The Lobster arrives in the dreaded form of social satire, a genre that dares you to dislike it, a genre that is generally accepted by those who fear they may appear thick if they don’t declare it an “important” or “smart” movie. Some people have loved this film - it has won awards all around the world, including a pair of 2015 Jury prizes at the Cannes Film Festival - and it's not without some good moments, but the enthusiasm outweighs the event. The movie bleats out a few trifling points about love and relationships, causing arthouse regulars, starved for anything that isn’t based on a comic book, to go bonkers. That The Lobster is now playing in the same little cinema where I saw Birdman a few years ago, another bloated, empty museum piece, says a lot. It won’t rise as high as Birdman – it’s ultimately a morbid movie that lacks the ironic winking of the earlier film, not to mention the bravura “comeback” performance of Michael Keaton – but it will give arthouse dwellers something to think about in the dark until another Birdman comes along.
Colin Ferrell plays David, a newly single man staying at “the hotel,” a lush country club location where single people are given 45 days to find a new partner, or be turned into animals. He tells them ahead of time that he’d like to be a lobster, because they live a long time, and he has always liked the sea. The hotel is run like a sadistic summer camp – one attendee is caught masturbating, and is punished by having his hand stuck in an electric toaster – and guests are forced to watch play productions by the hotel staff, all geared to show the horrors of living alone. Why guests have to sit through these propaganda plays, when being turned into an animal seems horrible enough, is unclear.
After a botched attempt at a new partnership, David escapes the hotel and flees to the nearby woods. Once there, he meets “the loners,” a group of renegade singles who have their own set of rigid rules and regulations. He ends up falling in love with another loner (Rachel Weisz) , which for some reason is forbidden. He and his new love must escape the band of loners before the tribal chief exacts one of her awful punishments on them, such as “the red kiss,” where a couple’s lips are slashed. There’s also something called “the red intercourse,” which we are spared hearing about. After a while it all starts to sound like ideas dreamed up by kids in a high school cafeteria after their first taste of George Orwell.
Farrell and the other actors move sleepily through the movie, as if they’d been told to downplay everything so the story’s weirdness can take focus. They speak in a lifeless monotone, and Weisz’ provides a narrative voice over that is almost unbearable. Are these people so beaten down by their society’s rules that they’ve lost their personalities? Apparently, this culture feels not only that couples are more valued than singles, but can succeed only if they share some superficial trait – a limp, a propensity for nosebleeds, short sightedness – but there’s no reason for me to explain it all. Let’s just say the movie starts out as a Nathanael West slice of surrealism, sneaks in a few Terry Gilliam type jokes, and ends with a bit of self-mutilation harkening back to Flannery O’Connor. I left the theater feeling put out. I’d been lured in by the promise of people being turned into animals, was even shown a door ominously labeled ‘Transformation Room,’ and then the story veered away from its amusing, albeit thin premise, into a completely different sort of movie. One group tries to control love; the other outlaws it. Ok, fine. But how did the first group learn to turn people into lobsters? And why are the loners content to live in the woods and follow orders from their heartless leader (Lea Seydoux)? And why is she so mean, anyway?
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote the screenplay with Efthymis Filiiou) benefits from cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis – they create some interesting scenescapes, giving this world the grey, sterile look of a shiny new mausoleum (even outdoor scenes feel like catacombs, the gnarled greyness of the wooded area serving as a crypt-like barrier from the outside world). The movie was shot in various locations throughout Ireland, where the sky seems permanently overcast, and tree limbs hover over scenes like ominous giant fingers. Lanthimos favors the striking tableau – hunters running through the woods in slow-motion, loners dancing silently in the forest, each listening to electronic music from their own iPods – and he’s good at conveying the sterility of this society which, contrary to some of the film’s press, is not some “dystopian future,” but feels more an alternate world, conjured so Lanthimos can play with a few feeble concepts. He leaves a lot unexplained, but it never feels like he’s being purposely vague or coy. It’s more like he never considered making his fictional world whole.
Ferrell’s performance has received kudos, mostly because he wears a mustache and a paunch (that’s what movie stars do when they have to play average folks, you see.) He’s OK as David, quite watchable at times, but few actors can play bland for two hours and not become boring. Ferrell certainly can’t. John C. Reilly, our most lovable misfit, is entertaining as one of the hotel guests, but he’s done away with far too soon. Ashley Jensen, whom you may remember as Ricky Gervais’ friend in Extras, is wonderful as a woman trying desperately to find a new partner. Jensen can project loneliness the way the young Robert De Niro could show rage – I wanted to see how she survived and perhaps found a new spouse – but Jensen, like Reilly, is gone from the plot too soon.
There were moments early in The Lobster where it seemed Lanthimos had tapped into a nice, simple metaphor about the arbitrary nature of love. I liked how one of the hotel guests said his father left his mother because he met a woman who was better at math. There was another scene I liked where Jensen danced with a hotel guest, and gave his arm a quick squeeze when the music ended. If you blinked, you missed it, that’s how subtle Jensen is. The movie needed more light touches like that, and more of Jensen, instead of turning into a kind of survival flick where David and his beloved try to escape the loners. It becomes a movie that, despite seeming like it has something to say, can only serve up a heavy-handed message about love being blind.