The Films of 2016: The Lobster

In Giorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist comedy The Lobster, single men and women cruise the grounds of a resort hotel that looks like a leftover set of a Kubrick movie, searching for potential mates and making small talk in flat, monotonous voices.  If they fail to couple up within forty-five days of their stay at the hotel, they are transformed into animals and released into the wild.  The most ambitious of the guests immediately set about finding suitable partners for themselves, while others, like the mild-mannered David (a portly Colin Ferrell), approach the process with numb passivity.  It’s only after David defects to the forest outside the hotel grounds to join a band of renegade “loners” that he finds love in the form of a near-sighted woman played by Rachel Weisz—the joke perhaps being that, as the old cliché goes, we find love when we stop looking for it.  But life in the forest turns out to be just as brutal and oppressive as life at the hotel: romantic relationships between loners are forbidden, forcing David and his lover into further exile. 

Lanthimos wants to suggest that love may be the most radical thing one can experience, as offensive to bourgeois propriety as it is to left-wing extremism.  Scarred and stigmatized, Ferrell and Weisz end up wandering the countryside looking like a latter-day Adam and Eve cast out of Eden.  It’s an interesting, almost Bunuelian idea—that, at its most “true,” love is essentially dangerous and abject.  But Lanthimos is no Bunuel, and however provocative his ideas may be he has a tendency to belabor them, especially in the first half of the film, set at the hotel-cum-prison.  These are admittedly its funniest scenes, and there’s a surreal Soviet-era vibe to the hotel’s bureaucratized dances and recreational activities, which are drab and banal but always carry an undertone of menace.  Lanthimos keeps making his points about the social construction of romance and monogamy and gender roles long after we’ve gotten them, though, and as cleverly made as they are, they’re pretty surfacey—Sociology 101 stuff, with Lanthimos as the wise-ass freshman at the back of the classroom cracking jokes.  (Social construction was also the subject of Lanthimos’ previous film, Dogtooth [2010].)      

The tone of the film is chilly and elegant, with a prickly score made up of excerpts from string quartets by Shostakovich and Shnitke.  Ferrell and Weisz, the latter of whom is always a welcome onscreen presence, are all the more affecting for the deadpan, stone-faced quality that they bring to their characters.  Their scenes together in the forest are less pointed and cheekily satirical than those at the hotel, which some will find to be a problem (I sensed the energy level of the audience with which I saw the film plummet in the second half).  But Lanthimos gets at something deeper here in observing the risks and sacrifices of coupledom than when he earlier tries to make a lot of obvious points about “society.”  Sometimes good things come to those who don’t try so hard to find them, and that goes for art as well as love.

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