The cryptic art-house movie ‘The Lobster’ is a strange meditation on couplehood and society

June 21, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 21, 2016

Author’s note: Parents, please be aware that this post obliquely refers to sex. MEM

Some movies are intended to entertain their audience. Some are intended to instruct or inspire. Others are intended to explore a question of some sort.

The Lobster, the latest feature movie from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, falls squarely into the latter category. Or to be precise, this art-house film, which Lanthimos co-wrote with fellow Athens native Efthymis Filippou, asks a set of questions.

The film is set in a near-future society, perhaps located in part of what is now Britain, where adults who lose their romantic partners must either become part of a new pair or be transformed into an animal of their choosing. The emotionally detached protagonist of the piece is David (Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered architect whom we first encounter shortly after he has been dumped by his wife and moments before he is picked up by employees of a hotel where singletons must either find new mates or undergo species-reassignment surgery.

The resort and its grounds are physically magnificent, but the place is a joyless, oppressive socialist nightmare. “Guests,” who have 45 days to attempt to find a new mate, are issued identical sets of clothing. (There are no half-sizes, a maid played by Ariane Labed coolly informs David when he arrives.) In the afternoons, the supposed vacationers are taken to the woods to hunt loners, renegade former guests who have gone opted for an existence as feral campers rather than live out their days as animals.

During down time, resort staff subject the guests to short morality plays (“Man dines alone,” one is titled; it depicts a man choking to death over his meal) and nightly dances where they are serenaded by the hotel manager (Olivia Colman), her partner (Garry Mountaine) and a competent but un-enthusiastic band. (During one of these scenes, I recall leaning over and sarcastically whispering “White people dance!” to my companion.)

To encourage pairings, the staff are required to arouse the guests sexually each day, but the visitors may seek fulfillment only with others who residing at the resort. (A friend of David’s, played by John C. Reilly, is made to place his hand in a toaster during one meal after he is caught masturbating.)

Both David and one of the other men whom he tentatively befriends at the resort, credited as Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), respond to their predicament by engaging in varying degrees of deception, self- and otherwise. Soon, each find matches that are at least superficially appropriate.

Their willingness to fake compatibility contrasts with the haplessness of Reilly’s Lisping Man and with the refusal to compromise of Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) and of a character credited as Nosebleed Woman’s Best Friend (Emma O’Shea). The former indulges in the loner hunts with an unseemly enjoyment, while the latter haughtily resigns herself to metamorphosis.

But when a horrible event fractures David’s acceptance of his newfound relationship, he joins the loners, whose principles constitute the polar opposite of the unnamed society that they’ve abandoned. These homeless eternal campers experience privation in the wilderness; masturbation is accepted, but intimacy with or even kissing other people is forbidden. The loners hold dances, as at the resort, but they’re about as solitary as a community affair can be: A group of individuals move near but not with one another as they listen to electronic music on personal headphones. The group’s young leader, played by Léa Seydoux, enforces these strictures ruthlessly.

Ironically, of course, once David falls in with this group, he falls in love with Short-Sighted Woman, played by Rachel Weisz. He engages in a different series of deceptions, with different consequences: This time, if the relationship is discovered, the leader and her cronies will punish both lovers harshly.

Eventually, the couple is pushed to extremes, and The Lobster ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. The unanswered question, likely to provoke lively discussions among audiences who enjoyed the movie is: Just how far will, or should, a man go to protect his relationship?

I found The Lobster to be extremely frustrating viewing, in part because I wasn’t sure how seriously the movie took itself. There were points when I simply didn’t know whether the movie was trying to be funny if or it was entirely earnest.

I also took issue with the movie’s twin premises, which were that each person has a single defining characteristic and that couples can only be successful if both members are alike. There are plenty of happy, fulfilled and long-lasting couples whose differences complement one another, just as there are many failed relationships based on a narrow set of shared interests.

Perhaps the ultimate message of The Lobster is that any set of principles is ultimately fallible. The movie seems to frown upon the hotel’s emphasis on coupling but finds the loners’ insistence on forced celibacy perhaps even more distasteful.

On the other hand, the main character seems almost completely indifferent to everyone and everything but the short-sighted woman; in that way, he’s the very embodiment of the slogan “Moderation in everything.” Yet it would be hard to say, at the end of the movie, that he’s really traveling along the path to permanent happiness.

The Lobster will appeal only to a small segment of moviegoers. It’s not a bad movie, per se, but I must confess that I didn’t enjoy watching it very much, and I’m hard-pressed to say whether I benefited in any way from seeing it.

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