The Lobster offers brilliant satire of the corrupted expectations of human coupling — a film review

June 2, 2016

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Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos burst onto the International film scene in 2009 with the disturbing, Oscar-nominated family drama Dogtooth. There was no way it was going to win. It peered deep into the malleable psyche of humanity, a sort of parable of Hitler-like brainwashing in an intimate domestic setting. Now he emerges with his first English-language movie, and it’s no less critical of the dumb things people do when they follow the crowd without question.

The Lobster takes place in a world where people must pair off with a lover within 45 days or be turned into the animal of their choosing. Being single is illegal. Though it features stars like Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz, Lanthimos has not compromised his obtuse, startling storytelling style for a Hollywood sensibility. Many accustomed to watching films that explain everything might feel frustrated by this movie, not to mention its open-ended but no less shocking conclusion. You won’t get an explanation of how this world’s society has come to this or even how the “Transformation Room” works — save for a rather sinister bit of speculation from Reilly’s lisping single man.

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Lanthimos, who co-wrote the script with his longtime collaborator Efthymis Filippou, has more interest in presenting a harrowing and darkly hilarious critique of ritualized love that takes no prisoners. Lanthimos’ tendency toward the open-ended is brilliantly suited for this study of the absurdity of Western culture’s approbation of perpetual monogamy. He allows the film’s world to explain itself with stark, often dead-pan humor. For instance, he brings a new context to the hunt for single people by adding tranquilizer guns to the mix.

Tension in the unknown for the audience couples with the desperate desire for these poor people to pair off. True love becomes overrated in a world of mopey, passionless people who can’t find an honest way to express themselves and, in effect, genuinely relate. The desire to survive and comply with society becomes a desperate act for survival that affects family and friendships, as well. The people in this film strain to connect over superficial characteristics, like limps and nosebleeds. There’s a sense of desire to will a reality into being in order to comply with the world’s view of what is “normal.” It all makes for an inspired blend of comedy and drama that never forgets its satirical heart.

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Lanthimos bundles it all in a setting that’s not obsessed with exploring its other-worldliness. Though the alternative to never finding love is not what anyone seems to desire, nature is a beautiful thing. Beyond the hotel where the single people follow strict rules of behavior to find a mate, there is a forest populated by “loners” with their own oppressive code of behavior. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis brings out the lushness and randomness of the forest, whose random trees, ferns and moss, provide a beautiful contrast to the ritual of both the loners and those desperate to assimilate with the culture.

A love story that is not for the faint of heart, viewers should be warned that The Lobster also features some disturbing images of dead animals laced with its coal-black sense of humor. But it’s worth looking beyond that, as the director never misses an opportunity to find resonance in all the acts committed to the screen, from the hilarious to the unsettling. On a deeper level, he calls into question humanity’s propensity to pair off with partners and if true symbiotic love can ever exist without perilous sacrifices to one’s sense of self. With The Lobster, Lanthimos lays bare all that is wrong with the role of society intruding on intimacy, reminding the audience that love is a deep, primal thing that cannot be willed into being, from dating sites like Match.com to the pomp of the marriage ceremony.

Hans Morgenstern

The Lobster runs 119 minutes and is rated R (trigger warnings: human eye violence, animals in peril, including gory death). It opens in our South Florida area at several local theaters on June 3. It will make its way to the Miami Beach Cinematheque, June 11. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. This is an extended version of a review first published in the Miami New Times ahead of the film’s Florida premiere at the Miami International Film Festival where it went on to win the best director prize. All images in this post were provided by A24.

You can also read an interview I did with Lanthimos published a couple of days ago in the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog by jumping through the section’s logo below: 

NT Arts

You can also read more about him and his new projects in this post: 

Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Lobster, talks finding filmmaking freedom in England and two new projects

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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