It takes a director with verve to make an audience laugh while showing the audience how stupid it is. Terry Gilliam has done it. On some crass level, South Park has been doing it (with mixed results) for 20 years. Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Lobster, makes it seem effortless.
Like Lanthimos’ first feature, Dogtooth (a film I adore), The Lobster is beyond what one might consider to be offbeat. This is not a cutesy Wes Anderson idiosyncrasy. This is not “Oh, how funny. Bill Murray only wears blue sneakers in this one” offbeat. The Lobster is an absolutely ruthless satire set in a society almost like ours, in which single adults have 45 days to pair off and find love – achieved forcibly through confinement at a kind of “resort”. Should they fail to find a partner by the end of this 45 day period, they are sentenced to be surgically transformed into an animal. But don’t worry. They get to choose which animal. Simple enough.
The film opens with Colin Farrell’s character going through a divorce and arriving at the resort. His vague unfamiliarity with the program and its rules works well in leading the audience through our complete unfamiliarity with the program and its rules. We learn that erections are encouraged, but masturbation is cause for corporal punishment. We learn that the 45 day time limit can be extended by travelling by bus out to a remote wooded area, and bagging – with tranquilizer darts – single individuals who have flown the coop. Those unable to extend their stay through “loner” hunting begin to exhibit a tragic and pathetic desperation, and therein lies what I believe to be one of Lanthimos’s strongest points.
The Lobster works well as a fun-house mirror being held up to our already kinda messed up social behaviour surrounding coupledom and “normalcy”. The characters in the film nearing the end of their 45 day window exude a try-anything-to-settle-for-someone franticness that feels like a blown-up parody version of folks in our lives who feel desperate and ashamed for being single or childless upon reaching mid-adulthood. The notion that anyone is the right person because to be single is to be half of a person is as real in our world as it is in the film’s world.
The ideas at play in this picture are so potent and primed for dissection, they threaten to overwhelm the film’s formal achievements. It’s a well-structured and terrifically executed satire/farce. Even as the film threatens to tip over into a typically Hollywood pro-couple romance, the whole thing is headed off at the pass and we’re left with only confusion. The writing is sharp-toothed and consistently clever. Gag upon gag is delivered, bone-dry, by an excellent cast. I’ve always enjoyed Colin Farrell, and this is perhaps his most effective comedic role. He’s supported by plenty of talent, John C Reilly and Rachael Weisz among them. There is a deep, dark joy to be found in the ludicrous events of The Lobster as they unfold, and the film captures the feeling of the great satiric works of literature that I consumed and allowed to warp me in my late teen years.
The film repeatedly brought to mind Clémence X. Clementine’s Against The Couple Form, a piece of feminist theory that fits in with the mission statement of The Lobster and matches it in both tone and venomous delivery. Unlike the film’s somewhat unisex take on the tyranny of coupledom, Clementine’s essay addresses the couple form’s role in the oppression and dehumanization of women, but handles it in a similarly serious/humorous manner. The suggested forms she mentions that the struggle against the couple form may take are evocatively written and often hilarious:
- Pour menstrual blood on wedding gowns. Send tigers into engagement parties.
- Wrest yourself from the grasp of the couple’s arms (i.e. love jail). Go out the front door and get caught up in a crowd. Hang out with plants and animals. Get into space. Replace the dyad, the pair, the two halves that make a whole with third, fourth, n not-necessarily-human terms: the three of them and that pack of wolves and that shrub! the commune! the snow! the tea cups! the knives! the creatures!
- Blast open the contents of the lover: I didn’t want to kiss you per say. I wanted everything that you were an entrance into: the smell of cigars, the doors of the city opening to me, samosas, your aunt’s house in the countryside, the sense that I could walk around with my eyes closed and nothing would injure me.
If seeking to boil down Clementine’s essay to a mission statement guarding against the sort of blown-out nightmare that The Lobster points to as the logical end of the way that we go about our desire for wholeness through couple-hood, though, I would point to the following:
In this pathetic, stillborn world, we do have feelings. Sometimes we look at someone and think we are in love with them. We must crush the illusion that romance is or will be an avenue for liberation. We must divest from romantic relationships as means through which we might access a better world than this one. In realizing that their economies and conventions are part and parcel of the continuing soft disaster of our lives, we will leave behind all hitherto existing couples.
The Lobster is a pitch-dark exaggeration of society’s arrangement, managing to amuse and horrify in equal measures. It is the funniest film that I’ve seen in ages, but the gags aren’t just throw-away jokes. It throws punches in all directions – that some of them target the funny-bone is simply a matter of course. The stark lack of resolution provided by the film’s ending only further serves to rap on the viewers skull and shout: “Hey, maybe you should think about why things are the way that they are, dummy“.
I just wrote 1000 words about it and pulled in a bunch of literary theory, so I guess it worked. Well played, Lanthimos. Well played.