There is a decidedly Kafka-esque edge to The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’s dystopian meditation on romance and estrangement in the modern world. Narrated in voiceover with the clinical detachment typical of Lanthimos’s cinema, this disquieting parable draws striking parallels with the Czech master’s seminal The Trial. The Greek filmmaker borrows from his literary predecessor the harrowing atmosphere of life under oppressive rule, and revives the premise of a distraught hero’s ruthless persecution by the powers that be.
The film opens with thirtysomething David (Colin Farrell)—Joseph K.’s screen double—being left by his wife for another man and subsequently taken to a fancy seaside resort. As David is subjected to peculiar check-in rituals (registration of his sexual orientation and confiscation of his personal belongings), it becomes clear that this is no ordinary Holiday Inn but a severely administered open prison. The hotel management compels its single guests to find mates during their short stay, or else be transformed into animals. David chooses to become a lobster if he doesn’t succeed: “Lobsters live over a hundred years and stay fertile all their lives,” he explains. For Lanthimos, this is not a random choice of beast: his lethargic protagonist is like a crustacean struggling to survive in rough waters.
The hotel epitomizes the modern disciplinary institution, operating simultaneously as school, asylum, and hospital. Daily theatrical demonstrations in a ballroom extol the benefits of marital life to the guests, while physical experiments hinder sexual fulfillment. Navigating this dreadful routine, David encounters law and punishment, and even public torture: a lisping man (John C. Reilly) is burnt with a toaster in the middle of the cafeteria because he has repeatedly engaged in masturbation in his room. Some guests resort to lying and hide behind make-believe relationships to save their skins. David briefly adopts this strategy but, after a traumatic experience, flees into the woods where he begins to live among the Loners, a group of anarchic fugitives opposed to sex and love.
Survival instincts catapult David from a community that forcibly injects emotion to another that banishes it and numbs the individual. Though their principles are at odds with each other—one is a capitalist institution that marginalizes loneliness while the other is a civic society that promotes it—their tactics are similarly despotic and both inflict atrocious punishments upon disobedient members. In each case, the only thing that’s permissible is conversation. And it is by striking up a few conversations with David that one elegant Loner (Rachel Weisz, who also delivers the film’s voiceover) steals his heart away.
In this half-mythical, half-surrealistic portrait of an innocent Everyman’s confrontation with a cold-blooded system, Lanthimos achieves a level of audience identification that his previous films had failed to bring about. Alternating between melancholic and aggressive string compositions by Beethoven and Shostakovich respectively, he conveys David’s turbulent inner life and his growing sense of helplessness against power structures that want to strip him of his humanity. Lanthimos’s mise en scène is vibrant, meticulous, unsentimental, and effective.
That unsentimental quality can also alienate the viewer; in the end, David remains as much a stranger to us as he does to himself and his lover. Crushed by the violently tragic predicament in which his would-be companion finds herself, he retreats to his existential bubble and becomes ghostly, un-readable, and almost devoid of emotion. Lanthimos leaves us with a feeling of cosmic loneliness, and the idea that, even between lovers, there are insurmountable rifts—a void that can never be filled.
Yonca Taluis a regular contributor to FILM COMMENT and a filmmaker graduating from NYU Tisch this spring.