If you had to die and become an animal, what animal would you be? It sounds like the discussion topic that comes with the joke in a Christmas cracker. For Yorgos Lanthimos it is the idea from which he explores love, emotions and the pressures of conformity in his dark, dry fifth feature The Lobster.
David (Colin Farrell) has lost his wife and is now alone in the world. Solitude is forbidden in this society, so he must check in to a residence to cure his isolation. If he cannot find a partner within 45 days, he will be killed and reincarnated as an animal of his choosing; he goes for a lobster because of their longevity and virility. Projecting much, David?
All the guests, including Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man, John C. Reilly’s Lisping Man and David himself, speak as if they’ve had an emotion-ectomy. Their tone belies the horror of the patriachal, normative society (homosexuality is an option at the residence but not bisexuality, genderqueers or multiple partners), but their actions conform to it. Life at the residence is presided over by Olivia Colman’s eerily chipper Hotel Manager, reminding all guests of what they can and cannot do in their pursuit of a partner. In the grounds, though, shadowy figures roam, posing a threat to the established order.
It is perhaps only the award-winning poster above that suggests this is a love story; in that regard it is wholly unconventional. Films about love are supposed to be full of embraces and fights, passions running high. Not here – it is less ‘the laugh and the tear’ and more ‘the smile and the frown’. All emotions are underplayed to the point of non-existence; almost every line of dialogue is delivered in total deadpan, whether a shout of pain, an expression of gratitude or a need to fuck. By stripping all outward feelings away, Lanthimos and his star-studded, top-performing cast consider what love is worth anyway, how much of it is a performance, and what happens when we do not have it.
The Lobster is also about rules and the value of breaking them. While the windswept terrain and country mansion in which it is set are too close to now to be called dystopian, and the sci-fi is subtle at most, this is very much a ‘what if’ film. What if we were there? What if we were treated as unfeelingly as the morose figures are? Would we accept it, or rebel?
The genre it has most in common with is the absursdism of playwrights such as Ionesco – we are not engaged by a human as an animal, but by the residents’ various reactions to their fate. More recently, the subdued grey and green visuals and the constant unease of both characters and audience reminded me of Mark Romanek’s under-rated Never Let Me Go. That film required and deserved consideration and repeat viewings; I believe the same will be true of The Lobster. Even writing about it now, I like it more than I did when leaving the cinema. It makes you wince on occasion, but makes you think far more than any post-cracker dinner discussion. The star-studded cast are completely in tune with Lanthimos’ distinct humour, from Farrell’s soulless protagonist to Rachel Weisz’s monotonous narrator (who may be something more) and everyone in between. Gender representation on screen is finally being discussed in the film industry, but hearing Weisz’s wonderful spoken delivery reminded me how rare it is to have a non-male VO. Lanthimos also makes excellent use of Lea Seydoux’s sullen, suspicious expression, and the innate likeability of Reilly and Whishaw.
The Lobster is not happy; it is not easy, comfortable or plain like the uniforms men and women must wear at the residence. It is for all these reasons that you must see it – few films offer as much room for contemplation as this.
With sales handled by Protagonist Pictures and produced by Film4 and the BFI (amongst others), The Lobster is screening now at cinemas around the UK. It has just been accepted into Sundance for 2016, with a US release to follow in March.