2015, d. Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth)
Critics are buzzing about The Lobster, but sometimes you need to be wary of critical buzz, because they have a tendency swarm around films that dare to be different, and even more films that dare to be abstract. This critical praise doesn't necessarily translate to a wider audience because too often different and abstract are too much. Critics watch hundreds of films per year and are paid to think about them, to process their story and meaning and construction. The average filmgoer pays to be entertained, and, on occasion, challenged. Either way, it's meant to be a bit of an escape, but if you're forced into thinking about the film as you watch it, you're not really escaping. The reviewer sees so many cookie-cutter, carbon-copy movies with rehashed, wanna-be stories and gags (whether violent or comedic) that they become numb to much of the experience. A film like The Lobster, by being different, will shock them out of that numbness, and therein lies appreciation. The question for a film like this is does it earn its buzz merely by being different, or is there more to it?
Much of The Lobster takes place in a hotel where single individuals go to find a partner, but they only have 45 days to do so. If they don't make it, they're transformed into the animal of their choice. The film doesn't make it entirely clear that this is a mandatory procedure. It seems elective at first, but as the first act wears on, it becomes clear that there's a sense of fatality here. The rules of the hotel are very, very restrictive, designed to promote a desire for coupling and rejection of the individual. There's punishment for masturbation and mini one-act plays that highlight the dangers of being alone (choking on one's meal, getting assaulted walking alone). One guest of the hotel desperately searches for a partner, declaring her intention to kill herself soon if unsuccessful.
Our protagonist (if you can call him that, he's the central figure for sure, but I'm not clear if we're supposed to genuinely like or relate to him, so alien is his world) is David, played by a mustachioed, bespectacled, paunch-bellied Colin Farrell, every trace of the swarthy leading man sucked out of him as he transforms completely into a monotonal schlub (his rarely heard Irish accent makes him sound almost exactly like Ardal O'Hanlon, which makes me wonder if it's a put-on as well). He arrives at the hotel, and like all guests, is stripped of almost every trace of his individuality, and told that he needs to declare a preferential sex (bisexuality was fazed out last year due to persistent confusion). Men are issued a standard blue suit while the women are provided a uniform floral dress. David has brought his brother Bob with him (Bob was transformed into a dog after his stay at the hotel) but Bob is confined to David's room.
Everyone at the hotel speaks in a forthright manner that is inherently comedic. There's still some small worry of offense as we see David's reservation in making certain statements, but at the same time, people generally speak their mind. But it's not an honest society by any means, as David's new friend (Ben Whishaw) fakes nosebleeds in order to get paired with the girl who gets a lot of nosebleeds (Jessica Barden). Pairing in this society seems almost entirely based on single, obvious characteristics... a proper couple will both have nosebleeds, or be myopic, or both have a limp. There seems no consideration of actual emotional investment or thought to common interests. David himself takes the challenge of coupling with the "heartless woman" (Dogtooth's Aggeliki Papoulia), surmising that it's easier to fake not having emotions than it is to fake liking some. It turns out to be a bad plan and forces David to flee the hotel into the woods, where the Loners live.
The Loners are the outcasts of this dystopian society of forced relationships. Loners are not accepted by society, and the Loners are only accepting of each other if they follow the rules of staying true to being alone. No flirting, no kissing or sex, no relying upon each other, with some pretty dire punishments if caught. As a Loner you dig your own grave in preparation of dying alone, and you listen to your own electronic music on your own discman so you can dance alone even when everyone is dancing. The Loners pretend to pair up as they visit the city, where we witness individuals standing around at the mall getting harassed by police for their partnership papers.
David and another Loner (Rachel Weisz) find themselves drawn to one another they conduct themselves very discreetly, only daring to declare actual affection for each other once they discover they're both short-sighted. The rules of coupling in society still hold sway over them, just as the rules of being a Loner do. Ultimately they're discovered and forced to face the consequences, until they escape. But stuck at a highway restaurant, between the city of couples and the country of Loners, the film ends unsure of where they fit, or where they sit.
The Lobster (named after the animal David chooses to become) does provide escape, it provides the different, and also the abstract. But it also provides it all in a way that throws you into your own mind as it plays out. You have to puzzle out the characters and their motivations at least until snippets of the overall weirdo alt-society are dispensed. I was in a mid-day, practically empty theatre (only two other viewers) but even still I was looking around to see if I could catch someone's eye, wondering if we were all having the same puzzling experience. Yet I wasn't not entertained. The affected seemingly uncensored thoughts-turned-dialogue and monotone delivery is inherently funny. It's basically a Wes Anderson interpretation of Gattaca, wry yet sternly serious. There's a darkly comedic bent to all the horrifying tragedies of the film (including a botched suicide which serves as the backdrop to David's courtship of the heartless woman, which is easily top 5 of the most uncomfortable scenes in a movie I've ever seen), and even some terrific action (watching the hotel guests hunt the Loners with dart guns in slow motion action is incredibly, incredibly cool... the guests get an additional day's stay for each Loner they tranq).
I enjoyed The Lobster, but I can't for the life of me pinpoint what it's trying to say. It's a film that seems to desperately be conveying a message through a satirical alternate reality, and yet that message seem painfully obtuse. Something about relationships and the pressures society put upon individuals, whether they want to be a couple or an individual. Is the point that we're almost better off just being an animal? Again, there's no real clarity. It'll be worth the journey for some, but the be-puzzlement that persists afterwards is frustrating.