On holiday: a review of The Lobster

the lobster

Films that are initially unsatisfying are often the ones that stick with me. The Lobster is that sort of film. In terms of plot, The Lobster is incomplete. It loses steam in the second half and ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the fate of the two protagonists in question. As with so many films that do this, I got the sense that the filmmakers just ran out of things to say, and tried to hide this with a Pee-wee Herman-style ‘I meant to do that.’

Visually, the film is a banquet. The setting, an isolated oceanside resort on the craggy barrens of southern Ireland, brings to mind turn-of-the-century sanatoriums for wealthy wastrels and neurotics. The grounds are pristine. The maids and wait staff are delightfully starched and proper; the decor- with victorian ferns, mahogany woodwork, and floral-patterned furniture- recalls a lost age.

Aurally, the film pursues my favorite course: a sparse soundtrack and strategically deployed silences.

In the world of The Lobster, couples are mandated, and being single is taboo. Single members are institutionalized in an isolated resort, and if they fail to find a new partner among the other denizens within 45 days, they are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild. We later find in the woods a group of escapees known as the loners, whom inmates are forced to hunt using tranquilizer rifles. The film was written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, and stars Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly.

The acting is bad, which I initially thought was strange because the cast is so talented. The characters are for the most part mercenary and unsympathetic. They do a lot of wide-eyed staring, and their words are stilted, uttered quickly and softly, like those of a timid child. They seem like young heirs and heiresses neglected by jet-setting parents, before being sent to finishing school. Social encounters are uncomfortable and unpredictable. The inmates don’t react properly, they don’t display emotions in the normal way. Conversations are brief and anemic, but brutally direct. This jarring awkwardness struck me as a bit much when I first saw the film, and I dismissed it as a bit of overwrought tryhard on the part of the creators, an unfortunate stylistic mishap.

Later, I saw an interview with Colin Farrell, and it became clear that this plays a role in the film’s meaning. He said, “The film does question…how easily we as a human race can become duped under the craftily designed power structures that are represented by governments and religions.” The director made the characters act badly, in order to make their ploys utterly transparent to us. The characters don’t say how they feel or act naturally. Their words and actions simply consist of whatever scripts they believe will get them what they want- whether that be companionship, or sex, or an alliance. A notable exception is John C. Reilly’s character, shown below, offering camaraderie to his fellow inmates.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYQE2cU37bQ

This almost-universal insincerity enforces barriers between the inmates, such that they can’t reach each other, and stagnate inside self-enforced prisons. They are totally alone. Even when Colin Farrell’s character and Rachel Weisz’s character fall in love, their relationship is disjointed. In order to avoid punishment by the Lonely Leader, they make up a secret language that involves gestures for things like “I love you more than anything in the world,” and we are struck with how inadequate the language is for what they wish to express. Are they even reaching each other? By their faces, we just can’t tell.

As an allegory, The Lobster is compelling. But the picture is unrealistic, in the sense that it overshoots on the bleakness scale. It leaves no room for natural human interaction, which happens all over the place, every day. We can be individuals and yet reach each other. It’s the easiest thing in the world.

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