I have to wonder how I might have reacted to The Lobster’s opening act had I not known anything about its premise going in. I did of course, but even now I can’t decide if that was a good thing or not. The Lobster presents its bizarre world so matter-of-factly; revealing more and more details via dialogue spoken by characters to whom these are normal, everyday circumstances. I just can’t deduce if I would have found it fascinating or have constantly been wondering just what on earth was going on.
The English-language debut from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster takes place in an oddball alternate reality that doesn’t appear to be the future, yet doesn’t especially resemble the present either (it was mostly shot in rural Ireland, though a couple of scenes take place in an anonymous city). In the world of The Lobster, every adult must be part of a couple. If their spouses die or leave them for someone else, they are carted off to a remote hotel in the countryside where they are given 45 days to find a new partner from the other single residents. Should they fail to find a new match in the given time, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing. How this procedure is performed is never expanded upon, but it’s something no-one questions. The only way to extend their stay at the hotel is to successfully capture a fellow resident who tries to escape (all rooms come with their own tranquilizer gun).
With this dystopian premise, it might sound as if The Lobster is trying to actually say something about the advantages of being in a relationship, as the hotel’s staff often does via amusingly simplistic demonstrations. In fact its view of romance couldn’t be more cynical. All the characters are seeking ‘matches’ based on one characteristic alone, sometimes a physical one, sometimes a mental one. This point is emphasised by the fact they almost all of them lack names and are credited solely by these traits, for example there’s ‘lisping man’, ‘nosebleed woman’ or ‘biscuit woman’. One key support player (Ben Wishaw) has a limp as a result of attempting to embrace his mother after she was turned into a wolf, and now desires a partner with this same affliction.
The one person who is named is protagonist David, gamely played by an overweight, moustachioed Colin Farrell. His notable feature is being short sighted, he’s introduced as his wife leaves him and his first question to her is if her new lover wears glasses or contact lenses. We gradually learn how the rules of this world work through David’s eyes once he arrives at the hotel. The guests and staff there are played by an excellent group of mostly British character actors who all manage to make an impression beyond their one defined attribute.
The Lobster’s first half boasts a fair number of morbid, dead-pan laughs, especially once David begins to actively try to find a new partner. Farrell is fantastic here; there is something particularly good about the stilted delivery of his dialogue throughout that really works to the film’s advantage, generating a lot of its best comedy. The title derives from the animal he wishes to become should he fail, a decision he gives some amusing reasons for. At one point the manager (Olivia Colman) bemoans the other residents’ lack of imagination in selecting their preferred animal, explaining that “the world is full of dogs” yet the more unusual animals are rare. The film remains consistently engaging as its rules are revealed for as long as we remain in the hotel.
The film’s latter half wishes to show the flip-side of the all-couples world of the first. It introduces a group of outsiders led by Léa Seydoux and Michael Smiley who have rejected the mainstream society. Despite this, they enforce rigid rules of their own; in their community everyone must be single, no romantic attachments can be even hinted at. The punishments they hand out for actions as innocent as flirting are drastically severe.
Unfortunately, this section of the film proves to be considerably less compelling than the earlier half. It’s also far less funny, dropping most of the comedy to explore some more serious ideas of emotion in this world. Along with the group’s leaders, it introduces another primary character played by Rachel Weisz. Disappointingly, she’s probably the weakest character in the film and becomes essentially the co-lead. Her story is a lot more rambling and unfocused, slowly leading to an ambiguous conclusion that may frustrate some.
Throughout the first half, Weisz has acted as the film’s narrator. She speaks directly to the audience, relating the story from a retrospective point-of-view but at the same time she’s very much part of the world, she describes the occurrences as if they are as normal to her as they are to the characters in question. Not that I wanted narration explaining how everything came to be in this universe, but I don’t feel that Weisz’s voice-over particularly added anything to the movie either. The events unfolding onscreen did a sufficient job of conveying The Lobster’s weird world by themselves.
Lanthimos’s unusual, offbeat satire has a great deal going for it in its first hour or so, and ultimately it’s a real shame how it abandons this for a second half that never really lands. There are still plenty of reasons to recommend The Lobster, a film with a genuinely original premise and some entertainingly peculiar ideas, and it might have been something truly special if only it could have kept this level of invention going for the whole film.