The Lobster 

 

Half

 

 

One form of crossover by no means unknown in cinema involves a well-established foreign director switching to the English language and making a film here or in America. Examples extend from René Clair back in the 1930s to some of Paolo Sorrentino’s recent work (This Must be the Place, the upcoming Youth). But this kind of a move is something I would never have expected of the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. His second feature, Dogtooth (2009), provided his breakthrough, but it revealed a man with a highly distinctive approach both as writer and director. If that film created an unreal metaphorical world drawing on recognisable notions about family structures and patriarchal control, his next, 2011’s Alps, offered an allegory that was so elusive that I described it as a film for people who like to puzzle over a puzzle. It’s a huge and surprising step to find him going to Ireland to direct the English language film The Lobster starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw.

   

 The Lobster

 Colin Farrell with Bob, his brother

 

Any suspicion that a filmmaker not far removed from the avant-garde has suddenly turned commercial is quickly refuted – even, perhaps, by the fact that the screenplay for The Lobster has been written by Lanthimos himself and his regular writing partner Efthimis Filippou. In the event I have to say that this new work is the best of these three films, although those more at ease than I with its predecessors may disagree. With both Dogtooth and Alps I was aware of his talent but found that the fusion of realistic backgrounds and stylised, symbolic elements created an unhelpful sense of conflict: I was disturbed not by points that were meant to challenge the audience but by the way the material was presented. Consequently, I regard The Lobster as a major advance because, using a mode not dissimilar to that of William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies, Lanthimos leaves familiar life behind to create a world that is its own complete thing, and for me that works. If my rating for the film is lower than that might suggest, it is because I am not really somebody who likes to be left in doubt over a film’s intentions and, for all its qualities, that is how I feel at the end of the two hours or so that Lanthimos takes over this tale. In the circumstances it should be expected that audiences drawn to the film by its cast but with no knowledge of what to expect from Lanthimos will end up bemused (this particular reaction will be spurred on by an abrupt non-ending which will not surprise those who regularly attend art-house movies).

 

All that I knew of the plot in advance was that it portrayed a society in which individuals who are alone due to the loss of a partner following death or the break-up of a relationship are brought to a hotel. Once there they have at least forty-five days to fall in love and, if they fail to find a new companion, their fate is to be operated on and turned into an animal – albeit of a breed that they are allowed to select. David (Colin Farrell) is the person seen arriving immediately after a short preface, although his story is being told by a female voice over not yet identified. Being at ease in water and wanting to pick a long-living animal, David has chosen to become a lobster should his encounters with other inmates fail to lead to an emotional response.

 

Such a description suggests a work of sci-fi or a horror tale of the kind explored in the classic Island of Lost Souls (1932) but is unexpectedly misleading,. This set-up is not far from being what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin. Instead of the plot exploring this idea and developing accordingly, it merely provides a backdrop against which the audience can observe and ponder. The setting of the hotel is used to splendid satirical effect aided by the way in which Olivia Colman as the manager perfectly catches the tone, proclaiming the rules for the guests in a manner that links this extraordinary world with recognisable hotel management or even a Butlin’s holiday camp. Indeed, it is crucial to the effect desired that, however bizarre the situation, nothing in the performances should indicate anything other than that normality. The comical side must never play as conscious comedy while on the other side of the coin there is no suggestion of melodrama. Colin Farrell gets it exactly right. (In contrast Lanthimos himself occasionally gets it wrong – as when he infringes this by adopting slow motion images).

 

The cast also includes two actresses from Lathimos’s earlier work, Angeliki Papoulia and Ariane Labed. Many of the supporting characters here are inmates most of whom are not identified by their names but by what could be described as their ailments (one limps, another suffers from nose-bleed but the rather different ‘heartless woman’ is also on the list). The fact that those who share a condition are seen as potential partners reflects the idea of like attracting like and, if this is a world in which partnership is compulsory, then it follows that self masturbation is a crime and punishable accordingly. But it is also a world in which extra time is granted to those who are adept at hunting down outsiders. By now it is evident that The Lobster is not about the threat of humans being turned into animals but about a world that seeks to regulate desire by insisting on coupledom.

 

The second half of the film finds David escaping into the woods where under a female leader (Léa Seydoux) another regime exists, one consisting of loners and including our previously unseen narrator (Rachel Weisz). We might anticipate that this group, totally opposed to the society seen up to now, will represent freedom, but it doesn’t work out like that. Rest assured that the details I have given leave plenty to discover and intrigue in the first half and the developments in the second part are no less involving and frequently unexpected. It is characteristic of Lathimos’s work that the film, photographed in colour by Thimios Bakatakis, looks very fine while the music used is most unusual in that it incorporates extracts from string quartets ranging from Beethoven to Britten while a short fragment from Shostakovich’s eighth is perhaps in danger of being overused. I felt that John C. Reilly as one of the inmates was not wholly at one with the film’s style, but the English language element is wholly acceptable. The Lobster kept me absorbed and involved but, even as I saw the cryptic end coming, I was still left with questions: what does it all mean and what, ultimately, is Lanthimos trying to say?

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw.

  

Dir Yorgos Lanthimos, Pro Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos and Lee Magiday, Screenplay Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos, Ph Thimios Bakatakis, Ed Yorgos Mavropsaridis.

 

British Film Institute/Canal+/Ciné+/Eurimages/Film4/Institut Français/Irish Film Board/CNC/Netherlands Film Fund-Element Pictures Distribution.

118 mins. Ireland/UK/Greece/France/Netherlands/USA. 2015. Rel: 16 October 2015. Cert. 15.