Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux
Upon reflection, it’s stunning how many of our expectations about marriage are ridiculed, satirized, or otherwise contended with in The Lobster, and how often it’s done well. Forty-five days to meet a mate corresponds with our own arbitrary yet nearly ironclad ideas about how old one can be and marry for the first time; there’s still a sense in America that if you aren’t well on your way to marriage in your late twenties, you’re in deep coupling trouble. You can add days onto your stay at the hotel by tracking down loners in the forest, shooting them with tranquilizer darts, and then bringing them back. One resident known as the “Heartless Woman” (Angeliki Papoulia) has extended her stay with a record number of loners brought out of the forest, much the equivalent of being a fabulously wealthy person who can practically buy a spouse at leisure regardless of age. The government obviously has some investment in creating married couples in this reality, as evidenced by the fact that David (Farrell) being alone at a mall nearly gets him arrested by a security guard. Only the timely intervention of our narrator (Weisz), playacting as his partner, saves him from some terrible fate. Governments all over the world in our time offer tax breaks and other incentives to married couples unavailable to single people, making it advantageous to be married with children. And the mistress of the hotel (Olivia Colman) leads a series of skits which show the practically Biblical turn of phrase of “It is not good for man to be alone. A man alone chokes on his meal; a woman with him, however, saves his life. A woman alone is raped; a man with her, however, is a strong deterrent.
The element for partnering which is most pervasive in the film is the importance of having something in common with your mate. John (Ben Whishaw) arrives at the hotel less than a week after the death of his wife; like him, she walked with a limp. Starting to feel the pinch, he decides to make a connection with a young woman who frequently gets nosebleeds (Jessica Barden). What’s worse? John asks of David. Is it worse to end up as an animal or to bring on a nosebleed every now and then through some self-abuse? It’s worse to be an animal, David says, and well, based on that logic it’s hard to disagree with John. Yet it is also made clear that lying about some small tidbit like that is a decision which can be cruelly punished in more ways than one. Getting a little nervous himself, David pretends to be as heartless as the Heartless Woman in an attempt to be coupled and avoid the transformation. David passes her first test with flying colors; he lets her “die” when she chokes on an olive. Her second test (even the constant testing is a jab at the way couples interact in real life) is a failure for David. She kills his brother, who was turned into a dog at the end of his stay at the hotel some years back. When David cries, she knows that he is not a fellow sociopath.
The Lobster forces its characters over and over again to either find some characteristic they have in common with another, or to kick the can down the road and lie about it. It’s that dichotomy that informs the ending of the film, as we leave a recently blinded Rachel Weisz at a table in a diner while Colin Farrell, in one of the great cringeworthy scenes ever made, tries to work himself up into cutting his eyeballs out so he can have something in common with her. Previously, they had their nearsightedness in common. But the leader of the loners (Seydoux) has the woman blinded for her clandestine relationship with David, a choice which makes her eye for punishment particularly keen. David, for love, at least claims to be willing to blind himself like Oedipus; deciding not to blind himself and then telling her that he had done the deed would qualify as the sort of lie he’d tried out with the Heartless Woman. It’s a sensational choice, the rancid cherry on top of this terribly gross sundae.
Yet if this is a sundae, it’s a sundae where all of the sprinkles are arranged in perfect geometric patterns all the way down to the bottom of the bowl, holding their shape even during spoonfuls. The Lobster has pristine structure, for there is no event in the second half of the film which has not previously been alluded to in the first. Even individual motions are recreated. The narrator saves David from a hotel acquaintance named Robert (John C. Reilly) who has him tranked to rights in the forest; she barrels into his knee with a sharp object to bring him down. Her posture as she strikes is almost identical, albeit mirrored (she came from the right side of the screen, David will come from the left) in the way David brings down the leader. She wakes up in the grave that she had him dig for himself, with dogs jumping around her; she had told David to cover his own face with dirt so that the dogs wouldn’t eat it. Perhaps when David stares at a knife he’s thinking about his dead brother, but maybe he’s thinking about a more recent event; while living with the loners in the woods, he participated in an ambush of sorts on the hotel in which he revealed to the nosebleed woman that John was faking his nosebleed condition.
One of my favorite descriptions I’ve ever read of the horror genre is if the narrator doesn’t recognize how terrifying the events of the story are, it’s horror. And if that’s the case, then certainly The Lobster is a horror movie. Certainly the idea that one has a limited amount of time within a small space to find a suitable partner or otherwise lose one’s humanity is frightening to us. Everyone seems to take this for granted in the movie, but there are moments scattered throughout which prove that everyone’s afraid of the idea, too. The nosebleed woman has a best friend who fails to couple during her time at the hotel; in their last meeting, her vaguely smarmy condolences earn her a slap from the friend, who is seen in the next scene as a Shetland pony. John rejects any conversation about turning into an animal and gets into a slapfight with Robert over his coarse reaction. One woman, infamous for always having “butter biscuits” on her person, tells David that if she doesn’t find a partner she’ll kill herself by jumping out of a window. (She does the second part. It’s not clear that the first part is a success.) The animal bit is an effect, though; very few people question the cause. Those that do, like the leader of the loners still in the woods, are militant in their celibacy. Any sort of sexual interaction, from flirting on up, is grounds for consequences: a shaved head, a hot boiled egg under the armpit, the “Red Kiss” or “Red Intercourse.” And, as the narrator finds out, blinding is also on the table.
Yet if this is a horror movie, it’s one that results in short, barked laughter over and over again. David dances with the nosebleed woman in the early going, who tells him all about the different ways to get blood out of clothing after she’s gotten some blood on his shirt. John’s story about trying to find his mother (transformed into a wolf) at the zoo and finding a limp instead is hilarious. Little visual cues work on us over and over again in this movie. The dance, which we had assumed was taking place at night, appears to have taken place in the early afternoon and have been fabricated as nighttime with very good curtains. During a game of post-blinding “Touch Think Guess Win,” the narrator rubs a tennis ball against her hands and cheeks. “A kiwi,” she says. In the forest, where many of the failed lovers appear to have been released, we see a peacock a couple times; we also see a flamingo wander past, and of all things a Bactrian camel climbs uphill. This is a movie that recognizes that “dangerously funny” is a highly desirable descriptor.