That would be absurd: The Lobster

The Lobster (2015)

Lanthimos wants to provoke us with an absurdist satire so rich in layers it will probably leave you thinking about it long after it is over

The Lobster


Di­rect­ed by Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos. Writ­ten by Efthymis Fil­ip­pou and Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos. Star­ring Col­in Far­rell, Rachel Weisz, Jes­si­ca Bar­den, Olivia Col­man, Ash­ley Jensen, Ar­i­ane Labed, An­ge­li­ki Pa­pou­lia, John C. Reil­ly, Léa Sey­doux, Michael Smi­ley and Ben Whishaw.

Mod­ern Greek Cin­e­ma — or the “Greek Weird Wave” as termed by Steve Rose of The Guardian — com­pris­es some of the most provoca­tive films out there. Just take a look at works like Miss Vi­o­lence (2013) or Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos’ Dog­tooth (2009) and you will see that con­ven­tion­al is the last thing they are. The weird­ness is un­mis­tak­able, much like their alien­at­ed pro­tag­o­nists and ab­sur­dist di­a­logue. Now, with his first Eng­lish-spo­ken movie The Lob­ster, Lan­thi­mos wants to pro­voke us again and force us to think in ways that defy com­mon sense. What he ac­com­plish­es is some­thing so rich in lay­ers and mean­ing that it will prob­a­bly leave you think­ing about it for a long time af­ter it is over. And that, as we know, is the best kind of art­work there is.

Writ­ten by Lan­thi­mos to­geth­er with Efthymis Fil­ip­pou (who co-wrote Dog­tooth and Alps), The Lob­ster opens with a glimpse of the odd­ness that is about to fol­low. A pro­logue scene shows a woman dri­ving in the coun­try­side. In the mid­dle of a pas­ture, she stops, gets out of her car un­der a heavy rain and shoots a don­key dead. That’s it; no ex­pla­na­tion is giv­en, but the im­pli­ca­tions are clear once we fig­ure out what this is all about. The plot takes place in a dystopi­an fu­ture, when a man named David (Col­in Far­rell) is dumped by his wife and then tak­en to a ho­tel where sin­gles must find a part­ner in 45 days. If they don’t, they will be trans­formed into an­i­mals and sent off into the woods. David’s choice in case he doesn’t ful­fill his obligation…you can imag­ine.

Dom­i­nat­ed by a large amount of vi­su­al and nar­ra­tive el­e­ments, The Lob­ster de­vis­es a so­ci­ety that has gone too far in its ob­ses­sion for love re­la­tion­ships and code­pen­den­cy. The ho­tel re­sem­bles a strange type of re­hab re­sort full of bizarre rules. No smok­ing is al­lowed, there are no halves (for ex­am­ple, you can­not de­fine your­self as a bi­sex­u­al) and you must call the re­cep­tion one day be­fore in or­der to have a hair­cut. Mas­tur­ba­tion is strict­ly for­bid­den as well. Right af­ter David ar­rives, his belt is locked and his right hand hand­cuffed to his back. But sex­u­al stim­u­la­tion by the ho­tel maid is manda­to­ry, though. And while David is al­ways re­ferred to by his name, the rest of the ec­cen­tric res­i­dents are usu­al­ly de­fined by their func­tion or phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics — a limp, a lisp or just a beau­ti­ful smile.

Nar­rat­ed by the Short-Sight­ed Woman (Rachel Weisz), the plot be­comes hi­lar­i­ous as it ex­plores its ab­sur­dist de­tails. Peo­ple are like life­less au­toma­tons; a young woman, for in­stance, acts com­plete­ly in­dif­fer­ent to the fact that she is bleed­ing pro­fuse­ly from her nose and only cares about how to re­move the blood stain from a shirt. Also fun­ny is that the res­i­dents of the ho­tel can ex­tend their dead­lines by tran­quil­iz­ing sin­gle peo­ple in the for­est. Each cap­tured “lon­er” earns them an ex­tra day. This feels even weird­er as it is all punc­tu­at­ed by an eerie score of vi­o­lins, cel­los and a re­cur­ring three-chord mo­tif. And let’s not for­get a sur­re­al scene in slow mo­tion that shows the bru­tal­i­ty against the “lon­ers” in the for­est to the sound of a melan­choly Greek song.

