The Lobster (2016) by Yorgos Lanthimos
Review by Andrew Swafford
I hate “world-building” stories. It might be too strong of phrasing, but in general, there’s nothing more tedious to me than wading through dense layers of exposition while a storyteller encyclopedically outlines the illustrious history, culture, and sometimes language (please god no) of a fantastical people-group from an imaginary place. I tend to stay away from high fantasy or soft sci-fi for this reason; the prospect of reading Tolkein’s Silmarillion is my absolute nightmare. From my perspective, world-building as it is done in the hallowed pages of the geek-canon (I say geek lovingly) mostly tends to just indulge fanservice-y cliches and either (A) distracts from an actual, meaningful narrative or (B) covers up a lack of one.
However, two recent films set in alternate universes have hit me in the right place and stick out to me as shining examples of how to do world-building magnificently. The first is last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the praises of which have been sung by the internet en masse since its release (including our episode on the best films of 2015); the second is Yorgos Lanthimos’s dark, dark comedy The Lobster. Both films make uniquely interesting societies to explore by following one simple rule: just making them. Fury Road never stopped the frantic motion of Immortan Joe’s endless caravan of spiky wheels and guitar solos to explain to the audience why his slaves keep spray-painting their teeth silver--we just got it, among dozens of other one-off references to Norse mythology and dystopian sex trafficking. The same unexplained weirdness runs throughout all of The Lobster, a film which begins with a very sober single-shot of a woman getting out of a car and shooting a donkey for seemingly no reason. The opening scene bears no tangible connection to the plot of the story proper, but it’s lack of readily apparent logic immediately signals the audience to lean in and pay attention, because waiting for the dots to be connected for you is not an option.
In the world of The Lobster, monogamous partnerships are valued above all else, and all single adults above a certain age are given 45 days in a highly systematized resort-hotel to find a suitable mate; those who fail to do so will be transformed into an animal of their choice. (This may or may not be the fate of the film’s protagonist, played by Colin Farrell.) I have just explained much more about the world of The Lobster than the film itself ever does through exposition, of which there is none. Even in a movie that has a narrator, which this does, you always want to know more about who that narrator is and how they know what they know rather than feeling spoon-fed information. The audience is simply dropped blind into a story that involves Colin Farrell referring to a dog as his brother, implicitly asking viewers to fill in the blanks themselves. And there are so many blanks here--such intriguingly strange-shaped ones--that one becomes utterly fascinated, as even the film-world’s mundanity is engaging and new to us. The way hotel guests are welcomed (having one hand tied behind their backs), the way they are woken up (being given a purposely unsatisfying lap-dance by a housekeeper), and the way they are fed (seated among a multitude of tiny square tables all facing the same direction) are all treated as completely commonplace and boring in the reality of the movie, but are exciting and hilarious to an audience member who has accepted the task of figuring it all out.
And the aforementioned mundanity, indeed, abounds in the style as well. Some negative criticism of The Lobster has focused on the movie’s monotony, craft-wise--the shots are all about the same length, the sets are all the same color (beige, mostly), the dialogue is all pitched in the same soullessly synthetic timbre (Farrell is great at this), and the classical pieces that make up the film’s score all have the same austere tone. Like a dancefloor full of women all wearing the same dress (something you will see in this movie), Lanthimos's filmmaking style here is appropriately uniform. These are all elements of a meticulously crafted world that is compelling enough to never be bored by, despite being devoid of emotion in a way The Giver never dreamed of being, as well as being rigidly structured and rule-based to the point of making the Jane Austen’s Victorian society seem like a pack of raging drunks. At the same time, the rigid stuffiness of The Lobster’s universe never feels like a riff on something else (except Kubrick’s The Shining, in the geometric design of the hotel hallways). While sitting in the theater and figuring out how all the pieces fit together in this monogamy-obsessed society, the thought that crossed my mind most often was: This is unique. There is nothing like this.
One easy mistake that many world-building stories tend to make, however, is prioritizing exposition at the expense of narrative. It would have been very easy for The Lobster to be all exposition, moving point-by-point through the rules of the film’s grand, ludicrous hotel while forgetting to provide realistic characters, conflict, and thematic ideas to explore. Fortunately, by taking the Fury Road route of treating all fictional oddities as unremarkable and unnecessary to comment upon, Lanthimos has plenty of room to tell a compelling story and raise interesting questions, which he does. Outlining the basic arc of the plot here would, I think, give away too many of the story’s fun and uncomfortable surprises, but there’s plenty to consider about The Lobster thematically.
On it’s face, Lanthimos’s new film seems to be about the mechanized way that our society thinks about relationships--there exist scripted, regulated, high-pressure processes of courtship that we all consciously or unconsciously act out when attempting to find mates, and the result of failure to settle down is considered to be a practically subhuman existence (becoming a “cat lady” for example). This concept alone is richly explored throughout the movie's many small details, but there are even broader ideas at work here as well, especially when taking into account the substance of Lanthimos’s previous film, Dogtooth, which was performed in his native language (Greek) and is a much more uncomfortable film, lacking any of The Lobster's moments of levity.
In Dogtooth, three teenagers have been raised in a vacuum-sealed home by their inexplicably manipulative parents, who have told their children lies about the fundamental facts of the world that they accept due to being offered no alternative. Within a single suburban household, they create a perfectly logical system that is self-contained and adheres to a series of rules and regulations, supportable only inside the walls of the house. The Lobster demonstrates a similar construct within the bureaucracy of its hotel, as well as a second system entirely found in a society living in the woods outside (avoiding too much talk of this for fear of spoilers), with both having a unique set of frustratingly circular rules that are structured to make life easier but succeed only in making it more structured. (I am here reminded of another film, the excellent and underrated Martha Marcy May Marlene, which juxtaposes a patriarchal mountain cult to a well-to-do yuppie family in ways that are disturbing and profound.)
Looking at both Dogtooth and The Lobster, Lanthimos seems deeply concerned with the way humans create comfortless realities for themselves in the name of ease and convenience, which rings true not only for romantic relationships, but also countless other aspects of contemporary life. By way of example: as a guilt-ridden public school teacher myself, I am far too familiar with the way the education system treats students like products on an assembly line for the sake of standardization, sacrificing the learning of students who need to learn at a slower pace, a faster pace, or would just rather focus on different skills altogether. Tragically, it can’t be done, and the sole purpose of the thing is defeated by its own design. Adding ambiguity and differentiation to a standardized process often mucks up the whole system, which is why, I think, The Lobster makes an offhand and hilarious reference to bisexuality being an unavailable option in the computer-like hotel’s strict binary process.
In this film, Yorgos Lanthimos builds a supremely interesting world to show us how we have built our own. Some people have found the movie’s outlook on love and relationships as mechanized processes to be cynical and depressing, but I didn’t find that to be the case. Lanthimos offers here not his own perspective on how relationships should be approached, but rather two separate perspectives on how they often are, illustrating both to be deeply horrifying and worth forging new territory to escape from. The Lobster is one of the most interesting films to watch, think about, talk about, and write about that I’ve seen all year, and the fact that a film this bizarre and complicated is playing on hundreds of screens across the country is a glorious part of the reality we’ve constructed.