Movie Review: The Lobster.
The Lobster soars on ambitious ideas, visuals and performances early, but runs out of fuel before landing its odd premise.
The Lobster is one seriously weird movie. I saw it three days ago, and I still find myself wandering around the house in a fog, trying to puzzle out what I have seen. One of the biggest questions I have is if I actually enjoyed the film, and was it what I would normally call a “good movie.” I think it is a thought provoking movie, full of a unique (and weird) style, that aims for profundity, but ends up wandering around in the forest of striking ideas it has created. It’s that genius insight you get at 4 a.m., but when you sit down to write it all out you realize it is full of fuzzy logic and blurred borders that only makes sense in dreams.
The Lobster (2016)
David (Colin Farrell) lives in The City, where everyone must be in a committed relationship. If you become single, as he does when his wife abruptly leaves him for another man, you are sent to The Hotel, a singles resort from hell. There you have 45 days to meet your match or you will be turned into the animal of your choosing. While there you must obey a bevy of strange rules or else be punished sternly, even by being changed into an animal fitting of your transgression. If you want to buck the system you can run away to live with The Loners out in the woods, but residents in The Hotel are rewarded extra days if they catch you.
Lost and Lonely
The movie does very little explication about why things are the way they are. It drops you right into the action with David being dumped and having to move into The Hotel. Much like David, we’re deeply confused by this series of events. I assume David knows the rules before hand, since he never balks at any of them, and indeed has his preferred animal, the lobster, already chosen before he’s even presented with the choice. He’s a bit shell-shocked, but his flat emotions and muted actions are not just confusion, they’re how everyone in this world apparently acts.
Everyone in this story world is apparently suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. They’re mostly monotone, emotionally distant even in the face of horrible circumstances, and interact without subtlety or nuance. It’s a bit like watching a third grade play where the children are doing their best just to recite the lines, not giving them any emotion or subtext. That sounds dreadful, but it becomes charmingly disarming. The whole proceedings feel like a child’s fantasy of how the world works: the rules are nonsensical but internally consistent, logic is warped but mostly not arbitrary, the characters speak mostly in declamatory statements of absolute belief, much like how a child declares chocolate to be the absolute best flavor despite you knowing that they really prefer strawberry. Whatever they say they believe is gospel, until they change their mind. When somebody says something ludicrous as a statement of fact, everyone else accepts it as true. When they lie or evade, they’re like children caught holding a cookie. You know their story doesn’t hold a drop of water, but nobody around them ever questions it.
I have to hand it to director Yorgos Lanthimos, he takes an odd premise and makes it even stranger by directing his cast to give such stilted performances. And it mostly works. It’s as if he’s decided to run a race with his shoes tied together, but manages to win a medal anyway. His allegory/satire about love and society’s insistence on marriage benefits from being as absurd as it is. He not only creates a strange world with crazy rules, he fills it with emotionally stunted people who fit their surroundings like a hand in a glove. His fantasy world is strange but recognizably human, though malformed and stunted in such a way as to point out how ridiculous all of our real world rules about love and mating are in comparison.
The Hypothetical Situation Dilemma
One of my troubles with this movie is that by making his argument via a satire, Lanthimos ends up cutting the branch he is sitting on. The first half of the movie is brilliant: the characters and world are so bizarre that you are anxious to learn as much as you can, and the rules of the game are recognizably related to the real world. We don’t send people to hotels to become animals if they are single, but we don’t look on them very highly. We prize marriage to an almost fetishized amount, though we don’t go so far as to legally ostracize those who don’t conform. The childish notions of compatibility and finding “the one” on display at The Hotel are not very far from how “normal” romance exists in a Nicholas Sparks novel. Making a fantasy satire allows Lanthimos to hold our unexamined beliefs up to scrutiny. The problem is that a hypothetical situation can quickly become arbitrary, and if it does then it is useless for drawing inferences from.
The second half of the movie moves David out of The Hotel into the forest where he meets Rachel Weisz’ character and falls in love. The film then ties itself into knots to show that even under the perfect circumstances, love is doomed and foolish. The logic of the film goes from satirical to antagonistic, and bears no resemblance to any real situation. The Loners forbid romance and sex, for no discernible reason other than to make David’s life hell. The City and The Hotel have misguided reasons for their rules, but The Loners are just prigs for no discernible reason. They have no philosophy, only proscriptions. They’re not living in opposition to a love obsessed culture. They lack even the sparse ethos that The Hotel is given. They’re a plot device to trip up David, nothing more. Lanthimos sets David an impossible task. As soon as he’s finally found love and satisfied the weird rules of The City, the rules are ripped up and changed just to invalidate his relationship. It feels like Lanthimos is grinding an axe instead of insinuating that modern romance is a bit silly.
Good Movie, Bad Arguments
I liked The Lobster right up until the final half hour. The acting is weird, but uniformly weird and Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz are engaging and wonderful, and John C. Reily’s plays a bumbling bachelor who pretty much steals any scene he is in. The cinematography is gorgeous and impeccable. The Hotel is a fascinating construct that made me want to know every little aspect about it. There is comedy, and there is tragedy, and the story seems to be going along swimmingly until we get to the forest. At first, it seems more of the same: we need to learn more rules and meet new characters. Then we realize those new rules are capricious, and the new characters are nasty. They’re unreasonable, in every sense of the word. The story grinds to a halt with vignettes that feel tacked on, which don’t advance the plot of the film, only provide more ammo for the argument Lanthimos is now explicitly making. We visit The City, but learn nothing important. A raid on The Hotel happens that makes no sense. There’s no motive for it to happen intrinsic to the characters and there’s no personal development in it for David. It just exists to allow Lanthimos to thumb his nose at love and loyalty one more time.
It is unfortunate that the segment in the woods so derails the film, since the ending is quite powerful and thought provoking. It does what the first half of the film did so well; it sets up its characters in such a scenario that they must question their commitments, and we therefore can question any commitments. The Lobster excels when it lets the audience make the connections between the absurd and the real world organically. Subtly. It feels like a polemic breaks out in the middle of a satire, ruining the carefully constructed farce. It also slows the pacing down to a crawl, and I found myself checking my watch repeatedly. For a while I wanted nothing more than to stay in this surreal fantasy world forever…but the spell was broken. It’s a damn shame, because it really is a case where the director tried to beat the audience over the head with an idea and ruined a great movie.