[This is a re-post of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The Lobster opens today in limited release.]
Over his last few films, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established a unique tone for himself as a filmmaker. Pitched somewhere between Luis Bunuel and Larry David, Lanthimos combines small behavioural comedy and twisted surrealism with darkly cynical edge. His latest film The Lobster is his first in the English language and features a cast of international stars. You might think that would smooth the edges off of the director’s bizarre vision, but nope. This is as nutty and insightful and entertaining as anything he’s ever made, even if the second half can’t quite match the undeniable genius of the first.
Colin Farrell stars as a recently single man in a world that’s outlawed living alone. Singles are rounded up and sent to a hotel run by Olivia Coleman who explains the benefits of finding a mate through such techniques as having one hand tied behind your back (to show how two are better than one) or presentations on the heimlich maneuver. Predictably, everyone is hopelessly awkward and seeks out a mate based purely on a single shared trait or flaw (even a bloody nose will do). Unable to flirt or frankly even talk his way to success with any of the available women, Farrell forms friendships with a lisping John C. Reilly and a limping Ben Whishaw. The trio mumble about for a while, but have to be careful because anyone who doesn’t find a mate at the hotel after 45 days will be turned into an animal and set free (Farrell wants to be a lobster due to their long lifespan and endless fertility, hence the title).
It’s a pretty brilliant satire of society’s obsession with coupling, exaggerated to surreal lengths while still hitting moments that feel frightfully real. Lanthimos and his cast find just the right balance between the comedic, surreal, and dramatic potential of the concept, with seemingly every scene see-sawing from one tone to the next in a way that keeps viewers constantly off balance. Farrell plays painfully awkward surprisingly well (with a big assist from his moustache), while Reilly is so good and finding the funny/sad sweet spot that it’s a shame he doesn’t have a larger part. Lanthimos camera holds back from an objective distance throughout, allowing the actors to play out scenes as if there’s an invisible wall between them preventing anything that even resembles warm human contact from occurring. It’s kind of a masterpiece of bleakly comedic absurdism, but unfortunately this section only amounts to half the movie.
Eventually Farrell escapes and ends up in the woods with a gang of single outlaws led by Blue Is The Warmest Color’s Lea Seydoux. They all live in the woods and share a sense of community bonded through electronic music. Masturbation is allowed to flow freely, but any attempt at love or physical contact between these singles is met with harsh punishment. It’s a clever way for Lanthimos to mock the pathology of the perpetually single in the same way he tears down coupling in the first half of the flick. Unfortunately it’s just not quite as rich a target and never quite resonates with the same level of stinging laughter.
However, it’s here the Rachel Weisz’s previously unseen narrator is finally introduced in the flesh. Since she is near-sighted like Farrell, they instantly fall for each other even though they need to keep their affair a secret from the other singles. Oddly, given all of the cynical satire and twisted absurdism that played out before this point, their relationship ends up being oddly touching, adding yet another tonal flavour to Lanthimos’ deeply bizarre vision and one packed with some rather unexpected (though very welcome) warmth.
Yet, there’s no denying that as strong as The Lobster might be on a scene-by-scene basis, it’s an oddly bisected movie structurally. It almost feels like watching a brilliant bleak comedy and followed swiftly by its slightly weaker sequel. Thankfully, that’s not enough to derail the film as a whole. Nope, The Lobster is simply to wonderfully weird an experience with surprisingly emotional heft. However, that does make the difference between an excellent movie and a genuine masterpiece. Still very much worth seeking out and proof that Lanthimos is a truly brilliant filmmaker here to stay. Hopefully it won’t be long before his next wacko art house comedy.