Movies like The Lobster tend to bring out extreme emotions in people. For those of us who enjoy art films, either habitually or occasionally, films like this can be a richly rewarding experience. But for viewers with little patience for this kind of movie, they can be alienating, uncomfortable, and irritating in their pretension. This film, and films like it, are on their very own, very specific wavelength, and that’s perhaps the most important difference between Hollywood films and their more arty cousins. While the films playing at your local multiplex, the studio blockbusters and comedies, are designed for mass audience appeal, films like The Lobster are targeting a very specific audience. If you’re lucky enough to be among that audience, and can tune into that special wavelength the film is on, congrats. You’re in for a great time.
The Lobster takes place in a dystopian future that bears more resemblance to an Ikea catalogue than a war-torn wasteland, one where romantic coupling is mandated. All individuals must be part of a pair bond, or else they’re sent to a hotel where they engage in various activities to reinforce their desire for companionship and hopefully find a new partner. If they fail to find a new companion in the allotted time, they’re forced to be surgically transformed into an animal of their choosing. Colin Farrell plays David, a newly single man sent to the hotel. After choosing a lobster as his new form if he “doesn’t make it”, David and the other guests at the hotel engage in strained, awkward courtship.
In the world of The Lobster, human interaction has degraded into monotone, surface-level conversation, a nightmare for anyone afraid of awkward small-talk. Deliberately non-naturalistic and alienating, the film’s characters exchange awkward pleasantries, desperately searching for the flimsiest of common grounds on which to form a relationship, or at least the film’s bizarre simulacrum of one.
Sprinkled into all this is an extremely subtle but wry streak of black humor, one so low-key and specific that you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t even notice it’s there.
The film and its characters keep you at arm’s length. David and his fellow guests, including John C. Reilly and Ben Wishaw, all have very distinct personalities, but ones delivered in strained, nervous monotones behind frightened-looking eyes. Rachel Weisz, whose character doesn’t appear in the flesh until around halfway through, occasionally provides (deliberately superfluous) narration, in a calm but somehow accusational tone, like she just found you with your hand in the cookie jar. Apart from David, we never learn the names of any of the characters, identifying them by surface qualities. The man with the lisp. The short-sighted woman. The Maid. Again, this keeps you at arm’s length.
For audience members who just aren’t down with this kind of intentionally alienating style, this section will probably see you turn off the TV or gather up your coat to leave. Which is understandable, but also a shame, because it’s later on when you realize that The Lobster is playing the long game.
Without going too far into spoilers, the second half of the film sees David flee the hotel and join up with the Loners, a band of non-committed individuals living in the woods. Rather than be forced to pair up, life with the loners holds one rule: no attachment. Friendly conversation is allowed, but any form of affection brings harsh penalties. So obviously, it’s here that David falls in love. It’s still the film’s monotone, awkward, uncomfortable kind of love, but it’s here that many audience members will find themselves suddenly, achingly invested.
In this second half, The Lobster timidly, awkwardly, haltingly takes your hand. In a desert devoid of real human interaction, the offbeat affection of David and his new partner become oases, and the survival of their romance imperative. Almost like Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love, their love for one another, struggling to break the surface under layers of restraint, becomes something you feel rather than are informed of.
Which wouldn’t be possible without two able performers, but thankfully The Lobster finds two more than capable leads in Farrell and Weisz. Of the supporting cast, John C. Reilly and Léa Seydoux stand out in particular. After near disaster in Spectre, Seydoux is back in her element, working with filmmakers who know how to properly use her talents, and thank God for that.
Like the performances, the formal elements in The Lobster are intentionally deadpan. Scenes are filmed from plain angles with almost no camera movement and minimal editing, usually in deep focus and with very straightforward framing and blocking. But, again, just like in the performances, you’ll find an aching beauty in that simplicity. The Lobster is at times shockingly beautiful to look at, in a way that states itself plainly and with no fanfare.
Although many will argue this, film is made up of both subject and objective elements. Film is a craft as well as an art form, and can therefore be appraised on multiple levels. It can succeed in its craftsmanship, being skillfully constructed and clear of purpose. It can also succeed as a subjective art, impacting its audience in deep and personal ways. It can also fail to do either, although whether or not it fails subjectively is in the eyes of the viewer. In many films it’s easier to focus on the film’s objective merits, but in the case of The Lobster, its subjective impact is impossible to ignore. Objectively, it’s a beautiful film. But that won’t matter for the audience members who won’t be able to tune in to the film’s frequency. And that’s ok. We need more films that walk to the beat of their own drum, which The Lobster unarguably does. Mass-market pop-culture movies have their place, and so do films as likely to alienate as endear. For those of us weirdos who can watch something like this and be genuinely moved, it’s a rewarding and emotional film. For everyone else, well…..it gives you something to argue with us about.