The Lobster is one of the most unsettling comedies I’ve seen in a long time. It might not be a comedy at all. What unsettled me was not only the world it is set in, but also some of the scenes of the movie. To wit: If you are single, the authorities pick you up and bring you to some cheerless high-end spa hotel where you have to find a partner because they are of the opinion that the world is a better place when there are two of something. This is why your one hand is tied behind your back for the first two days at the hotel. There are also silly dumb shows about how twosomeness is much safer. If you don’t succeed in finding a partner within 45 days, you will be transformed into the animal of your choice. The hotel manager (Olivia Colman) patiently explains that this will solve the problem of endangered animal species. That’s coercion for the greater ecological good; it’s a throwaway line because the movie also works without it, for instance as an absurd utopia, but it made my skin crawl.
That animal-transformation premise could all lead to highly comical situations, and at some point, you almost expect Ionesco’s rhinos charging through the underbrush, but no. The very first scene sets the tone: a woman is driving along a country road, stops her car, gets out and shoots one of the donkeys standing at the roadside. What did just happen? Who was the donkey? Husband? Lover? Daughter? I still don’t know exactly what that scene means, which is, of course, part of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ plan to scare us. Or consider the hunting scene where you get one day’s extension for every single you manage to shoot with your tranquiliser gun. It’s enforced Darwinism.
We experience the whole program through the eyes of David (Colin Farrell), who brings his brother Bob along, in the shape of a dog. His animal of choice is a lobster because they are blue-blooded and live to be a hundred years while remaining fertile all their lives. On the other hand, he is desperate enough to succeed in courting a woman (Angeliki Papoulia) that the others claim has no feelings at all. They seem to be right. She feigns choking in a hot tub, and David manages not to apply the Heimlich manoeuvre, and, in fact, does nothing at all, until she is convinced that he is as unfeeling as she is. Their copulating is shallow and meaning less, and their relationship will not end well. At that point, The Lobster seems to be not about death, but about loneliness and the desperate measures to save ourselves from it.
Other guests are inventive as well. There is a man with a lisp, played by John C. Reilly, who wants to become a parrot. Poor choice of animal, they tell him, but he won’t listen. There is a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw) who slams his nose into walls and edges so a young woman with spontaneous nosebleed will join him in couplehood. There is the tragic story of the woman with biscuits (Ashley Jensen) who is desperately ready to offer sexual favours in exchange for fake couplehood. (Here’s a spoiler: all the matches in the movie are fake. The point is not to be found out.) It’s a stroke of evil genius to cast Jensen, a woman known for her comedic talent, and then give her the saddest role in a movie about loneliness and missing human connection.
During the hunts, some people hide in the woods and don’t return to the hotel. They eventually become members of an illegal group in the woods under the leadership of a woman (Léa Seydoux). Romance is forbidden, but when David meets a woman (Rachel Weisz) who is as short-sighted as he is, he is smitten. There is a deep irony in his situation: he paired up with the emotionally empty woman at the hotel under false pretenses, and now that he has found his genuine and willing equal, there is no going back. It’s here that the movie changes from the transformation angle to the doomed romance angle. That works surprisingly well until there is the scene where David and his short-sighted girlfriend cannot keep their hands off each other.
From there on out, it’s about them being discovered eventually and kept separated by the Séydoux character, who insists that the Weisz character be less of a match for David. SPOILER ALERT: The Weisz character undergoes an operation that removes her eyesight. That is one of the cruellest scenes in a movie that is really not short on cruelty. It is all the more chilling because the Weisz character does not put up much of a resistance. There are very few scenes of overt, panicky rebellion in this flick, which adds to its creepiness. Plot-wise, however, those final scenes don’t really manage to keep the audience engaged on the same level as the first hour of the movie. And of course the movie stops just seconds before we are shown if David manages to poke his own eyes out with a steak knife so that he is a match again for his girlfriend. It’s an incredibly violent moment, but a futile one because their romance is doomed, they are on the run, and they cannot return to the hotel. It could be a bittersweet proof of love, and it probably is, but the cruelty, towards themselves as well as to each other, taints the whole storyline and the whole movie. As much as I liked the first hour of The Lobster, the screenplay lets down its characters in not thinking its thoughts until the end and resorting to the fate of two people who are thrown back on their selfishness when all they had before was some kind of desperate humanity. If the message is that love makes them selfish, then that’s a trite baseline for a movie that started out brimful with ideas.