstream comedy if placed in the wrong hands. Surely, the exploitability of bullshit relationships and people being turned into animals has enough to sustain a narrative built on sitcom tropes, but The Lobster is an oblique work where form matches content. The pointed blankness of the actors and the subtlety of the comedy — scenes of exposition won't break when a camel randomly runs through the background — makes conscious the presentation of it all. This is a film that wants us to know we're watching a film and to question why everything is slightly askew; it's not satisfied with just making us laugh, which is abundantly clear when it takes several disturbing detours.
Lanthimos is challenging convention and ripping into the constructs we use to control each other. He's getting to the root of what makes polite society such an alienating experience for those that try to operate with honesty. This alone is enough to make his films absolutely vital, but what's more is that they're wildly creative and fascinating, blending unique comedy with astute social observations. With The Lobster, Lanthimos has solidified his status as an important voice in cinema and a genuinely excellent filmmaker.