The Lobster (2016): Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Michael Smiley, and Ben Whishaw. Running Time: 118 minutes.
The Lobster might be one of the coldest, hardest films of 2016, and although we may still have a few months to go, I highly doubt anything will top it (knock on wood). It is a dark, dark, DARK satire of dating and romance in the 21st-century, so on-point at its best that it will be far too uncomfortable viewing for most. Yet that, perhaps, makes it all the more necessary.
Colin Farrell stars as David, living in a world where constantly being in a relationship isn’t just socially desired, it’s legally mandated. Those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end of a breakup (or even the opposite end of a spousal death!) must immediately check themselves into a hotel that specializes in coupling people back up as soon as possible. There is a 45-day time limit to your efforts, and if, by the end of that time, you have failed to find your soulmate, you are literally turned into an animal (but to be fair, they DO let you choose which one) and let loose in a nearby forest.
We don’t know how we got here, how long things have been like this, or even how the technology to turn people into other animals exists. It simply is, and the audience has to quickly play catchup to figure out what the characters already know, because there are a lot of rules that have to be followed, and the punishments the hotel metes out for those who don’t play along can be truly brutal. One of the rules, perhaps the most galling (and ultimately destructive), is that in order to become a couple, two people must have at least one identifiable skill, or interest, or physical/emotional trait. If not, it won’t be accepted, because clearly there can’t be love if there are no surface similarities between two people, right?
The ultimate cost of all this quickly becomes apparent- in a world where love is commodified and packaged down to people hooking up over having just a single thing in common, there can be no passion. No real joy or sadness. Just endless calculation over what the right move is that will save you from “The Transformation Room.” There is no subtlety or understanding of symbolism in speech- no one in the hotel can afford it. Conversations are just repeated litanies of trivia tidbits, and everyone speaks in a monotone, tilted, highly formal manner, with just a hint of desperation around the edges for those whose time is running out.
We get a small idea of what sort of larger world might exist outside the hotel in the second act- when David finally loses his cool and flees the hotel (after a plot twist that is genuinely bone-chilling), he encounters a group of rebels living in the woods called the Loners, led by a terrifying Lea Seydoux. At first, you might be inclined to assume that safety and acceptance have been found, and David can take a deep breath and relax. But you would be wrong, as the Loners turn out to be just as demanding and strict in keeping people alone and separated from each other as “regular society” is in forcing people together. It’s a powerful and apt reminder that rejection of one extreme doesn’t automatically lead to moderation- it can just as easily lead one to embrace another, equally destructive, extreme.
The film’s greatest strength is that it unflinchingly commits to these extremist principles it sets up in the beginning, drawing them to the farthest conclusion possible. This may very well kill for the film for many viewers. There is no emotional shift, no deviation from the lifeless tone of every bit of dialogue; it fits with the environment the movie seeks to create, but if you find yourself tiring of it early on it may prove impossible to appreciate anything else as a result. Like many needed and remarkable works of art, the film raises a host of prickly, uncomfortable questions and leaves little suggestion that a reassuring answer can be found. I wonder if the film doesn’t tip its hand too much at times, leaning wholly into existential despair and thus becoming lost in its own bleakness, but I can’t deny that much of it has stayed with me, for better or worse, and I can certainly never fault a film for that.