The Repressed Sci-Fi of Yorgos Lanthimos and 'The Lobster'

The leader of the Weird Wave steps out with his best film yet.


Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has previously been informally categorized in a group of like-minded filmmakers hailing from the nearly bankrupt Mediterranean isles. Often labeled as the “Weird Wave,” the set of oddball films from this unofficial group are categorized by their unflagging strangeness, systematic adherence to subverting genres, and contradictory ability to resist interpretation but get over-eager writers (myself included) to ponder what it all means. If the merry band of Greek cinematic weirdos had a leader it would be Lanthimos, whose unsettling feature films have all stuck to the Weird Wave’s unauthorized manifesto of gorgeous abnormality. Nowhere is this more acute than his newest and first English-language film, The Lobster.

We’ve recently stewed over just what The Lobster is trying to get at, and even then the questions delightfully outweigh the answers. And that’s just how Lanthimos undoubtedly wants it. What his films do best is establish their outlandish plots and let his characters run wild, sometimes literally. But the best part of being un-categorizable like this is the ways in which his films flirt with the opposite. Of all of the ways to classify Lanthimos and his movies, the one that makes most sense is science fiction.

In 2009’s Dogtooth, the patriarch of a Greek family keeps his three teenage children confined to their home and methodically keeps them disoriented about the outside world by intentionally mislabelling normal word-meanings and behaviors. In 2011’s Alps, an eclectic group of people start a business where they assume the lives of the recently deceased to help grieving family members cope with their loss. In The Lobster, all unmarried people are quarantined to a place called the Hotel where they have 45 days to find lasting love. If they don’t, they have to willfully submit to being turned into an animal of their choice. Also, in the woods surrounding the hotel are so-called “loners,” or the people who reject the whole dystopian animal system and stop at nothing to destroy it.

All three movies are about people trying to escape fictitious worlds, a basic hallmark of landmark sci-fi works. What sets something like The Lobster apart from recent similar non-overt sci-fi fare like Under the Skin or Children of Men is just how uninterested it is in pushing its non-futuristic narrative.

The superficial complexion of Lanthimos’ films don’t bother to bask in their own genre. In The Lobster there are no flashy special effects, no apparent references to other films, and no attempt to justify its seemingly ridiculous scenarios. Instead, Colin Farrell’s schlubby main character David carries on as normal, letting us absorb the rules of Lanthimos’ bizarre society based on his actions. In many ways it’s pure visual filmmaking at its best.

Lanthimos builds that world using a camouflaged sense of science fiction as a way to show that dystopia isn’t too far off from our own. His tendency to also have characters deliver often darkly comedic but highly satirical dialogue helps steer the message away from marmishness. It lets its themes unfurl at their own pace.

In The Lobster, David (and thus Lanthimos himself) rejects a world in which marriage and childbearing are the peak of modern societal norms. He eventually decides to break free from the Hotel because that’s just what you do when you’re in an oppressive sci-fi-tinged culture. The rest belongs to Lanthimos’ own brand of cinematic weirdness. It defies classification, unless we can call “glorious” a category.

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