'The Lobster' Is an Absurd Dystopian Wonderwork on Love
Director Yorgos Lanthimos' newest film is full of sci-fi-tinged weirdness. We loved it.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film, The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and Lea Seydoux, premiered at this year’s Cannes Film festival, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. It is also playing at the 53rd New York Film Festival. Its bizarre tale of love in a dystopian world piqued our interest, so we decided to break it down.
Sean Hutchinson: I was anticipating Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster more than any other movie at this year’s New York Film Festival. I’d latched on to Lanthimos and his particularly bizarre brand of cinema since his 2009 movie Dogtooth, which completely fascinated me. That movie has a lot in common with The Lobster, mostly because it establishes a certain set of absurd sci-fi-ish rules that gradually dictate the actions of the characters. What happens next basically counts as the plot, but mostly serves as metaphors for the themes Lanthimos is tackling at any given time.
The rules here: Anybody who’s single for an extended period is quarantined to a place called the Hotel where they have 45 days to find someone to love. If they don’t, they’ll be turned into the animal of their choice. It’s through this ridiculous lens that we get a kind of absurd, hilarious, and heartbreaking commentary on societal pressures about love and monogamy.
I’d been talking up Lanthimos and this movie in the Inverse office for awhile before seeing it. What did you expect going in? Was it as strangely effective as I had predicted?
Lauren Sarner: I was anticipating this movie too, mostly because the premise sounded bizarre and vaguely dystopian, and I am a sucker for both of those things when they’re done well. It ended up being even weirder than I anticipated, but it didn’t disappoint. What impressed me the most was that it shared elements with many other films I’ve seen that have not worked for me, and they worked here. For example, the stilted way all the characters spoke reminded me of characters in Wes Anderson movies and in the ill-fated film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.
But where those other characters came off as pretentious or cartoony — I don’t know if it’s Lanthimos’ writing or the actors — it worked here. It didn’t take its own premise too seriously, for one, and the characters were so earnestly doltish. One of my favorite parts was when Ben Whishaw’s character is describing the process by which humans are turned into animals, and Colin Farrells character says, with a completely straight face, “That makes total sense.”
SH: What surprised me most, talking about the movie after the screening, was how much I agreed about the Anderson or the Cronenberg comparisons without ever once thinking about that during the movie. Call it ignorance on my part, but I’d chalk it up to the way Lanthimos is a sort of singularly bizarre filmmaker who can pick and choose his influences — I was fascinated by the Kubrickian formalities of The Lobster — but still create a movie all his own.
He also world-builds like Anderson. These are places that look and feel like ours but are otherwise totally separate. It helps with what he’s trying to do because he wants viewers to recognize bits of what they’re watching but also have room to completely pull the rug out from under them in ways that keep them unsettled. Things are always not quite right. I’m thinking about the non sequitur opening shot or the way Ben Whishaw’s character endears himself to one of his potential mates in the movie too. Take away the adolescent quirk of Anderson and add a dash of ultraviolence and you’d have Lanthimos’ M.O. This sort of thing aligns him more with notorious button-pusher Michael Haneke, most famous for pissing off audiences everywhere with Funny Games.
The stilted, Cosmopolis-like language is another Lanthimos hallmark. It was a main aspect of Dogtooth in that the father character there intentionally mislabeled words and their meanings to his shut-in kids to keep them disoriented. The same kind of thing plays out here in The Lobster except stretched into longer English-language dialogue played for laughs. It’s Lanthimos’ first English film with big actors, and the straightforward awkwardness of the language works especially well when infantilizing characters’ discussions about love. They’re panicked that they’ll be turned into animals in a month, but Lanthimos is also commenting on the mating ritual of chit-chat.
What did you think of the bizarre way all of this dystopian theme was filtered through the animal premise, especially when it takes a turn in the film’s second half?
LS: Dystopia ranges a lot. Popular franchises now like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner and that Shailene Woodley movie that totally isn’t The Hunger Games — you guys, we swear! — would have you believe that dystopia is about futuristic societies with arbitrary rules who want to kill teens and also make them kiss.
