Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mate or Die: Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster

Jessica Barden and Colin Farrell in The Lobster.

LOBSTER: A clawed crustacean of the order Decapoda and family Nephropidae. Characterized by muscular tails and large front claws, lobsters have been known to live upwards of 70 years due to their unusual expression of the DNA-repairing enzyme, telomerase, into their adult lives. Widely consumed as seafood.

THE LOBSTER: Not to be confused with an actual lobster (although they share some similarities, namely their astonishing longevity), The Lobster is the English-language feature debut of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps). The dystopian dark comedy was filmed in Ireland and co-produced by companies in Ireland, Greece, France, the Netherlands, and the UK. With an incredible score borrowed from the likes of Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, it is consumed selectively by small audiences with a taste for absurdity and cultural criticism.

When his wife announces she’s leaving him for another man, David (Colin Farrell, rocking an impressive mustache and new “dad bod”) is removed from his home and entered into “the program": a mandatory sentence at a luxury hotel where singles are given 45 days to find a new life partner or be permanently changed into an animal of their choosing. Allowed to keep only his underpants, his dog (a border collie named Bob who used to be his brother), and a small jar of Tiger Balm, he is given a standard wardrobe of four blue shirts, four white shirts, and one navy suit to wear and confined to a small and depressing single bedroom. The hotel boasts luxury amenities like a spa, a pool, and sprawling grounds; guests are encouraged to take advantage of them when they’re not attending weird dances, sitting though contrived lectures on the dangers of being single, or dining alone at a row of solitary tables arranged to face the hotel’s happy couples. Masturbation and bisexuality are banned at the hotel. A character who engages in the former has his hand forcibly burned in a toaster in front of the other guests and the latter is too complex a character trait to carry over into the animal kingdom. The singles’ “rehabilitation” into coupledom is consistently monitored by the hotel’s service staff and the cold, but allegedly well-meaning, hotel manager (played by a brilliant Olivia Colman). When asked, David tells the manager that he would like to be a lobster if he doesn’t find a mate. He selects this animal because he likes the sea and admires their long lives and extended period of fertility.

Once a week, the singles are rounded up in vans and sent into the woods to hunt “Loners,” humans who have eschewed conventional coupledom and chosen instead to live asexual lives in the harsh wilderness. The Loners are committed to their solitude. Amongst themselves, they tolerate platonic friendships but punish romantic or sexual interactions with physical violence. For fun, they dance to electronic music played on Discmans through headphones. For each Loner the hotel’s singles bag with tranquilizer darts, their 45-day stay is extended by one day, offering the more athletic among them extra time to find their perfect match. During his stay at the hotel, David fails to catch any Loners of his own. However, as his 45 days come to a close, he abandons the program and runs away to join them, signalling the beginning of the movie’s drier and less successful second half.

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster.

The Lobster’s dark, absurdist humour skillfully satirizes modern society’s obsession with being in a couple, depicting singledom as devious behaviour in need of correction and promoting a misguided and uninspiring version of romance in its stead. With its deadpan, pantomime presentations of the horrors of choking alone at a dinner table, its feted but horrible first dates, and the uncomfortably clinical treatment of sex as a mechanism for securing a partner, the first half of Lanthimos’ creation is the sarcastic response we’ve all been looking for when faced with our nosiest relatives, relentlessly hounding us about when we’re getting married at every holiday. Characters dodge the abyss of single life by feigning mutual interests and afflictions with strangers and are forced to go through the motions of monogamous bliss with the encouragement of peers and hotel staff. Relationships in The Lobster’s universe are performances, without exception, incompatible with David’s romantic leanings and idealism. Through sharp situational humour, Lanthimos articulates what hopeful singles have been thinking for years: that dying alone might actually be preferable. While conservative schools of thought regard (heterosexual) monogamy as a necessary tool for survival of our species through the creation of children, The Lobster does not make this argument. Singles can choose at the outset to pursue either homosexual or heterosexual relationships; being suitably matched is regarded as important for absolutely no higher purpose at all that’s simply “the way it is.” Of child-rearing, the Hotel Manager says only that struggling couples will be assigned children if they encounter irreconcilable differences, because “that usually helps.”

Had The Lobster quit here, while it was ahead, it would have been a roaring success. Unfortunately, the film loses steam as David flees the hotel compound and joins The Loners. LĂ©a Seydoux, as their cutthroat leader, is charmingly grim but the meandering subplots of incognito city trips and a half-hearted romance between David and Rachel Weisz’s Short-Sighted Woman are convoluted and introduced way too late. Lanthimos’ attempts to satirize the alternative culture of contemporary die-hard singles the same way he did for coupledom falls flat, either wearing out the earlier gags or sometimes being downright incomprehensible. That said, while David’s secret love affair with the Short-Sighted woman is a challenge to get into, the relationship secures The Lobster’s nihilistic bent. Through the synthesis of David’s two opposite experiences, the moral of the work emerges: empty coupledom, militant singledom, or genuine romance are our three options in life but, in their own way, each are equally silly and meaningless. The message is dark in its accuracy but hysterical. Nonetheless, at 118 minutes, the film runs longer than it should and the disconnect between David’s experiences in the hotel and in the woods makes the film seem longer than it is, feeling ultimately like a pair of vignettes, awkwardly sandwiched together like the film’s couples, instead of a cohesive whole.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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