I’m going to write a lot about this film because I loved it. This is the one film I most wanted to see at MIFF but it sold out within the first few days and I missed out. I had high hopes for it as I loved Dogtooth, the previous film from this director, Yorgos Lanthimos. His films are not for everyone. They can be black and bleak and devastating but they are incisive and profoundly moving satires about our self-imposed limitations and fears.
It’s hard to know what to write in a review of this film as the plot premise, which sounds rather absurd, gives no real indication of the depths of the story. It is set in a prosaically strange version of our world where anyone who is single must go to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a partner. To extend their allotted time, they are given a tranquiliser gun to hunt ‘loners’, single people who have escaped and live rough in the woods. One extra day for every catch. If they fail to find love, they are turned into the animal of their choice. Colin Farrell is our main protagonist, with a failed marriage seeing him arrive at the hotel with his brother, a border collie, in tow.
See what I mean? You know that you are going to be challenged from the outset. Add to this a mannered style and stilted dialogue akin to a very black Wes Anderson film and immediately you are launched into a world both strange and terrifyingly familiar. On the surface, the absurdity seems funny and most of the audience laughed regularly at the start, even during scenes that were intrinsically gut-wrenching. The laughter became less frequent as the story progressed and by the end it was clear to all that humour was not the intention. I know audiences have been polarised in their opinions about this film and I could hear it in overheard conversations as we shuffled out of the packed cinema. I wonder if all those people who laughed felt uneasy as the real intention emerged, aware that they were late to recognise the essential tragedy and so quick to dismiss the film as simply weird.
What I love about Lanthimos is that he takes a flaw about us, about an aspect of our society, and magnifies it so that we can see it for what it is. In Dogtooth, it was the protectiveness of ‘helicopter’ parents, so keen to protect their children from harm that they irrevocably damage them, sometimes destroy them, in the process. In The Lobster it is the fictions we create around relationships to justify our choices and fit the roles we think we must play. We mythologise love, bending and shaping ourselves to prove the rightness of our choices, ostracising and excluding those who choose otherwise. Taken to the extreme, it is a devastating indictment of our self-imposed constraints and the cruelty seemingly inherent and unavoidable in tribalism.
Farrell’s is a great principal character, an inscrutable centre around which we can see the folly of others and it is his journey, I think, that is the most interesting. We are left to wonder about who he really is and what he has become by the end. There are so many elements – metaphors, scenes, characters, music, imagery, dialogue – from The Lobster that have stayed with me. So much that was slowly revealed, the significance only occurring to me hours or days afterward. I wonder which of the characters in the film I would be if this dystopia was the real world. It’s an uncomfortable contemplation.
Bechdel test – pass