The Lobster makes no attempt to ease you in to its surreal world. Opening on a woman shooting a donkey with a handgun whilst disconcerting string music screeches around her, we then move to a scene of a wife leaving her husband (Colin Farrell) for another man, leaving the husband to be carted off almost immediately to a strange hotel. Yorgos Lanthimos gives a statement of intent in his first few minutes – if you don’t want to be slightly confused and alienated, then The Lobster isn’t for you. As it turns out, the hotel is a place for singles, a punitive resort where you either find a match in 45 days or end up being turned into an animal.
David, Colin Farrell’s character, wants to be a lobster should he fail to partner up, an unusual choice for which he’s commended by the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman). There are few, if any, films that immediately spring to mind as comparison points for The Lobster, its unique premise one of its strongest suits. At a basic level, it’s a satire on relationships, which in itself isn’t revolutionary, but is almost made so by a cinematic world unlike any you’ve experienced before.
The Lobster marks the first English-language effort by Lanthimos, who is probably best known for his claustrophobic and deeply odd Dogtooth. One of the film’s true stars is art director Mark Kelly – the hotel is excellently designed, almost comfortable, but deeply off-putting in the way it just about falls short of all standards of luxury. It’s not dingy, and there are plenty of amenities, but the building’s purpose infects its design. A place for conformity and sadness, it’s unremittingly bleak – which unfortunately becomes one of the film’s main problems. Constant mist and a lack of colours or emotion numb the audience rather than increase our fascination with Lanthimos’ carefully cultivated strangeness. A selection of eerie licensed pop and classical tracks makes up the score, unpleasant, but also a part of one of the The Lobster’s strongest jokes.
Dialogue is deliberately stilted, from awkward introductions to blatantly false declarations of love and friendship. Without such a fine cast, this would be a far riskier choice, but instead it feels believable in a world where relationships are decided by rules and regulations rather than genuine emotion. Farrell’s David meets The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw – no characters other than David have actual names) on his first morning in the hotel. The Limping Man’s cynicism and purpose are at odds with most other residents of the hotel, and we never learn what animal he desires to be. His presence is vital – it means the men of The Lobster are not exclusively sad-sacks and highlights the deadening effects of this oppressive society.
Later, David meets the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) in the woods where the Loners reside. Lead by a ruthless commander played by Lea Seydoux, the Loners (escapees from the hotel) are no more free than the hotel guests, entirely forbidden from even flirting with one another, let alone starting relationships.
Whishaw and Weisz’s characters occupy two ends of a spectrum on which David stands in the middle. The Limping Man is determined to survive – as a human – entirely on the terms given by the hotel, whilst the Short-Sighted Woman refuses to abide by the rules set by either side. Both the mysterious, couple-obsessed society and the Loners are horrible extremists, and one has to choose a side, even if it’s by accident. Every day, guests can hunt the Loners with tranquiliser guns – for every escapee they recapture, they gain an extra day to find a partner. A particularly nasty woman, who is repeatedly said to have no heart, has accrued over 130 days thanks to her hunting prowess, and one assumes that she has no real plans to ever move on from the hotel.
Farrell, allowed to retain his normal accent, deftly balances the sadness and humour needed for a role like this. He’s not quite as excellent here as he was in In Bruges, but the dialogue he’s working with is nowhere near the level of Martin McDonagh’s superb assassin comedy. Whishaw undercuts his natural charm as he did in Suffragette for a nuanced, if not particularly likable, performance whilst Weisz unfortunately fails to engage all that much. Given that her role is meant to form the story’s emotional crux, this is a real problem, her relationship with David never quite ringing true. Perhaps that’s the point, but it means that the ending is deprived of a lot of power. No member of the cast feels as comfortable with the dialogue and atmosphere as John C Reilly as the Lisping Man. From the moment we meet Reilly, he looks doomed to become an animal, and his sad, worried air makes any misfortune that befalls him deeply affecting.
The main problem with The Lobster is that it’s too long. Its surrealist premise only carries it so far, and momentum bleeds away rapidly as soon as David leaves the hotel. Shots are excellently framed and composed, but the muted colour palette means its never as interesting to look at as a film of this nature should be. We’re entering a whole new world, but it lacks any real visual hook, which exacerbates the pacing problem of the second half.
Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is the other major piece of cinematic surrealism this year, and whilst comparisons are unfair (Anomalisa is a stone-cold masterpiece, after all), it manages to succeed in all the areas where The Lobster fails. It’s only 90 minutes, constantly visually interesting, and is bursting with wonderful writing. For the first half, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is rich in ideas if not incident, but it loses focus. The sheer bizarreness of the premise makes The Lobster worth exploring, but as a series of side plots refuse to wear themselves out in the final third, you can’t shake the feeling that it should have ended 20 minutes ago.