Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw
Reviewer Jacqueline Lucas Palmer
The Lobster, a film written and directed by Yargos Lanthimos (of Dogtooth fame) is dark territory, exploring a bizarre alternative world where single people are cast out to a hotel in the countryside and given 45 days to find a partner or to transform to an animal of their choice. The story is narrated by ‘Short-sighted Woman’ (Rachel Weisz), as David (Colin Farrell), left by his wife for another man, is taken to the hotel and given the third degree over his new found single status. He checks in with his dog (his former brother prior to transformation) and is asked a series of personal and sexual questions. In this bizarre hotel the singletons are given identical uniforms and woken by intercom to a punishing count of days left to find a new partner. The prize for success is the key to a double room with larger bathroom, extra wardrobe space and access to previously prohibited areas. The irony and satire on relationships is at first amusing.
Olivia Colman shines as ‘Hotel Manager’, taking her guests through check-in. David settles on a lobster as his animal of choice for its fertility and longevity. In a society that prizes a human relationship as the institution that distinguishes us from animals, it is no surprise that an animal is chosen by Yargos as the punishment for failing to find that relationship. Handcuffed to his belt to appreciate the full meaning of life alone, David struggles to apply his back cream while hotel staff educate guests on the dangers inherent in remaining single – a man who eats alone and chokes, a woman who walks alone and is raped. The shell-shocked David falls in with ‘Limping Man’ (Ben Whishaw) and ‘Lisping Man’ (John C Reilly) as the guests are invited to tell their story in the manner of a twelve step programme to a round of applause. Sharing their defining characteristic, they try to find this in a partner in a misguided desire to see themselves in the other.
Bizarre, blackly comic and dark, actors are mannered and deliver toneless lines. Colman sings the line, ‘something’s got a hold of my heart’ with a deadpan absence of heart in a world devoid of companionship, friendship, humanity, community, or kindness. Pitted against each other, singles are invited to gain extra time and hold off transformation by using their hotel rifles on a nightly hunt, capturing rebellious loners hiding in the forest. Shot in slow motion to an upbeat South American track, this makes a barbaric and uneasy juxtaposition. David’s band of three share neither camaraderie nor hugs, which are always one sided. In fact, David is quick to rat on Limping Man for self-harming in order to give himself the nosebleeds his new partner suffers and thereby make the perfect match.
Hotel service is strange and unsettling as the hotel maid delivers rifle ammo rather than replenishing the mini bar, and administers a disturbing sexual frottage, fully clothed, as a stimulant to find a mate. Masturbation however is outlawed and at one stage results in Lisping Man being shamed and horrifically punished at breakfast. The terrifying descriptions of animal transformations involving scalpels and vital organs are redolent of grisly human experiments in death camps. In her wish to avoid this shocking end, a desperate single, ‘Biscuit Woman’, offers David a menu of blowjobs and anal sex and biscuits for his dog Bob without a hint of desire or sensuality and a threat of suicide if he refuses. But David, like all the guests, is shut down and as unresponsive to her offers as her threats.
Banal exchanges over balding patterns in men are empty and devoid of content though build in intensity, as David’s time runs out. When David witnesses Biscuit Woman’s attempted suicide, he tries a last ditch attempt to avoid transformation by joining ‘Heartless Woman’. The game is never to show emotion, and by remaining impassive as she stages a choking fit, David fakes a match for her cruelty. Scenes of their sex life are painful to watch, conforming to rules and progressing from frottage to full copulation utterly without connection. But when her sadism reaches impossible heights, David is triggered to show his feelings and is forced to escape Heartless Woman ratting him out to the hotel manager for failing to be her perfect mirror. Laughter in the auditorium is a relief from the discomfort, but the darkness of this project tests the viewer as I waited for the audience to run.
When David escapes and joins up with loner rebels, he finds himself in the hands of ‘Loner Leader’, (Lea Seydoux). In a retreat from coupledom, people here live in the wild where romantic or sexual relationships are prohibited between singles. Permitted are: solitaire, dancing alone to one’s headphones, masturbation, and digging one’s own grave is compulsory. There is no live and let live philosophy, as loners carry out sadistic attacks on couples to test their love for one another and expose their lack of compatibility.
When David finds ‘love’ with our shortsighted narrator it’s as puerile and rule bound as life in the hotel as they connect through similarity, in this case their short sightedness. They French kiss in company on practice trips to the city, like sex-crazed, self-obsessed adolescents. Forced to use secret codes to communicate, the punishment meted out for their romance is the darkness at the film’s core, a metaphor played to the hilt by Lanthimos as the screen turns black.
The film left me wondering. Are we straight-jacketed in relationship, are children assigned to straighten out our emerging couple problems, are single people scapegoated or free, are we online speed dating as the clock ticks or is the film a comic absurdist fantasy that offers no comment on the prisons we unconsciously subscribe to? Would we rather get access to the tennis court and double room or forage for rabbits alone? If we look for a quality in a partner or soul mate should it be a narcissistic mirror? “Freedom is about becoming vulnerable to one another, rather than becoming secure, in control, and alone”, says Eve Ensler. Lobster presents a challenge in its world of non-relating, hiding vulnerability and residing in the loveless state of fear. When the credits roll and the loving couple are finally matched there is little to hope for. But then, as my father used to say, “it’s only a movie”.
Jacqueline Lucas Palmer, an integrative psychotherapist, is in private practice in North London and runs “A Return to Intimacy” workshops. With an MA in Film from the BFI, she has practiced photography and published poems and short stories on her path to becoming a psychotherapist.