‘The Lobster’ (2016) Is Dark, Funny, and Deeply Empathetic

I was dumped very recently. We had been dating for well over a year, and now that I am single again, I realized something: I am spending more time with my single friends, and less time talking to my married or partnered off friends. It’s not something I’m doing on purpose – one of my closest friends is single, and I can’t believe how much less often we spoke while I was in this relationship. But, also, I can. I remember being the single person in a group of coupled-off friends in graduate school, the… I suppose 9th wheel in any number of outings, and I remember the outings I wasn’t invited to as well. It doesn’t particularly matter if you’re single or in a relationship;

Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek writer/director behind 2009’s phenomenally twisted Dogtooth, clearly has strong feelings about this. The Lobster, his newest film, takes place in a world in which you are expected to be coupled-up at all times. Going out without your partner will get you stopped by the police; an expired marriage license, dead spouse, or divorce might get you sent immediately to ‘the Hotel’, a resort where you are expected to mingle with other newly single folks. The catch? You’ll be teased sexually by the staff, forbidden masturbation, forced to attend morality plays about the perils of being single… and if, in 45 days, you haven’t found a partner, you’ll be turned into the animal of your choosing and released into the wild. Or perhaps you’d rather escape into the woods and live as a loner, hunted down by those coupled up with tranquilizer rifles, living with a society of friends and absolutely forbidden partnership. They are allowed to masturbate, though, so… trade offs.

While Lanthimos doesn’t bother trying to explain how society reached this point, he does do a shockingly good job making the world feel lived in. He has everyone play their role with intense restraint, almost to the point of being leaden. At first, a surprisingly dowdy Colin Farrell’s offputting, awkward performance makes the movie feel slow, something Lanthimos highlights with long stretches of mundanity. But as Farrell puts himself out there, the movie picks up and reveals itself as a bleak black comedy par excellence. Because almost everyone in this society is deeply damaged, crippled by their unwavering devotion to their tribe. They’re all just reacting to it in different ways. Angeliki Papoulia’s Heartless Woman reacts by walling herself off from feeling anything other than hostility for those who feel; Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man reacts by looking down at anyone who doesn’t want love enough to change who they are; Léa Seydoux’s Loner Leader reacts by violently rejecting the very idea of companionship. For all of these people, the rigid expectations of society has damaged them in some small but fundamental way.

Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster -- John C Reilly Colin Farrell Ben Whishaw

And those expectations are quite rigid – and entirely meaningless. Farrell’s character, upon arriving at the hotel, is forced to choose if he will be looking for a male partner or female partner; the bisexual option he craves presented ‘logistical problems’, and was removed some time previously. Instead, characters are bombarded with suggestions that they pick partners based on trivial similarities – shortsightedness, nose bleeds, a limp – rather than digging any deeper into who a person is. But Lanthimos isn’t being random just for the sake of a gag; this trend in romanticizing commonalities is part of the fundamental tragedy of the film. Told that you cannot be bisexual, told that you cannot be attracted to opposites, told when you cannot be single, can you experience genuine love, make an honest emotional connection? Or do these restrictions end up forcing romance where none naturally exists, hindering the ability to look beyond trivial similarities?

Beyond its sharp commentary on love and loneliness, however, The Lobster has something else to recommend it: It’s really damn funny. Those leaden underreactions allow Lanthimos and his cast to continually amp up the absurdist nature of his comedy. This has some of the sharpest dark comedy visuals you can find, including the funniest dance sequence and funniest, uh, suicide attempt I’ve ever seen, thanks in part to the deadpan style Lanthimos and his cast respond to anything and everything. The narration often takes us inside the head of Farrell’s character early in the film, but we quickly learn that there’s absolutely nothing going on there that isn’t readily apparent on the surface – and that that’s true for basically everyone here. Someone, the movie manages to be earnest and ironic at the same time, any distance between us and the characters obliterated by putting every dark, weird, lonely, funny impulse on the surface. Tellingly, the only thing the characters have to hide throughout the film is genuine, honest attraction.

The Lobster isn’t a movie you go to because you want rigorous sci-fi worldbuilding. Lanthimos’ film is nakedly allegorical, a world built on feeling, and as such, it may alienate those who aren’t quite on its wavelength. But the flipside there, of course, is that for those who do understand the feeling, for those who often find themselves caught in that web of expectation and friendship and love and loneliness, The Lobster will hit them like a ton of bricks. Because it is visceral in its portrayal of loneliness and brutal in its condemnations of the lies we tell ourselves, this is the sort of film that can reach deep into your gut and latch on. The Lobster is beautifully made, and while it is rather aggressively not for everyone, particularly as its flawless black comedy wanes in the back half, I’d argue that almost everyone* should see it regardless, if only to have a good laugh as you contemplate just how healthy your need to be in a relationship is — and if your need to be single is any better.

Because, yeah, I got dumped very recently. Since I’m talking about it in movie reviews, I’m pretty clearly not over it, right? I mean, it was an 18 month relationship, that takes time to emotionally process. And yet, my OK Cupid profile is already back up. Am I ready to date yet? Or am I just not able to be alone? On the flip side: Did my last relationship end because it had to, or because I looked at what the loners had and decided that I wanted that? The visceral loneliness of The Lobster didn’t hit me as hard as I suspect it would have five years ago, but in the days since I saw it, it still has me questioning my romantic life. The Lobster doesn’t have any answers, and neither do I, but it’s a sharp, funny, unapologetically odd exploration of those ideas.

Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster -- Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell

The Lobster is out now in limited release. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Yorgos Lanthimos with Efthymis Filippou, The Lobster stars Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, and Léa Seydoux.

*A strong trigger warning for violence against animals.

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