Nick Mastrini reviews Yorgos Lanthimos’ horrific, hilarious black comedy
With The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has crafted a darkly comic response to that famous question posed by The Beatles: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
In this dystopian case, they come from The Hotel, where every single is forced to mingle. Fail to find a partner within 45 days, and the resident loner is transformed into an animal of their choice. Colin Farrell’s melancholic turn as David, who decides to be the eponymous lobster if his time runs out, anchors the film, with the camera lingering on his downtrodden face and memorably thick moustache.
With such an absurd premise, a lesser director could’ve turned the film into a silly, parodic take on modern relationships. But Lanthimos’s nuanced technical choices, and the subtly powerful performances by Farrell and Rachel Weisz, construct a film that contemplates loneliness with surprising heft, and raises intriguing questions about modern relationships and fate.
To escape The Hotel, residents must find something in common with a fellow loner – anything as trivial as being prone to nosebleeds. Despite the narrative’s surreal set-up, Lanthimos explores the banal aspects of our personalities, those fragments of ourselves that we seek to find duplicated in a prospective partner. This maintains the film’s humanity, as it attempts to discover what differentiates us from the animals these characters could become – or already are.
The Beatles also ask, of all the lonely people: Where do they all belong? Does society allow them to be free to find a companion, or does their isolation snowball as it continues, as if they’re caged in a zoo? Lanthimos suggests that the lonely humans of The Lobster may be animals pre-transformation too, atavistic by nature, perhaps belonging in a tamed, homogenised world. The Hotel’s residents are allowed to add to their 45-day limit by ‘hunting’ the escapees who hide in The Woods, so as not to be found by authorities in the urban areas, where only couples may exist. By depicting those that hunt and hide, search and flee, the director cleverly allegorises the carnivorous world of relationships, while finding black comedy through a pastiche of romantic tropes and dystopian dread.
Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis emphasises the ennui of the loners’ lives, as he avoids camera movement and isolates figures within the frame. Meanwhile, Lanthimos juxtaposes the mundanity of the set design with a score including pangs of classical strings. This evokes the famous sound of cinematic fear, as in Psycho and Jaws, to maintain the film’s fine balance of the comic and horrific.
The supporting cast is stellar, including Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw, all maintaining superbly deadpan expressions and an underlying sense of danger. You could say that that this renders the film emotionless, but the sense of ennui that it creates allows for those faint glimmers of a smile – particularly well done by Weisz – to carry a larger impact. When Farrell’s David, the only named character, meets Weisz’s ‘Short-Sighted Woman’, the chemistry is surprisingly profound: much of the emotion is conveyed through the actors’ sad eyes, providing a surreal film with a compelling emotional subtext. Her ‘short-sightedness’, and the film’s shocking ending, reflect on the importance of one’s perspective in relationships, and whether it’s is crucial to see the world perfectly in order to believe and love.
The comedy of The Lobster isn’t proven solely in dialogue or acting, but is found in its tone, and in moments that confound the audience’s expectations. This begins with a startling wordless prologue, in which an unidentified woman guns down a donkey, before we understand the dystopian context of the film. Lanthimos dares to hold a shot when the viewer expects – or even hopes for – a cut. He shows whimsical death on screen, centre-frame, but sometimes leaves faces off-screen to show only the bodies that could be transformed into creatures. The film causes the viewer to laugh as a reflex when in shock, in order to cope while you squirm and fear what is to come. It is this uncertainty instilled into the audience that perfectly reflects the characters’ emotional ambivalence, allowing The Lobster to prove singular and unexpected at every horrific, hilarious turn.
The Lobster is in UK cinemas from 16 October.
Featured image credit: Good Film Guide