Perplexing dystopian films have a way of reflecting terrors in our unconscious in a disturbing way, and then thrusting their weird images into our consciousness when we least expect it. Fear and dislocation are filmmakers’ intentioned effects, and some of the best films to demonstrate strange worlds spawn sequels because we are captivated by the opaque anxiety they evoke (Max Max, The Matrix, Alien, The Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes), to name a few. Without employing the spectacular visuals and digital VFX effects of such intriguing and entertaining fare, The Lobster, a dystopian film directed by award-winning Yorgos Lanthimos, manages to be bizarre and cacophonous. The film is marvelous on many levels. Lanthimos turns the genre on its head with sardonic ridicule, acerbic wit and a blaring absence of digital effects as he easily facilitates the dissonance of a future landscape so it mirrors our present society.
The Greek director achieves an emotionally frozen environment and manifests the soul-deep ills of his dystopian culture with a minimalistic approach to the set designs of a characterless resort known as The Hotel in The City and a nearby forest known as The Woods. The stark lighting, pared down sets and unobtrusive camera work capture just enough allure to involve us with the characters’ conflicts and the extreme situations. The tonal realism of the film’s cinematography, lighting and art design reflects present reality. The realism enhances the filmmaker’s themes. It portends that the characters, their relationships, and the complex institutional framework of laws they have constructed to “make society flow more easily” do the opposite. The culture’s dysfunction highlights the weaknesses in the human heart. Even more unsettling than typical dystopian films which entertain with spectacle rather than probe hearts, Lanthimos strikes at the core of humanity’s complex drive to torment itself and others in miserable partnerships that foment soul voids then spread their contagion.
With liberal use of philosophical and psychological nuances, Lanthimos’ screenplay, co-written with Efthymis Filippou, paints the blights of human nature and the harmful relationships such blights create. The filmmakers do this brilliantly with a story arc that employs outlandish hyperbole and extreme metaphors. The development of the plot is adroitly carried by the sterling performances of the laconic, emberless actors and the prickly scenarios and dialogue which often are drop dead hysterical.
Picture a deterministic, authoritarian culture which demands that all people must partner up as married couples (gay, straight, or transgender). If single people become widowed or are divorced, they end up at The Hotel where they must find a marriage partner in 45 days. If they do not, they will be turned into an animal. Their sop is that they may choose which beast they would like to be.
As an entertainment prod to get hitched up quickly, these singles are taken by bus to a forest. There, they hunt down any unmarried loners who inhabit The Woods. If they succeed, they extend their time to find a partner. These hunts are bloodthirsty and cruel. They function as a coercive reminder of what will happen if the singles are tempted to escape The Hotel and join the loners in The Woods. The singles at The Hotel obey; they are disaffected cowards; they kowtow to the social structure and risk becoming beasts rather than become the freer but despised. dead loners. The trade-off is that with coupling comes emotional death and a fragmented, vapid soul. Their vitality and excitement is drained by married bondage and their unique humanity is destroyed by cowardice, conformity, and passivity. Marriage is not the way to avoid the “aloneness” of emotional devastation and soul desperation.
The filmmakers push the coupling constructs to their sardonic extreme and edge them into mordant, wild satire which the actors miraculously make believable. The performances cohere and are logical. Clearly, Lanthimos is drawing a parallel to our times and our hypocritical social mores about the “perfect” married state which doesn’t exist. There are many themes he highlights: fear and stress often override common sense when selecting partners and in evolving relationships which go nowhere but straight into oblivion. Additionally, he reveals how partners force themselves to stay with one another despite their horrific alienation, isolation, incompatibility, and dislike because they fear “being single.” One investigation Lanthimos uncovers is how the marriage state becomes a thing unto itself; it imprisons the individuals caught in its snare; they don’t want to be there, but are compelled by social mores to conform and remain despite the lack of soul benefit.
Lanthimos and Filippou, through the plight of a few of the characters, show the devastating response when people do not attainin the “perfect” state of marriage bliss whether out of rebellion, failure, self-loathing, etc.: one commits suicide, others become animals which wander the grounds of The Hotel. Others escape but perish in The Woods culture. The effect of seeing these results is eerily shocking but ironic and funny. The stress for the singles and our protagonist, David (Colin Farrell), to find a partner before being transformed increases with each failure or success of their Hotel mates.
Lanthimos brilliantly engages us in the suspense of their frantic search for a mate to avoid the inevitable. The filmmaker ridicules the current culture’s obsession with “having a significant other,” rather than “go it alone” in life.
