The less grand, not-so-exotic, neither Budapest nor Marigold hotel
Yorgos Lanthimos is what you’d call a “visionary director” if you knew that what you saw was pretty good but didn’t know exactly what to say about it. He’s got a cynicism akin to Lars Von Trier. He seems to care about shots as much as Terrence Malick. He wraps these into the microscope-lens of an Alex Garland pic. Then again, name-dropping and saying nothing else is basically the same as leaving it at “visionary director,” so let’s dissect.
In a dystopia that is never referred to as such (I might call it an alternate universe instead), newly single people are taken to the Hotel, where they have forty-five days to find a suitable partner or else be transformed into the animal of their choice and live out the remainder of their existence in anachronistic misery in the nearby forest. Everyone speaks in an unsettling monotone. Masturbation is prohibited, but the Maid (Ariane Labed!) makes sure everyone is sexually frustrated 24/7. Single-by-choice folks who have escaped the Hotel are hunted down by Hotel residents with the promise of extra days as a human. None of the transformation technology is explained, nor is the necessity of the Hotel (for instance, is the human population at rock bottom?). Residents are subjected to embarrassingly campy propaganda (including a painfully inaccurate simulation of rape) meant to convince them that partnership is the key to happiness. The whole thing has been compared to a Samuel Beckett piece – sure, it’s got the quiet cynicism, the allegory, the navel-gazing, the bizarre end-of-time scenario focused on a tiny sliver of the world – but there’s an underlying anger to The Lobster that neither Endgame nor Waiting for Godot possess.
David (Collin Farrell), the only named character, chooses a lobster as his animal, due to his love for the sea and the creatures’ generally long lives (apparently grocery-store seafood departments and the state of Maine no longer exist in Lanthimos’s fiction). This choice is ridiculed by a know-it-all with a limp (Ben Whishaw), who along with an also-unnamed lisper (John C. Reilly) constitute David’s friend base. The issue is that not just anyone can get together and have a good time; relationships are formed based on what the Hotel staff see as compatible features. In other words, completely arbitrary traits, such as shared physical ailments (nearsightedness, a tendency to get nosebleeds, etc.), fondness for cookies, and so on. It’s a fairly transparent criticism of online dating culture: the speed of it, the fakeness, the images people create of themselves vs. who they actually are, the methods by which we decide so much about a person without having met them.
The story is narrated by a near-sighted woman (Rachel Weiss), who doesn’t meet David until about halfway through. At this point, David has forsaken the Hotel after a disastrous attempt to partner with a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia). As a story in this genre must explore the perspectives of both major factions, David joins the “loners” in the woods, who are led by a ruthlessly rigid woman played by Palm d’Or-winning superstar Léa Seydoux (doing what she does best here – playing a fascinating Alpha – rather than the love-interest and femme fatale stuff she finds herself doing in American movies). Here, the rules of the Hotel are inverted: masturbate all you want, but relationships are banned. Even flirting is punishable by permanent disfigurement. The viewer quickly finds that David doesn’t fit in this world either, because he quickly falls in love with Weiss’s character, and both strive to keep this relationship secret from the leader.
What I was slower to realize is that The Lobster would have worked better as a stage drama, where justification is vital only as far as character behavior, and the worlds, rich as they might be, are still confined to the room you’re in, and what you can believe is determined only by the performances (think Beckett and Pinter). In a film, you get a look at what’s there, and you start to ask questions like, what is the rest of the world doing? Are there other Hotels? Why do the loners stay in the woods around the Hotel when they could get out of danger by going pretty much anywhere else? Where are all the gay and gender non-conforming people (the Hotel allows one to register as gay or hetero, but not bisexual because of some plot-convenient Noodle Incident, yet we never see any gay people or couples on screen, and the propaganda is all aimed at hetero couples)? Why does the loner leader have such arbitrary rules? If everyone hates these rules, why don’t they overthrow her? There’s more, but you get the gist: story beats and character behaviors are introduced in order for the film to make a point about something, rather than because it’s what makes sense.
It’s also a film that includes lots of interesting women, most of whom die, and all of whom exist in order to have diametrically opposed effects on the male protagonist. It becomes frustrating, in part because characters with dramatic potential are wasted, and also because you feel like you’re supposed to cheer for it. In the end, as David prepares to blind himself with a steak knife in order to be “equal” to his now-blind lover, do he and (by extension) the filmmakers realize that the duo are still abiding by the Hotel’s rules, this far away from the place itself?
It’s the job of a picture like this to generate discussions, not questions based on lack of clarity of intention. As it stands, The Lobster is an awesome piece of art, but not a particularly good movie, in spite of the dedicated and deliciously weird performances by Farrell, Labed, and Seydoux. Let me know if there’s ever a stage version, yeah?
The Lobster (2015); written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weiss, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux.