Can Our Love?
By Nick Pinkerton

The Lobster
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece/UK, Alchemy

The English-language debut is the jagged reef against which the career of many an international art-house director has run aground, however temporarily. Some believe that even Jia Zhangke, with the Australia-set last act of his Mountains May Depart, hasn’t proven entirely immune to this rule. Yorgos Lanthimos, whose first English-language film, The Lobster, is on the New York Film Festival slate with Jia’s film, would seem to have a decided advantage in making the jump, for the Greek writer-director has been living in the United Kingdom for a number of years now and, in his post-screening Q&A, proved a fluid and comfortable English-speaker.

Having an ear for “natural” English dialogue, however, is almost totally irrelevant to what The Lobster sets out to do. The film’s international cast includes native English speakers like Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly, as well as continental actors like Léa Seydoux, Ariane Labed, and Angeliki Papoulia, though all of them deliver dialogue in much the same mannered, tin-eared cadence: unvaryingly measured, stilted in tone, unnervingly to-the-point, and devoid of any softening niceties. In a way the speech resembles that of an anxious eight-year-old, for there is a complete lack of “filter” in the way people just blurt out what’s on their minds. This may be taken as a wearisome affect, but it seems to me in the tradition of the best European art cinema, so-called, which once cultivated individual, stylized approaches to performance as most famously exemplified by Bresson and Fassbinder, but which has more recently been marked by a deadening obeisance to realism, that dingy cul-de-sac.

Synopsized, The Lobster might sound like high-concept science-fiction—a bit of Logan’s Run, a touch of Fahrenheit 451. And after a fashion it is, though there are no jumpsuits, moon boots, retinal scans, plasma cannons, or any other such trappings. Lanthimos, who shares screenwriting credit with Efthimis Filippou, takes his sweet time in unveiling the full breadth of his film’s alternate reality and its governing laws, and the world we are introduced to looks very much like our own in the present day—specifically Ireland, where the film was shot. David (Farrell), introduced processing the news that his wife has betrayed him with another man, packs his bags and heads off to what appears to be some kind of hotel retreat for singles. The entertainment at the midday dances, provided by the manager and her husband (Peep Show’s Olivia Colman and Roger Ashton-Griffiths), is the sort of thing that one might expect to find at a Butlin’s holiday camp c. 1974, though life at the hotel otherwise resembles an experiment in eugenics staged for reality television. (Lanthimos has cited Channel 4 program The Hotel among his inspirations.) Singles arriving at the hotel are issued uniforms, and given a finite number of days in which to find a partner. Insofar as we can tell it’s as good as official mandate that an official partnership must be built on a stringent version of what we refer to as “compatibility,” the basis of which isa shared defining trait: nearsightedness, for example, or a penchant for nosebleeds, or an inability to feel emotion. At the end of this period, if guests have failed to find a partner, they will be gently euthanized and transformed into an animal of their choosing. The title comes from David’s choice, his deadpan explanation for which is one of the funnier bits in a movie full of them: “They’re blue-blooded,” he explains, “Like aristocrats.” When the date of transformation draws near, some singles turn in desperation to feigning a defining trait with someone at the hotel. The other option for those looking to extend their stay of execution is to perform well in the daily games of tranquilizer dart hide-and-go-seek on the hotel’s grounds, which are depicted in ravishing slow-motion. (Here you may recall that Lanthimos was involved in devising the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.)

Coupledom, we come to gather, is governmentally enforced by authoritarian dictate, and so a desire for self-preservation is, perforce, behind every union. Should there be a breakdown in communication between a newly formed twosome, the hotel manager informs them that they’ll “be assigned children; that usually helps.” This got the biggest crowd response at my screening—the laughter of recognition, for the universe of The Lobster is a distorted mirror image of our quotidian reality, in which the cultural enforcement of partnering is de facto rather than de jure, where continuing to play the field or simply remaining alone past a certain point is viewed as a species of arrested development (“On the flesh rampage, at your age?” sang Morrissey in “Trouble Loves Me”), where such once-respectable figures as the celibate priest or the spinster aunt are now viewed with suspicion at best, and where, yes, children are expected to save a marriage by way of distraction and exhaustion.

Of course such a civilization must have its discontents—dwelling in the woods like Fahrenheit 451’s “Book People” are the “Loners,” whom David joins after a flight from the hotel. Instead of embodying literary history, the Loners, led by po-faced Seydoux, are an inside-out version of the society that they reject, defined by opposition rather than justice. They enforce a strict code of their own, which puts a ukase on all flirtation and physical contact, something that becomes a problem when David and another Loner (Weisz) begin making (shortsighted) eyes at one another. The step-by-step reveal of a proscribed “world” will be familiar to viewers of Lanthimos’s previous films written with Filippou, recalling as it does the slow feeling out of the walls around the family compound in Dogtooth (2009), or the immersion into the rites of the grief cult in Alps (2011), though the scale here is more ambitious here than in previous works, with each new wrinkle in the narrative complicating the previously established dichotomy, and introducing new comic possibilities. (In this manner Lanthimos avoids the fate of his sometime-collaborator Athina Rachel Tsangari’s latest, the one-trick-pony behaviorist comedy Chevalier.)

Also recognizable from the earlier films is Lanthimos’s interest in designing scenes which draw attention to the physicality of his actors—it is tempting to call these moments “physical comedy,” but they are often so squeamish that much of the laughter they evoke is of the nervous and sickish variety. This penchant is evident from a moment shortly after David’s arrival at the hotel when, in a bizarre kind of hazing ritual, he has to prepare for bed by wriggling out of his pants with one hand cuffed behind his back and a padlock on his belt buckle. (Farrell, who sports a grandiose gut, has packed on significant poundage in order to play a podgy, middle-aged cuckold, but for once it feels less like a stunt than the result of an actor happily overindulging in an Irish breakfast marathon.) Later, Farrell and Weisz have a knockout scene together in which, infiltrating the unnamed outside “City” in the guise of a couple—which in fact they have become, unbeknownst to their fellow Loners—they dangerously oversell their roles, going from holding hands to hungrily sucking face during a living room recital.

The film ends with the setup of another “gag” of sorts, in which David prepares to perform a gesture of terrible sacrifice that, according to the presiding laws, is the only act that can preserve his romance—think the dumbbell to the face in Dogtooth, taken to the next level. As the credits come on, the question as to if he will go through with his plan remains unresolved, leaving us at a final moment of tension in which the lingering doubt that hangs over the film is concentrated at the tip of a poised knife. Can the couple—the unit around which this society, like ours, has been structured—ever really take priority over the individual? The Loners certainly don’t think so; they operate as a kind of clandestine terrorist organization, but instead of planting explosives they plant mistrust in the minds of couples, engineering dramatic acts which draw out the ineradicable instinct for self-preservation that makes any true two-become-one symbiosis impossible. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusion as to if David will either carry out his romantic gesture, or balk and by saving “I,” lose “us.” Either outcome is tragic, and perhaps Lanthimos is feeling his ancestral roots in this homage to Oedipus—or simply referring to the homespun wisdom that “love is blind.”