A film for which the word “quirky” could have been designed. The Lobster fair old quivers with quirk, but unfortunately its idiosyncratic, deadpan satire of relationship mores isn’t entirely sustained across its two-hour length. And yet, despite its sometimes-overpowering affectation powering a slender premise, the sort of thing that would probably make for a much better short film than a feature, I found Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language feature debut fitfully engrossing. That’s not to say it’s particularly clever or insightful – its points are really rather crude – but it has an infectiously pitch-black sense of humour, and boasts Colin Farrell in particularly fine form.
Admittedly, I was half hoping for something more than its most obvious agenda, comprising an offbeat dissection of societal and personal attitudes to relationships as they encompass themes of conformity and expectation. At times, The Lobster comes self-consciously close to exclaiming “I’m mental, I am”, in danger of unravelling its entire conceit. Mostly, though, its wilful battiness tends to win out.
Farrell’s David, having been dumped for another man by his wife, is consigned to a hotel with a company of socially unacceptable singles, where he has 45 days to pair up or he will be transformed into an animal of his choice (the crustacean of the title). In order to successfully couple they must find a common characteristic or interest that marks them as a match, which leads to various ruses by way of attempting to hoodwink an intended and avoid a bestial demise.
None of the characters are named aside from David, so Ashley Jensen (of Extras; she’s suffered enough, having to regularly perform opposite Gervais) is the Biscuit Woman, while Jon C Reilly is the Lisping Man, Ben Whishaw the Limping Man, and Angeliki Papoulia the Heartless Woman. The latter is particularly adept at delaying transformation through success in regular hunting parties for loaners (for which they receive additional days suspending their sentence). She’s also central to one of the most malignantly amusing passages, as David attempts to “woo” her by pretending to be entirely unaffected and completely disinterested in the welfare of others.
Limping Man has, through the subterfuge of portraying the same malady as Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), forestalled an animal fate, but things aren’t going very well between them so they have been given a daughter (in an example of how obvious the picture’s nudges can be, it is noted of problem relationships, “That usually helps a lot”). David kicks her, advising “Now you’ll have a limp and be more like your father”. Subsequently, the sequence where the Heartless Woman tests David’s resolve is much less funny.
The loners are just as bad, as one would expect from a system inviting polarities. They encourage masturbation but are punitive towards intimate fraternisation, and the unsubtle gags come thick and fast (or maybe that should be slow and congealed?); “We dance by ourselves. That’s why we only play electronic music” advises Léa Seydoux’s psycho leader.
Rachel Weisz’s Short Sighted Woman has something in common with David (short-sightedness), who has fled the hotel, and they embark on an illicit, covert relationship. The loners’ punishments include the bizarre (a hot boiled egg under the armpit) and the horrifically cruel, just like the hoteliers (where Lisping Man has his fingers jammed in a toaster).
Particularly so is Short Sighted Woman’s fate, compounded by David’s lack of conviction when it comes to the crunch; is this a lesson in essential selfishness overriding any fanciful ideas of “meant to be”? Is that why David is the only named character, because he’s important only unto himself (his brother, now a dumb animal its easier to care for unconditionally, is also named)? Like us all (as evidenced by the Hotel Manager’s – Olivia Coleman – husband when faced with an ultimatum).
If that’s the case, it’s a particularly grim sentiment, but while The Lobster is caustic and acute in places, in the lies we tell and the lies we’re told, its stylised wackiness also renders it rather glib. And it can’t be coincidental that its best moments are where it embraces its own twisted silliness rather than tries to massage its message (“There’s blood and biscuits everywhere”, observes Heartless Woman of the mess Biscuit Woman has made of the paving). Following the escape to the woods, it begins to plod, losing its antic energy and becoming merely diverting.
The performances are as key to Lanthimos’ tone as Thimios Bakatakis’ precise cinematography. Farrell is always at his best when playing against his star persona (which has rarely worked out well box office-wise anyway), and here he’s both physically unimposing (sporting a sizeable gut and spectacles) and exhibits that slightly desperate, slightly maudlin facility for humour that has served him so well in his pairings with Martin McDonagh.
Lanthimos’ film is ultimately stronger for its visual absurdity than its content, since he has tried to string together a series of jottings that leave it less than coherent. That’s partly why it would have made a better short; the further The Lobster extends itself, the less beguiling it becomes. It never quite collapses in on itself, but draws attention to its own thinness, in a way, say, Charlie Kaufman’s existential musings don’t (mainly because he has no shortage of angsty ruminations to cover). Good but no Thermidor, then. As for the poster design (the ones below). I wouldn’t go see that movie.