The Lobster review: a spookily beautiful corkscrew comedy
Deadpan comedy on the pressure society places on people to pair off
Film Title: The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, John C Reilly, Ashley Jensen
Running Time: 118 min
Discussing this brilliant deadpan comedy, Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth and Alps, has been cautious in confirming what the story is really “about”. Fair enough. If a key were available that unlocked all the great absurdist and surrealist works then they would hardly be worth composing. Nonetheless the core of this extraordinary film does surely have something to do with the pressure society places on citizens to pair off into secure couples. Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, his co-writer, tease out these satirical tendrils to form a treacle-black superstructure upon which singular, hilarious dramas unfold. Nothing quite like it has come our way this decade (not even from Lanthimos).
A poignantly stolid, mildly fattened-up Colin Farrell plays David, one of several citizens dispatched to a remote hotel – the Irish co-production was shot in Kerry and Dublin – for a reckoning with the social engineers. A coolly efficient Olivia Colman clarifies what the guests already know: if they fail to form part of a couple within 40 days, they will be turned into the animal of their choice and set free. Farrell, whose brother accompanies him in the form of a dog, reckons that, should he fail, he will elect to become a lobster.
Colman further explains that, if relationships falter, the partners will be “assigned” children to distract from the tension.
One way of looking at the film is to imagine it as an attempt to reduce human mating habits to a series of algorithms and – by failing comically – to demonstrate the pointlessness of such totalitarian reductions.
Each guest holds to the notion (popular with online dating services) that they and their life partner must have “something in common”. So, one fellow cracks his nose to convince a potential mate that he too gets nosebleeds. In the film’s most impressively savage sections, Farrell – whose fine performance dovetails Father Dougal with Josef K – pretends to be a more ruthless misanthrope than the hotel’s most unpleasant guest (Angeliki Papoulia).
The first two thirds of The Lobster are close to perfect. We know Lanthimos to be a master of the insidiously sinister, but here the bleakness is alleviated by jokes that dare to have identifiable set-ups and killer punchlines. It is a measure of the Greek director’s standing that he can call on some of the era’s best actors to deliver those gags: a sad Ashley Jensen; a limping Ben Whishaw; the mighty Michael Smiley; a terrifying Léa Seydoux; a pathetic John C Reilly. We may be in a Great Nowhere, but the vision of Colman and Garry Mountaine delivering a showband version of Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart will send a chill down many domestic viewers’ spines. It is also spookily beautiful. Thimios Bakatakis, the director’s usual cinematographer, draws sinister shades from the countryside and makes dislocating use of extreme slow motion.
The Lobster does, however, lose just a little of its energy when, in its final act, David finds himself set loose with the “singles”: paramilitaries whose fanatical dedication to the unattached life is almost as frightening as the tyranny of coupledom. Now forced to conceal his growing affection for the “short-sighted woman” – an eerily lost Rachel Weisz, who also narrates the piece – David loses some of his diffidence and almost become a conventional romantic hero.
Those later sequences are undeniably spooky and moving, but it’s hard not to miss the corkscrew humour of the opening act.
For all that, this remains a creepy wonder that deserved its Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Try The Lobster. You’ll like it.