Thus, Lanthimos slips in numerous themes: one must be grounded in one’s own identity to remain apart from the culture’s nullifying social constructs; only through self-definition may one not cave to oppression; the pressure of finding a mate destroys one’s sense of well being; the stigma and oppression to fit in and couple is damning.
Lanthimos begins the film and gradually fills in the metaphoric constructs and themes by following the evolution of his protagonist, David, who changes from a conformist, cowardly, milk-toast to a rebel who must escape from The Hotel. When David (Colin Farrell is amazing and unrecognizable as the paunchy, devastated, soul vacant forty-something), arrives at The Hotel with a dog, he is a an over-the-hill, sad sack whose weightiness is unappealing and whose vacant personality and flattened affect lack any spark of hope. The female narrator (we learn later that this is the short-sighted woman, Rachel Weisz), relates that David has been dumped by his wife. He and his dog are at The Hotel where he must find a partner or be a “lobster,” the creature he selected because of its long life span. The director of the hotel and his wife are laconic, vapid, and soul-dead. They conduct “mixers” to bring couples together with the boring grace of a withered, dead tree stump. These mash-ups at which the characters mingle and converse are hysterical; the dancing lacks enjoyment and vitality. The men and women “go through the fearful, awkward motions” of trying to “warm up” to each other to establish a meaningful bond. They fail almost every time.
The role playing scenes which affirm why it is better to be a couple are particularly sardonic. In one a male who is eating alone chokes to death. In the companion role-playing sequence, a wife is present as they eat. When the man begins to choke, she performs the Heimlich maneuver. Hence, the lesson for the recalcitrant singles hits the bulls-eye: coupling avoids death. Of course, as is evidenced throughout the film, the opposite is true; coupling deadens. Countering that obvious truth, the presumptuous and smug director and his wife continually affirm that it is better to be with someone (even if the relationship is dastardly and the person you are with is heartless as David discovers), than to be alone. Meanwhile, such affirmations increase the stress of the singles who can’t find their “match.”
As David performs these activities to avoid becoming a lobster on day 46, he becomes friends with The Lisping Man (John C. Reilly is, of course, wonderful), and The Limping Man (a fine Ben Whishaw). The three of them are initially unsuccessful and awkward at pairing up. Non Alpha types, they lack the will and are anxious and uncomfortable. They reject the continual advances of “loser” Biscuit Woman (the sweet and determined Ashley Jensen), who bravely asserts that she will not be turned into an animal and will escape that fate. How each of them spiral into their own life’s choices, find a mate or don’t is humorous, revealing and dark. And when David reaches a turning point, after he is forced to confront the malevolence and bestiality of the woman he marries, we are totally involved in his evolution. The hard shell that has encapsulated his personality fractures and passionate engorging emotions pour out. We are gladdened that he is alive with human feeling and not a socially fabricated, disassociated, and robotic automaton.
David’s break out scenes where he runs from the authoritarian and fascist hotel are particularly well wrought by Farrell, the other actors, and the director. This high point propels the first segment of David’s journey into an intriguing and surprising development: David escapes into The Woods and encounters another social construct, which is equally nullifying and authoritarian. As David’s adventures in the culture of The Woods abound, so do the dark metaphors and themes. It is there that he meets and develops a relationship with the narrator played by Rachel Weisz in her superbly acted turn as the short sighted woman. Their relationship is his blessing and his curse. Both his character and hers allow the constraints and boundaries of an anarchic social construct, which is the superficially the antithesis of The Hotel, to define their hopes; it damages them. In the second half, Lanthimos satirizes the opposite extreme of the alienated loveless marriage (demonstrated at The Hotel). In The Woods segment, he reveals the insanities lovers go through to maintain what they believe to be love, though it is injurious.
Both The Hotel and The Woods are systems which human beings manufacture to confine and control. The irony is that the leaders are the most enslaved by having to champion rules that destroy. Lanthimos suggests some people need to be governed and commanded, especially in their social relationships. And when love does happen, the definitions of love that both partners bring to the relationship often destroy their identities as they pay homage to an illusion. The filmmakers imply that with coupling, there is no way out and there is no easy way in; fear and oppression have raised all stakes to a dire outcome. Along a continuum from our ancestral past to the future-present, individuals find it nearly impossible to break free of society’s ridiculous constraints and soul deadening folkways to eventually love without destroying themselves. It’s our very human condition and whether past, present or future, we’re stuck. We might as well laugh.
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