by ELEANOR MORROW
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
The theatrical and literary movement known as absurdism was a reaction to fascism. Like any reactionary movement, it was doomed to die on the disappearing strength of the philosophy to which it was opposed. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) finds a more reliable oppression to wage his absurd drama The Lobster against: the bourgeosie society which demands that a person by themselves feels in some way inadequate.
David (Colin Farrell) is dumped by his wife for a stronger, more active masculine individual. He is escorted to a hotel and informed that if he does not form a romantic partnership in 45 days, he will be changed into the animal of his choice.
Quietly, Farrell has turned himself into one of the most engaging cinematic performers. Masturbation is not permitted at this tony retreat, but a maid comes in and rubs her ass on David’s dick for about five minutes. “Just a little longer,” he pleads before she leaves. His face vacillates between annoyance and unavoidable pleasure during the act, and yet he allows his voice to convey most of the emotion, remaining placid throughout most of The Lobster.
This subtlety is the watchword. Even John C. Reilly is incredibly subdued during moments which might warrant a more comedic tint. Lanthimos asks everyone to play his concept completely straight, and the resulting tone is a bit humorless at times, since there is nothing very unreasonable about what is going on.
In order to extend their stay at the hotel before they become beasts, the guests are given tranquilizer guns to hunt loners who have Into the Wilded into the nearby forest. It does not take very much for David to become one of these loners. He meets a cruel woman who kicks his brother, who has become a dog, to death and abandons the entire prospect of meeting someone like him. His conclusion is that there is no one like him, and he immediately absconds into the woods upon this realization.
There he falls into a group led by a woman (Léa Seydoux). Seydoux has never been used quite correctly by Hollywood, and her muted beauty here is captivating beyond all else. Farrell meets another loner (Rachel Weisz) and falls in love with her, but in this society any romance is punished by mutilation.
Ionesco ruined absurdism for a long time, and maybe the concept of the theater in general. It was very hard to take other writers in this genre seriously because he had written the entire project of humanity into a corner. The Lobster suggests that any attempt at making sense out of human relationships will end in an abandonment of sense, and a return to an animal state.
In the film’s prologue, a woman (the film’s production designer Jacqueline Abrahams) shoots a donkey with a handgun. Like many moments in The Lobster, it is only humorous if you are completely devoid of human empathy. It is hard to account for some critics who found The Lobster dizzyingly funny — they must have a good laugh when they see Syrian refugees on television, or when they saw that man in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. Did you know they never even found out who that was?
Then again, this could be a problem inside of me. I never found Gulliver’s Travels very amusing either. The concept that human beings should be in relationships with one another never seemed all that controversial to me. There are unhappy relationships, but I never heard of someone being completely satisfied without one. I’m open to the idea, but it is nowhere in The Lobster. Most of the participants in the hotel are quite complicit in the project. At the end of their stay, each couple must test their romance by sailing around the bay in a yacht.
“Will you give me a kiss?” David asks Rachel Weisz in one scene. She demurs and suggests a game. This is precisely what he is not interested in, but knows he must undertake. Anyone who has dated for any length of time knows how much of romantic relationships involves interchanges which resemble play. As the two negotiate their arrangement, we finally get the sense that this is the only kind of coming together which is possible. Any human connection formed by other means would never last.
The Lobster moves quickly enough to never be dull or allow you to overly consider the implications of its premise. This is wise, for the unlucky people who saw Ionesco’s Rhinoceros were forced to consider its implications at length. Classical violin pushes every the most untoward moments of The Lobster away. There may be something terrible around the corner, but at least it will be over soon.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.