Col­in Far­rell, who gained forty pounds for his role, shines as usu­al in a cast full of tal­ent­ed ac­tors. His per­for­mance is per­fect­ly sub­dued, es­pe­cial­ly as we no­tice that David has feel­ings but must pre­tend he doesn’t among peo­ple who can reach dis­turb­ing lev­els of cru­el­ty. It all comes down to a mat­ter of emo­tion­al de­tach­ment, which has ap­par­ent­ly be­come the norm in this de­press­ing so­ci­ety of near-psy­chopaths who re­sem­ble chil­dren be­ing pre­pared for a so­cial oblig­a­tion. Guests must at­tend dances like ado­les­cents and watch pro­pa­gan­da glo­ri­fy­ing part­ner­ship and the sub­ju­ga­tion of women. When we see the Nose­bleed Woman (Jes­si­ca Bar­den) say good­bye to her best friend be­fore get­ting mar­ried, she does so by read­ing her a writ­ten let­ter. Her friend’s re­ac­tion is price­less.

The Lob­ster is ob­vi­ous­ly a satire on our own so­ci­ety. Every­one is ob­sessed with find­ing a part­ner who has any char­ac­ter­is­tic in com­mon with them, be it of a phys­i­cal na­ture or a med­ical con­di­tion. Af­ter cou­ples get mar­ried, they must go through an adap­ta­tion phase. If they face con­ju­gal prob­lems, chil­dren are as­signed to them. And what can be said about the hi­lar­i­ous scene that shows us a new­ly-formed fam­i­ly of three wear­ing striped black-and-white clothes like prison in­mates? It is clear that Lan­thi­mos wants to cre­ate an­oth­er il­lus­tra­tion of Plato’s Cave like Dog­tooth. Both films have peo­ple en­closed with­in fences and with no real idea of how things are or could be out­side. They must break out of their con­fine­ment to dis­cov­er the world.

The search in this case is for love, true love. In The Lob­ster’s sec­ond half, David ends up in the for­est and meets the Short-Sight­ed Woman. He also meets the Lon­er Leader (Léa Sey­doux), an ex­trem­ist on the op­po­site side of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to see how Lan­thi­mos finds ways to crit­i­cize every­one, from stone-cold hyp­ocrites do­ing every­thing to main­tain their sta­tus quo to ni­hilis­tic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who also have a per­son­al agen­da and a set of strict rules. Sex is not al­lowed among the rebels ei­ther, but the rules en­com­pass love or any sort of phys­i­cal con­tact, an ev­i­dent re­fusal to abide by the ho­tel rules at all costs. Be­sides that, they must dig their own graves. “Me­men­to mori,” they seem to say.

As David be­gins to fall in love (or be­lieve that he is falling in love), Lan­thi­mos’ the­sis is ful­ly shaped. No mat­ter how pure or in­no­cent his con­nec­tion with the Short-Sight­ed Woman is (they be­come bound by mu­sic, rab­bits and a sign lan­guage they in­vent), peo­ple will al­ways look for things they have in com­mon. This is, of course, a satir­i­cal ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but not that far from re­al­i­ty. Even in our world, it is very hard to find those who are tru­ly open to ac­cept each other’s dif­fer­ences — and find love pre­cise­ly in them.

Beau­ti­ful­ly edit­ed (es­pe­cial­ly in a mas­tur­ba­tion scene that ends in tor­ture) and filmed al­most en­tire­ly us­ing nat­ur­al light (which helps make every­thing look col­or­less and bleak), The Lob­ster is won­der­ful food for thought like any good rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Greek Weird Wave. But above all, it is an in­tel­li­gent and trag­ic philo­soph­i­cal es­say that rec­og­nizes that even if you try to es­cape and re­move your­self from the ug­li­ness of so­ci­ety, so­ci­ety al­ways finds you.

July 14, 2016


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