What I liked about The Lobster was that it reminded the world that dystopia isn’t just for teens and it doesn’t always need long expositions with arbitrary rules. Like you said, we’re dropped into this world — where single people go to stay at a hotel and have a certain amount of time to find a mate who must share a certain arbitrary characteristic with them, like getting nosebleeds or being nearsighted. The rules are never really explained, but they don’t need to be. I found myself wanting more background to the mythology, wondering why the society is the way it is — particularly in the second half, when the characters keep venturing into the city — but the first half’s ridiculous animal premise gave the genre something it’s really been missing, ever since it got co-opted by teen franchises: the sentiment that sometimes, less is more.
We don’t need to know the details of The Hunger Games’ 12 districts or Divergent’s factions that definitely aren’t a ripoff of The Hunger Games 12 districts plus the Harry Potter houses. On the dystopian spectrum, The Lobster leans far more towards the quiet dread of The Handmaid’s Tale or Never Let Me Go.
What did you think of the second half — its change from the hotel to the woods, the city, and the loner society?
SH: First off, you got it spot on about this movie’s debt to Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale and the fact that it’s the sort of anti-YA take on dystopian societies. I’d love to see teenagers into The Hunger Games sit down for two hours and take this in just to see their faces.
Without giving too much away, the switch between the hotel and the woods could be jarring for some people, particularly because of the movie’s tendency to not explain details like you said. But when the movie makes that turn its themes take shape: that rules or societal structures always make us beholden to a set of principals.
What did you think of the split between the hotel and the woods, especially the kinds of people Colin Farrell’s character meets there? Also, we’ve gone this far without mentioning chubby Farrell himself and his non-flashy method acting weight gain! This movie sees him in a unique performance. What did you think of him here post-True Detective Season 2?
LS: Colin Farrell has always been one of my favorite actors. And by “always” I mean I used to arbitrarily dislike him but then I saw In Bruges, realized he’s one of the most interesting performers in his age range, and he’s been one of my favorites since.
He makes interesting choices — The Lobster definitely qualifies — and he’s good at being a likable dick and emoting in ways that don’t feel like he’s silently yelling, “IM ACTING! SEE?!?” He’s got some of the most expressive eyes in Hollywood. In that regard, he’s a strange choice to be the main character in a world where people are unemotional and flat and stiff. It was also an interesting choice for him to gain weight, because usually when actors do that, it’s “A Thing” — the media talk about it and they’re gunning for Oscars — and as far as I know, this hasn’t really been “A Thing.” I haven’t seen the blogosphere making A Thing about it and, while he was good in this movie, it’s too left-field to realistically win Oscars. But together with his wilted True Detective mustache, it kind of worked. As I was watching the misguided mess of True Detective, a friend looked over my shoulder once when he was onscreen, and said, “His mustache look is oddly kind of doing it for me.” Far fewer people will be saying that of his aesthetic in The Lobster, but that’s what the role demands. He has to be a bewildered, schlubby everyman.
The very fact that we’re talking about it — schlubby Colin Farrell, omg! — fits the movie’s points about the things we fixate on in relationships. Instead of fixating on beauty or intellect in their potential partners, people here instead fixate on traits — limps, an affinity for biscuits, eyesight — and we laugh at it, but is it really that different from the things we fixate on in the real world, when we’re evaluating people who catch our eye?
SH: That’s definitely the roundabout genius of The Lobster. Through this ridiculous world with all of its unexplained rules, it illuminates something equally as ridiculous about real relationships. That’s also the roundabout genius of Yorgos Lanthimos. He’s able to hit on some serious topics while staying abstract, but never losing sight of what he’s trying to say.
It’ll be fascinating to see what he does next with the relatively straightforward movie The Favourite, which is a costume drama about England’s Queen Anne and the House of Stuart. Hopefully he’ll keep it this successfully weird.