In the brief time since his incendiary debut, Yorgos Lanthimos has become known for inflecting seemingly conventional familial and inter-personal dynamics with surreal, often disturbing amendments to reality. While few can speak to Kinetta, his little talked about directorial debut, his Dogtooth and Alps are both ludicrous alterations of everyday processes of possessive parental imparting and the stubborn grieving process, respectively, but their pronounced surrealism is only ever given disturbing impact by how real and tangible their setups, and indeed their odd affectations, feel. Lanthimos may finally be overtly readjusting us to a dystopic vision with his English-language debut, but it doesn’t entirely feel that way. Like all the best dystopias, The Lobster presents a world that’s (in this case perhaps literally) just a kiss away from reality, yet it also feels like we’re simply glimpsing our own reality through the bullshit-decoding glasses from They Live!.
There’s a severe sense of familiarity attached to Lanthimos’ films, which are only ever ostensibly aimed at the traditions they so slightly, snickeringly subvert. It’s only after establishing a coolly unsettling world that he expands to psychologically unbound, often searing emotional territory. By its very setup The Lobster feels drawn a bit too closely to the overtly comedic and pointedly satirical, but that’s only a temporary anesthesia to the staying power of the desperate, childlike emotions on display.
Set in an immaculately sanitized, coolly tinted love-hotel/rehabilitative-hospital, single individuals are given a ridiculous ultimatum: either find a sustainable romantic partner in forty days, or be transformed into animal of their choice – worry not; there’s no horrifying Tusk action here Devoted Friends viewers won’t waver in understanding David’s (Colin Farrell, more carefully layered as lovably naive than in his usual mode of gruff masculinity) preferred animal: a lobster. They live over a hundred years and they mate for life. Human beings tend not to have that remarkable a resolve in their romantic lives, so it’s no wonder that relationships have become so government regulated.
Relationship skills, even on a non-romantic level, aren’t particularly developed either, with nearly everyone speaking to each other as if they’re constantly on a terribly awkward first date. Their voices aren’t entirely scrubbed clean of tenderness, as is clear in Rachel Weisz’s narration, compassionate and aching long before her corporeal entrance. As if to embellish their surface-level detachments, though, few characters are credited by names. David slowly meets his fellow hotel inhabitants, namely his wayward bros Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), but also romantic opportunities Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and Heartless Woman (Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia, on hysterically numb form here). With so few sparks flying, characters naturally start lying to one another to make a dysfunctional, possibly disastrous match.
As blatantly unhealthy a social environment as this is, it’s not quite an inhumane dystopia. After all, occupants have the option of registering as homosexual, though nonconforming queers will be frustrated by the lack of a bisexual option. The Lobster works most clearly as a parable on society’s privilege towards those who conform to existing social archetypes, as well as its disdain for those who identify as queer of any designation. However, It’s just as clear-eyed a political film, showing how harmful and tactless interpersonal relations can be without a freeing sense of fluidity and ambiguity.
To wit, even when David breaks free from the comically forced romantic structuralism, he’s then applied to a different set of radical guidelines and restrictions, set now by the wood-dwelling, anti-establishment group The Loners. Without giving away too much of the commentative lunacy of their rules, Weisz’s character, Short-Sighted Woman’s terrified reaction the mysterious “red intercourse” punishment follows suit for a film that derives amusement from the terrifyingly indistinct. Lanthimos’ confluence of the bizarre and the upsettingly familiar has rarely resulted in such overt comedy, the intrinsically awkward atmosphere making any abrupt or unfulfilling interaction a touch hilarious.
But Lanthimos is neither a lazy comedian, a lazy storyteller, nor a lazy filmmaker. Every distended failure of human connection, every drastic and disastrous attempt to force the issue of romance, helps further his ideas about the isolation of ambiguous individuals. His design qualities seem coolly suppressed, but the ever subtler modernist architecture of Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design, the simplified contemporary gender, and eventually gender defying, strokes of Sarah Blenkinsop’s costume design, and the clinical, scalpel precision cinematography of Thimios Bakatakis work to maintain the distinctly discomfiting atmosphere of Lanthimos’ only slightly warped universe.
Bottom Line: The Lobster is a deliciously designed, achingly funny extrapolation of overly modernized concepts of love, and the damage they inflict upon the real thing.