One of the most evocative scenes in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language movie is Colin Farrell singing “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” the gothic ballad by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. Its melancholy summons an eluding romance, a notion that is the antipode of Lanthimos’ world in The Lobster where he tackles relationships and our society’s obsession with nuclear coupledom and procreation.
Presented in the Official Selection in Cannes, the satirical and abstract film is also one of Colin Farrell’s most enthralling roles.
Farrell is actually The Lobster. Well, not really, but if his character David were to transform into an animal, he would pick the delectable crustacean for its long lifespan, lifelong fertility and because he likes the sea. That’s what he says during the check-in process at The Hotel, a sort of resort where single people who are arrested and transferred to. There they dispose of 45 days to find love. Think of it as speed-dating at a Club Med, only more sinister. If they fail to hook up within 45 days, they are transformed into the animal of their choice and released into the woods. Hence, the lobster.
If they do find a mate, the couples are upgraded to a double room for a trial period, explains the hilariously caricatural Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) whose own marriage epitomizes wedded bliss. If the couples encounter any relationship problems, they are given a child. Welcome to modern-day life.
The newly-divorced David doesn’t seem too concerned with securing himself a mate, unlike Biscuit Woman who sees every man as a potential partner, or the two unnamed fellows he befriends, the young Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and the middle-aged Lisping Man (John C. Reilly, his second role in a competition film this year), and these characteristics are not disabilities but the basis of a bond with a potential partner. Limping Man, desperate to avoid transformation, bangs his head to provoke nosebleeds like Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) whom he wishes to court, an allegory for how people prefer to be in the safety net of coupledom, even without love, than be alone and thrown in the jungle. David’s own shortcoming — and obsession — is his nearsightedness. In the opening shot, we hear him asking Her whether The Other Man wears glasses or contacts.
But as David realizes his time is running out, he provokes a union with the stone-cold short-haired Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). Their life in the double room is a hilarious image of the boring life of couples. Every act is mechanical and soulless. Creatures of habit, as they say. When the relationship hits the rocks (I’ll avoid any spoilers), David manages to escape into the woods where he comes across The Loners, led by Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux).
Rebelling against The City’s mating rules, they are against coupledom and love in general. In fact, the only couple Loner Leader tolerates is her parents. She is rather extreme in her disdain of love. Perhaps she’s had an amorous deception. One thing’s for sure, whether Loner or Coupler, they are all at an age where it’s easy to become cynical about love and increasingly difficult to find a suitable mate. The future is often depicted as bleak for single people. They either face a life of spinsterhood, growing old alone or simply always being the outsider at the family Christmas party. It reminds me of Logan’s Run where life must end at age 30. Maybe because it’s harder to find a mate as you get older?
And David, who hadn’t found love at The Hotel, finds it where falling in love is strictly forbidden. And this is when the story veers left. Yet it had started out full of promises with its warped, dark humor and a pinch of Wes Anderson abstractedness. While the first half of the film is subtle, it borders on absurdity in the second part, losing some of its original folly.
It would have been more intriguing if David had stayed in that hotel, if the story was pushed to take us inside the Transformation Room. What if they hook up as animals, can they be transferred back to human form?
Narrated by Rachel Weisz, who plays Farrell’s love interest Short-Sighted Woman, The Lobster nevertheless is a typical Yorgos Lanthimos smart speculative piece bordering on art house filmmaking where society is decorticated to its core. Yet that core somehow eludes us, even when we’re that close.