Yorgos Lanthimos presents a black comedy underlined with a ‘bleak future’ narrative in the form of The Lobster. The film is designed to be disjointed and baffling with a mix of mockery, satire and uncertainty, though towards the end of the film it falls victim to the trap of its own style.
In The Lobster, the marriage of David (played by Colin Farrell) ends after eleven years and a few months. He lives in a world in which being without a partner is against the law. Sent to a hotel hidden in grey highlands, David and other singletons have a limited time to find a new lover or else they are transformed into an animal of their choice. As his days count down and a relationship with an unlikely partner collapses, David runs away to join the community of outcasts who hide from society in the woodland.
Everything seems unsettling in the film. The characters are timid and bland and speak with the voices of children in a Nativity play. I don’t remember David, the protagonist, smiling once. No one but David is given a real name in the credits; the other characters are given names related to what they do – the Nosebleed Woman, the Hotel Manager’s Husband, the Biscuit Woman – as if straight out of an H. G. Wells novel. Along the way, we are treated to the satirical humour of the characters’ drone-like lives and mumbled speech as they utter things, sometimes monotonous – for example, what is the Limping Man’s favourite swimming stroke? – and usually without a shred of tact.
But the coldness of the characters and the setting reflects the environment. The poor people staying at the hotel have a limited time to find love or they face the consequences. In between attending dull dances or swimming silently in the hotel pool, the hotel guests go on daily hunts in the forest, tranquilising the community of loners who have escaped the hotel and civilisation. Life is regulated and rules limit the singletons’ behaviour.
The hotel staff perform their duties (not all of them being the things one might experience in a real-life hotel) without emotion. The guests are encouraged through public gatherings and demonstrations to think favourably of relationships and poorly of being single. As we see in the film, some relationships are formed on deceit to avoid a bizarre fate. Ben Whishaw’s character, the Limping Man, finds a novel way of appealing to another guest.
Animals play an important part of the story. Anyone who fails to find a partner after forty-five days at the hotel is turned into an animal. David is accompanied by his brother, a dog, and occasionally comes across other animals that we presume are those who could not fall in love as required. However, there are one or two scenes that would make animal lovers very uncomfortable in this film. I would not recommend watching it if you are fond of animals.
The film is meant to be uncomfortable, but it itself seems uncomfortable. We begin in a hotel from which the protagonist wants to escape; we move to the camp of outsiders in which the protagonist falls in love; but the film’s ending is to me unsatisfactory. Life in the hotel, with the guests’ identical clothes, the morning wake-up calls made me expect a film about escaping a dystopian order and finding a community of outcasts; sure enough, the outcasts are found but from there the film takes an unexpected turn. The journey David endures is interesting but after a while his life in the hotel becomes more of a pregnant prologue to the main exhibit than a substantial part of the film. It looks like the director sought a cliffhanger but it resembles a book with its last chapter torn out, leaving us with an unfinished tale. Asking if David did or didn’t do the final deed feels irrelevant, as we were left unsure of what was going to happen regardless of the decision.
Still, The Lobster retains a definite sense of irregularity and confusion. It has a real character to it, though some viewers will no doubt leave the cinema unsatisfied.