Driving is an androgynous slob. Could be a woman, a man or a mime — she actually looks like Marcel Marceau without makeup. It’s raining, drizzling over her windshield, drops that produce a mud the wipers intermittently splatter onto her sight. When she arrives where she was going to, we watch her leaving her car, rather angry, and approaching one of two mules peacefully grazing in the grass. Without even blinking, she shoots one of the two animals dead, which falls immediately like a wooden door would and to the sympathetic look of the other mule. Why did she shoot? The question, really, is: Who did she shoot to? And, as the movie progresses, we may be safe in speculating that was her husband or, maybe even, a former lover. It’ll all be open to speculation though, since we’ll never see the likes of her again.
This short prologue to The Lobster summarizes everything this movie is: A deadpan irony satire well aware of the absurdities wherein it dwells and develops. Everything, from its tone to its storyline to its rhythm is contained in this scene. And though we shall never see this character again, we do see where she comes from, where her victim originated, and the whole nature of their relationship.
When David (Colin Farrell, “Seven Psychopaths”) is informed that his wife has left him because she doesn’t love him anymore, he is transferred into a hotel wherein all singles meet. The difference between this hotel and any other “single-friendly” resort is what is at stake should the guest fail to meet their significant other: They are turned into the animal of their choosing. David’s choice is a lobster, and you can see why. David stands for the opposite of everything that Farrell has stood for (once a promising actor consumed by his own handsomeness) for so many years: Either inane roles in forgettable films or pretentious attempts in the lesser works of renowned directors (he even managed to get the lead in what is perhaps Terrence Malick’s less accomplished work). David is Farrell’s foil: Unattractive, insipid, and monumentally meek. The movie follows hapless David through these days upon which he either finds his match or is matched with a lull lobster — what he’s being anyway through all these years.
At the opening scene, we can as well appreciate the whole irony that will populate The Lobster, for androgyny is the greatest of all ironies in a society that has stopped considering shades. It is at this either/or social order that the film’s dystopian future occurs. Either you’re heterosexual or homosexual, but nothing in-between, not even bi-curious. And you kind of get where all this is going. For what better way to control natality in an overpopulated world, to control and produce goods in a place wherein resources are scarce, to control the nature of productivity itself than by declaring those who have no partner social parasites and by turning them into natural supplies . . . than by lowering them down in the food chain and thus making their potential deaths into prospective assets? Certainly then, black and white are the only acceptable points of reference in a scale wherein only gray reigns.
David’s race against time thus turns into a fight against himself. His only choice left is to flee the hotel as he hasn’t felt a thing for nobody in such a long a time; it’s even unlikely that he fell for anybody at all before — not for his wife, not for any other woman. And it is when he falls in love that this oddball of deadpan delivery starts to really veer towards the bizarre. In the woods, he’s found by an Amazonian rebel and feral dictator (Léa Seydoux, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” strangely funny and superbly bitchy) who has taken over the wilds. The order here, however, is no less absurd than the one in the hotel or than the one in the city from which David has been banished — on the contrary, it is even more absurd, for the rule here is to never fall in love. But David does. His romantic interest, nonetheless, does as well. Finally a perfect match, another short-sighted soul to share his life (Rachel Weisz, “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” as splendid in this as in anything she’s been given), David falls for her and now they both have to find a way to act upon it without the Loner Leader finding out — a leader who, by the way, has a 20/20 eyesight.
Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, has excelled in his first English language test. He had already created a successful style to tell dark, deadpan, absurd, existential, surreal stories that has lost nothing in translation. Actually, it may even be the other way around. Unlike his previous films (with the exception perhaps of “Alps”), there is an added element of lyricism that accentuates the absurdity of the whole situation. We all know how difficult it is to effectively utilize slow-motion in a film, how dangerous it can be (however tempting) as it tends to inflate an hyperbole up to the point in which it explodes in a spreading sentimentality that ends up contaminating even those parts that are the farthest to the luckless scene. Still, Lanthimos’ use of slow-motion ends up framing the absurd (yes, the absurd, almost as though we were speaking about framing nothingness itself) in a completely lyric motion (not to mention his superb musical selection), like putting it under a magnifying lens, not only to berate it, but also to stress its inescapability — which is our incapability.
Several of these scenes remind us of Buñuel at his most surreal, the first one, doubtless, but also the older one, the bitterer, deafer one of “The Milky Way” and “The Phantom of Liberty.” Yet, Lanthimos surrealism retains a certain sensitivity that also reminds us of the best Renoir, the one at his most irreverent, the one who filmed (and was banned for) “The Rules of the Game.” The brilliant hunt scenes in The Lobster are worthy of these comparisons, as they strip open the perfect paradox dwelling inside every civil society: That we are willing to engage in carnage if that is what it takes to defend our civilization. A Kafkian paradox, without a doubt. A feral Kafka.
I have to come clear though that I’ve acquired a dislike for two adjectives that I hold dear in my heart, because (as with most adjectives) its overuse have turned them into stereotypes, and, I’m sure, these were not of their choosing. I don’t like that everything that gets lost goes either to the badlands of the “surreal” (like a freshman describing his first alcoholic adventure) or the “Kafkaesque” (like said freshman describing the ensuing sexual exploit). This is where Kafka meets Monty Python (with all my love to the genius troupe) and it’s turned into a Kliché, a klever karikature if you like — these are two styles that shouldn’t be mixed together.
Yet both “Kafkaesque” and “surreal” are appropriate adjectives as applied to The Lobster. The surreal leans much more on the technical aspects. The Kafkaesque, however, spreads all over this work. The difference between Kafka and the Monty Python (and their corresponding incompatibility) is that while the latter finds its strength in being aware of its own absurdity, the former finds its genius in its being completely oblivious to it — while very well knowing there is no escape from it. That is, Kafka was aware of the absurdity that populated his works — each and every one of them (including the letters to his father). And though there are always ways to escape one or other order for David and his short-sighted soulmate, no order will be exempt of a significant degree of nonsense.
David, as all other singles in the hotel (and it’s worth mentioning, at least in passing, the magnificently funny work of John C. Reilly in this capacity), are entrapped in a labyrinth of conventions, for that is what civilization really is and to which this one amounts. By rebelling against the absurdity of one convention, David has to tacitly accept another (often much more absurd) one. There’s just no way out of it. They’re all blind (in a similar way — even in the narrative structure — in which José Saramago’s characters are in his masterwork Blindness). All short-sightedness, even all perfectly working visions, are blinded by the spot that lies at the back of the character’s heads, the one that marks we are civilized people, and so we should remain — even when that means acting like savages.
In such civilized order, conventions supersede reflection, and hence language becomes nothing but a mere means of communication. Once language loses its capacity to express, when it’s a means of expression no more, then it flattens to such a degree that it’s nothing but a big convention, a convention of which we are as aware as we are of our own saliva: We produce what we swallow as we lubricate the sounds that come out of our mouths. Love, in the context of an expressionless language, is the ultimate absurdity. For David and his lover, this means to be a match, no matter that this means to lose each other from sight. And this they will insist till there’s nothing left to lose, for in a truly expressionless order the more absurd our reality turns, the more we insist in holding it true.