It’s weird how much cinephillia is only allowed to exist because of some very tenuous economic circumstances. For instance, the director Asghar Farhadi’s ascendance in the film world may have come as less of a surprise to everybody if his breakthrough film About Elly had gotten American release, but it didn’t because its initial distributor went out of business and the film wasn’t seen on these shores until five years later. I bring this up because something very similar almost happened to Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut feature The Lobster. The film debuted at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and played to most of the world later that year, but here it is summer of 2016 and we’re only just now getting the film in the United States. The film was originally supposed to be put out by a company called Alchemy but they had some major financial problems and distribution needed to be handed over to A24, which has become something of an enfant terribles in the world of independent film distribution. Between Spring Breakers, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and others they’ve proven to be very adept at making unorthodox movies go viral, but even they will likely have some trouble finding a way to market the wacky mindset of Yorgos Lanthimos to a wider audience.
The Lobster is a sort of comedy set in a dystopian world where single people (including divorcees) are forced to attend a sort of hotel resort where they must find the love of their lives within 45 days or they’ll be turned into an animal of their choice for the rest of their lives. The film’s exploration of this society focuses on a man named David (Colin Farrell) who has just divorced after eleven years and if unable to find a mate at this hotel and has opted to be turned into a lobster if he’s unable to find a mate in his designated timeframe. While at the hotel he’s subjected to various lessons that are meant to teach the society’s pathological insistence on monogamy and is also tasked with periodically hunting down people who have tried to escape from the hotel to hide in the woods.
So, if you can’t tell from the description, this is not a movie that’s ever likely to be called clichéd and cookie-cutter. The basic premise of the movie is of course kind of insane. No society would ever go to the trouble of setting up a program like this and trying to view it as a plausible science fiction scenario would be a mistake and the movie doesn’t have the usual “this is what we could come to if we’re not careful” morality that dystopian fiction usually operates under. The film also probably shouldn’t be viewed as a strict allegory either, or at least I wouldn’t recommend spending your entire viewing trying to find a one-to-one allegory between each element of the film and society at large. Obviously the movie would seem to be a critique of society’s insistence on pushing people into monogamous relationships whether they want to be in them or not, but the extent of this would seem to be wildly exaggerated by the scenario in the movie. While it’s true that single people are often feel a lot of soft pressure to get into relationships it certainly isn’t this dramatic and I don’t know that it applies to 39 year old divorcees and the 45 day time limit with a definite punishment at the end certainly doesn’t match with the realities of the issue. In fact I suspect that the whole “cult of coupledom” element of the movie may in fact be something of a red herring with the film’s true message being more of a broader indictment of conformity; about the way people just go along with traditions and demand that other people live a certain way just because it works for them.
Yorgos Lanthimos came to prominence when he made Dogtooth, a Greek film about a crazy family where the father has opted to isolate his children from the rest of society and which was likely meant to be an allegory for repressive regimes of the North Korea variety. That was a film which only made you accept that one family acts insane in a world that is otherwise normal, this one on the other hand requires its audience to go along with a whole world that just accepts a whole lot of weirdness and the characters act in ways that are very peculiar and this is sometimes jarring. On top of that the film has something of a deadpan tone which can be a bit hard to jive with. I almost wonder if I would have connected with the movie more if it had been in a foreign language and had some of the oddly nonplussed speech patterns hidden under sub-titles because hearing actors I know talking in this way was a bit alienating. All of this is intentional of course and I do wonder if this is maybe a movie I just need to see again before I fully embrace it. I was pretty sure I understood exactly what Dogtooth was trying to say the first time I saw it but this one not so much. Still this is definitely a bold movie that’s more than worth a look and worth discussing.