Yorgos Lanthimos’s surrealist film The Lobster, punctures cherished myths about love and marriage in an absurdist alternative universe.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Colin Farrell and Léa Seydoux in Yorgos Lanthimos’s ‘The Lobster’
Surrealist might just be the laziest adjective critics use when discussing film. Often the term means little more than the incorporation of dream sequences or the presence of a hallucinatory cinematographic palette.
What gets ignored is how surrealism is a twin to the absurd, and of how truly surrealist cinema exploits the erotically perverse image, either disquieting or shocking, or uses the abrupt edit to disrupt our enjoyment of narrative coherence and visual pleasure. Think of the audaciousness of the close-up of the eye being slit in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, mocking the very sense organ with which we approach the image; or the miming to Roy Orbison’s exquisite “In Dreams” at a point of extreme sadomasochistic violence in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In such moments, shifting from dream to nightmare and back again, the cruel and the pleasurable can’t be disentangled.
The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has only directed three feature films but he has already proved himself a master of surrealist cinema. His first film, Dogtooth, was an astonishingly accomplished and thrilling work, comically using the reality TV Big Brother format to dissect the incestuous and tyrannical underpinning of the patriarchal nuclear family. His second feature, Alps, dared to suggest that self-sacrifice and compassion were variants of narcissism.
Now, in his new film, The Lobster, he challenges and decimates one of the most cherished of contemporary Western values, the sanctity of romantic love. Blasphemy was a pivotal element of early 20th-century surrealism and of the absurd, the mocking of the hypocrisies of organised religion and the self-righteousness of religious piety. Lanthimos’s work is also sacrilegious but his targets are the pieties of our secular age.
Colin Farrell is David, a single man from The City, who arrives at The Hotel, where he has 45 days to find a life partner. If he fails he will be killed and reincarnated into the animal of his choice. The period of stay can be extended during the hunt, where guests of The Hotel are released into The Woods to shoot down escapees who have chosen to defy the rules and live rural lives of rigorous singledom. For every escapee the guests shoot, they are given one day’s extra lodging at The Hotel.
David eventually chooses to partner with The Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), a sociopath who has shot more than a hundred single exiles. But when she kills David’s dog, the reincarnation of his beloved brother, he makes his escape to the woods and joins a party led by a defiantly single woman (Léa Seydoux). And yet even in the wild he falls foul of the rules: he becomes enamoured of The Short-Sighted Woman, played by Rachel Weisz. To consummate their love means further exile and isolation.
The alternative universe of The Lobster has been described as dystopian by many critics but I think that this fails to recognise that one of Lanthimos’s targets is precisely the farcical – and dangerous – extremities embedded in utopian ideologies and politics. The first half of the film, set in The Hotel, is exhilaratingly funny; the blandly cheerful surrounds, and the passive-aggressive tactics utilised to corral the guests into a collective group-think, will be instantly recognisable to any of us who have had to endure time at work or spiritual retreats.
With the move to the woods, the film becomes darker, both visually, and thematically, as the Rousseauian wilderness is revealed to be equally totalitarian in what it demands from the individual.
This shift is initially confusing; I missed the eccentricities and the sustained biting satire of the first half. But Lanthimos has a great team to support him: the cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis, his co-writer, Efthimis Filippou, and his editor, Yorgos Mavropsaridis, all of whom have collaborated with him in his previous films. The three worlds of the film – The Hotel, The Woods and the seemingly post-apocalyptic empty suburbia of The City – are all exaggerations but they convince as real within the absurd logic of the story. By the end, the satire has morphed from fairytale to the fierce brutality of primal myth and the ending is startling in its comic cruelty. We tell ourselves, in our culture, that love is blind. The Lobster reveals the violence that underlies that notion. I choked on my laughter; I was truly shocked.
Working in English for the first time, and with an international cast, Lanthimos has chosen to direct his actors to play deadpan, to use slapstick, and to convey emotions at a Brechtian remove: it is a smart choice, and works exceptionally well for the material. This is the best performance I have seen Farrell deliver, and it is a pleasure to see him settle into his age, to shed that craving for movie stardom that has made him previously seem desperate as an actor.
It is a terrific cast, including John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw. The actors have been clearly enlivened by the material and they work as an ensemble, so it is difficult to isolate individual performances. But I do want to mention Papoulia, who has been pivotal to all of Lanthimos’s work thus far, and who has a power and an intelligence that reminds me of the young Irene Papas. And as The Hotel Manager, Olivia Colman is magnificent. She is hilarious, and truly monstrous.
In a conservative age where marriage has become the central linchpin to sexual politics, and where the child and the family have been hoisted again onto a pre-Freudian pedestal, there is an undeniable exhilaration to be had in a film that so boldly desecrates current myths. The Lobster suggests that our deification of love and marriage is based on a repression of the perverse. It is this daring that makes Lanthimos a true heir to the surrealists and to the absurd.
I think this film is rigorously intelligent but I don’t want to suggest that it is an exercise in cold intellectualism. There is something about Lanthimos that reminds me of Quentin Tarantino, in that they are both filmmakers of astounding and precocious cinematic verve. If Tarantino’s film education was formed through exploitation and genre, Lanthimos seems to have soaked up the influences of European art cinema. The references to Buñuel, to Pasolini and Godard, are explicit in The Lobster but they are integrated into Lanthimos’s own vision, they are never telegraphed. Beginning with Dogtooth, his vision and sensibility have been clearly his own.
If critics ought to be alert to lazy adjectives, they also need to be wary of quick-response superlatives. Time and hindsight do give nuance to judgement. But I also want to convey something of the deep joy I experience as a lover of cinema in viewing the work of someone I believe is one of the best talents working in film today. The Lobster is a great film. There’s nothing playing on Australian screens at the moment that even comes close.
BALLET The Sleeping Beauty
QPAC Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, until October 31
CINEMA SciFi Film Festival
Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, October 31
VISUAL ART Mitch Cairns: The Reader's Voice
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until February 21
CINEMA British Film Festival
Palace Cinemas, Melbourne, October 28-November 18
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, until October 31
VISUAL ART Australian Sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of S. T. Gill
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, until October 25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2015 as "Surreal estate". Subscribe here.