Canon Entry - The Lobster (2015)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
The Lobster follows David (Colin Farrell) as he negotiates a society that ruthlessly marshals people into relationships. David’s wife has left him, and he must find a new partner or else he is to be turned into the animal of his choice (the titular Lobster). He checks himself into a hotel designed to facilitate the finding of a suitable partner. After some events predicated on David’s desperation, David has to escape from the hotel and join the society of loners, who live in the woods and must follow their own set of rules, which get their authority seemingly solely on the vision of the leader of the pack (Lea Seydoux). He soon falls in love with Rachel Weisz’s character, another loner, who also narrates most of the film, which soon endangers them.
The most commonly accepted interpretation of this film has been that Lanthimos is skewering dating culture and society’s need to couple people up. For someone who finds matchmaking somewhat invasive and thinks that relationships are solely the business of the people in them, I would have loved to accept this interpretation. But I can’t. For one thing, the world that Lanthimos portrays here is too many degrees away from reality to be a straight satire of modern society and its attitudes. All the characters talk in banal, declarative statements. Brutal violence is seen as normal. Relationships are established over the most superficial of connections (nosebleeds, the love of skiing). Not to mention the one truly fantastical element of this film, having to turn into the animal of your choice if you are unsuccessful in finding a mate within 45 days, has no place in such a simple conceit. From what I have seen of Lanthimos’ work, I suspect he would have been profoundly bored satirizing something as simple as dating.
What I think that Lanthimos is most interested in is exploring humanity’s tendency to reduce chaos to something manageable and devoid of complexity. In Dogtooth, the parents’ trap their children in their suffocating grasp by making them completely unfit to interact with society at large. By teaching them utter nonsense such as cats are the most dangerous creatures in the world, the world they create is naturally more orderly since it is smaller. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Martin inflicts a curse upon the family of the doctor whom he believes killed his father on the operating table. He does not listen to reason or pleas for empathy because he is so sure in his convictions, which reflect the draconian justice of the Greek gods in the original Iphigenia tale that film was based on.
Out of all of Lanthimos’ films that I have seen, The Lobster seems to illustrate this reductionism the best. A scene that firmly but wittily points to this human tendency is towards the beginning when David is checking into the hotel to find a partner. When asked for his sexual preference, he first declares that he is heterosexual. Then he admits that he had one homosexual experience. He asks if there is room on his application to account for this complexity, but the receptionist informs him that there had been complications and that he would have to choose one or the other in a decidedly non-Kinseyian fashion. In this scene, both actors underplay brilliantly, and we may see only the faintest hint of resignation in Colin Farrell, who seemed to have given up on life even before he was born.
In the next scene, when David has entered the hotel’s program and is asked his shoe size, he replies 44 ½ and the staff informs him that they do not abide by fractions and that he will have to choose 44 or 45. Lanthimos and his longtime co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou deserve most of the credit for including such precise, theme-enriching details and building this world so convincingly, absurd as it is. I feel their writing does not get much attention because of the infamous deadpan manner that every actor affects in Lanthimos’ films. In this film in particular, it is thematically fitting. In a world defined by such absolutes, why shouldn’t your speech and behavior reflect this lack of complexity? Even the character who seems to have the closest to recognizable human emotions, the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), cannot help but to talk in the same declarative manner as anyone else. (Though a revelation towards the end of the film seems to offer an alternative explanation.)
Like the best satires, The Lobster is so much more expansive. Lanthimos takes just as much delight skewering the loners with their society that is just as rigid as the mainstream. Even if they’re allowed to masturbate freely, relationships between each other is strictly forbidden. Lea Seydoux is brilliantly stone-faced and fails to see the irony of her role as dictator and jailer. Despite their superficial differences, she and the Hotel Manager (a cheerily bland yet menacing Olivia Colman) are two sides of the same conviction. Both are practitioners of social Darwinism, ruthlessly separating people into castes so as to preserve an extremely fragile identity.
This film is far from didactic, even if I am making it sound this way. Like the best comedies, the humor arises naturally from the setup and the environment created. The funniest moments for me were the characters’ desperate attempts to connect with each other, such as the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) secretly giving himself nosebleeds to connect with the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden). We laugh because his behavior isn’t that far removed from what we have done to impress someone we wanted a connection with. Ultimately, Lanthimos invites us to contemplate our own tendency towards the simplistic and encourages us to have our own awkward dance parties, either by yourself or with someone you have a genuine connection with. It really should be our choice.