The Lobster‘s opening scene is that of a woman driving in a car through remote countryside. She stops the car, in the pouring rain, gets out and shoots a donkey dead with a pistol. Thus the stage is set perfectly for this darkly twisted fable to begin.
And this is one of those pleasant, but sadly few and far between, experiences whereby the story/concept is strong enough to do just that: begin. No need here for delving into the cinematic library of convention to establish such obvious elements as character, motivation, relation etc, life’s not like that so why should film be, just plunge straight in and be good about it too.
The film’s celebrated director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is certainly that; creating a melange of allegorical violence and brutality underpinned by utterly black satire, washed down with a very healthy slosh of sparkling originality. And it’s those bubbles of invention, flashing throughout, that grab your attention and don’t let it go.
The Lobster presents a genuine dystopia, not just the world it depicts but the film in itself, a pseudo-reality pervading all with our players speaking in stilted, jerky, sentences expressing only the most banal of sentiments. Everyone seems in fear, so they say as little about themselves as possible. The trepidation of its ‘guests’ made tangible by the ‘hotel’ itself, the very edifice of this totalitarian control. Interchange the words ‘inmate’ and ‘prison’ respectively and you’ll be on the way to understanding the set up.
Colin Farrell plays a man, recently single, who is ‘checked-in’ to one of these hotels and serves as the vehicle which carries us through this most unusual of stories. Farrell definitely performs better in more restrained roles where the independent flavour is the driving force (eg. In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), as opposed to the bigger nonsense roles of unnecessary remakes such as 2012’s Total Recall. Here, as the timid and flabby David his comedic timing is slap-bang on point and he delivers an understated performance of rare excellence.
It’s the sort of macabre bleakness one would expect from the 21st Century new wave of Greek cinema, loaded with thinly veiled acerbic commentary on government control and the current state of their union. Fitting that the first nation of academics and great thinkers, who essentially founded modern western society and intelligent thought as we know it, should end up producing artists so able and willing to throw their hats into the ring of social commentary; creating this terrifyingly believable, if hyper-surreal, version of a malfunctioning civilisation.
Sex and inter-human relationships are the focus of the state’s control here; one charming example being that if you’re caught engaging in solo sexual gratification then your hand is burnt in a toaster at breakfast in front of all the other hotel guests. However, the ‘powers that be’ are not totally without consideration, the maid will provide a limited sexual stimulation service at a designated time to help improve your psychological well-being and aid your chances in the pursuit of finding a partner. Which is the end goal of the hotel as an institution. If, after your allotted time staying in the hotel, you haven’t found a partner then you are, of course, turned into an animal.
Careful here not to confuse the, albeit undoubtedly treacle thick, comedy as the defining factor. Although it’s devilishly dark and freshly delivered, it risks deflecting the far darker message lurking beneath its surreal veil.
Farrell is more than ably supported by his ensemble players, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed and Ashley Jensen, all bringing a delightful nuance to their contribution with the latter combining her authentic charm with an air of dejected desperation, culminating in, perhaps, the film’s darkest and yet concurrently funniest moment. Listen for her cries and if your blood isn’t curdled then the chances are you’re running dry.
Act two sees our hero, for want of a better word to describe Farrell’s fantastically flawed character, go firmly from the frying pan (or toaster) into the fire. The fire of feral justice, that is, equally unforgiving, at the hands of Léa Seydoux‘s rebel leader, showing the welcome raw side to her acting repertoire. No immaculately manicured Bond girl here. Although, by way of tenuous link and in reverence of the impending Spectre looming over us all, Daniel Craig‘s wife Rachel Weisz turns up, giving a solid fulcrum from which Farrell pathetically swings away. Her comedy bones may not be as large as some of her counterparts but she imbues a much needed sincerity without which the entire narrative could have descended into farce. Her communications with Farrell in the forest being particularly charming and romantic, whilst remaining very funny, they give a welcome offset to the darker side of the film, actually serving to emphasise both faces of Janus rather than detracting from either. The balancing act is superb.
All in all, The Lobster is absolutely bonkers but in a brilliantly necessary way. It conjures genuine laughter, shock, not a little awe and certainly gives you something to think about concerning the nature of relationships, love itself and maybe just a little more about the wider world in which we live today. Or, possibly, tomorrow…