That The Lobster is a weird film will not be a surprise to anyone who read about when it first premiered at Cannes (where it went on to win the Jury Prize). On the promotions trail, the film has been described as a ‘dark romantic comedy’, but it is both all of these things and none of them. Heathers is a dark romantic comedy, and The Lobster is many things, but it is not Heathers. If you must make a film comparison, it is a little Royal Tenenbaums, a little Her, even a little Hunger Games. And yet again, it is none of those things. Unlike those films this lobster has pincers.
The plot as it is. Following a bereavement, a divorce or a break up, single people are sent to a hotel, where they are given 45 days to find a match, or be turned into an animal of their choice. Extra days can be gained by catching ‘loners’, forest dwellers committed to singledom, during the daily hunt.
In a parallel universe, this is the plot of a high concept Bill Murray film from the late 80s, where Murray’s friend (probably Dan Ackroyd) gets turned into a sarcastic dog. In Lanthimos’ hands, however, it manages to totally transcend its goofy premise whilst still staying true to it. This is partly done by really doubling down on the absurdity. The Lobster seems set at once in the past, present and future. The hotel interiors wouldn’t look out of place as a rival inn an a lost episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’, and yet when Farrell and Weisz visit the city it has a near-future feel of spotless skyscrapers. It is a world where people have hilariously forgotten how to communicate, and where exposition scenes are no sooner set up then undermined as a camel walks past in the background apropos of nothing.
To invent a maxim, The Lobster shows us that it’s hard to be a good actor, but it’s even harder to be a good actor pretending to be a bad one. The deliberately flat acting that gives the film its tone depends on a lack of ego, a willingness to work with a director towards building a tone.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest depends on this tone, and it is this that makes it such a weird delight. Despite ostensibly being a film about loneliness and desperation, every line ls delivered in an affectless flat tone that keeps the film in a surreal realm of its own. Some actors are better at it than others, and the beginning falters as some actors over emote (i.e. they emote at all), where some (Ben Whishaw in particular) get it straight away. This makes the courting scenes that a film such as this needs really work, as the awkwardness of trying to forge a relationship with a new person is totally laid bare.
The effect of this affect plays like Wes Anderson’s emotionally disturbed cousin. The stylisation is there, such as in a scene where Whishaw,his new partner and the daughter they are given to stop the two rowing are all wearing the same striped outfits, Tenenbnums-Style. The language too is as stylised as any Anderson film, but with a much darker aim. It is style as emotional dissection that Lanthimos fans will recognise from Dogtooth.
But whereas Anderson’s style can get in the way of getting into his films, The Lobster uses it to its strength. With such a odd concept, the film could easily fall into surreal whimsy, but the off-kilter performances stop that from happening. So too do the random outbursts of violence the films falls into every so often every time you feel too comfortable in the world you are seeing. Lanthimos plays with our expectations in this way constantly, leading to a conclusion that will have you wincing in your chair without anything really being seen.
Disorientation is the name of the game. A twisted love story will suddenly end with a blood-stained foot and a dead dog, and another will begin with someone smashing their nose into a table just to have something in common with a girl who has frequent nosebleeds.
No one is safe from this surreal satire on modern romance. Not those desperately looking for a romantic connection through whatever means necessarily, and certainly not those sworn to singledom. When Farrell eventually takes refuge with the ‘loners’, he finds a world as equally fond of ritual and punishment, a forest community who’s idea of a punishment for flirting is slashing people’s lips with a razorblades and forcing them to kiss.
Although this makes the two worlds seem fairly similar, they are also so different (and the locations they inhabit so different), that the film does feel slightly disjointed in its move from one to the other. If anything, it is a world that perhaps would be better explored on television. The pacing and momentum are so good (itself a wonder considering how little emotion each line delivers), that the movement from hotel to forest to city almost feels too breakneck, whereas it could happily be given room to breathe over a limited series. Plus, this would give more time to Olivia Colman, who steals the limited scenes she has as a imperious hostess-turned-hotel-singer.
My only other gripe with the film is its non-diegetic music, which is just an absurdity too far with its random dramatic flourishes. Far better are the weird glimpses of diegetic music we hear, such as Colin Farrell’s impromptu rendition of ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ or perhaps my favourite scene where the loners celebrate a successful mission with solo silent discos.
But these are small concerns. After all, any film where the main criticism you have of it is that you which it were longer cannot be bad. The film is dark, nasty, misanthropic and hilarious, and more surreal than you would every expect a film featuring Bullseye from the Daredevil film and the girl from the Mummy to be.
As the old joke goes, The Lobster is a film I will be giving it all that about. Which works better as an ending line if you picture me doing lobster claws….