Monsters of marriage

The Lobster (MA). Director: Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ashley Jensen, Jessica Barden, Léa Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Ariane Labed, EmmaEdel O'Shea, Olivia Colman. 118 minutes

Athenian filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos' first English-language film is a strange beast. It is set in a near-future dystopian society, where couplehood is not only esteemed but enshrined in law, and enforced with surreal violence. Lanthimos shows us this strange new world through the experiences of David (Farrell), a newly single middle-aged man who arives at an insitution known only as The Hotel. Here, we learn, each guest is required to find a suitable partner among the other guests. If they don't achieve this before the expiry of a 45-day deadline, they will be turned into the animal of their choice.

A strange beast indeed. But it is delivered with unflinching dryness, and its satire cuts so deeply that it is hard not to become engrossed. In its idiosyncratic way, the film probes the human (or animal) preoccupation with finding partners, and the standards by which we might judge a mate's suitabilty. Think of the compatibility criteria spruiked by online dating platforms, and then consider the characters' reduction in The Lobster to marginal attributes — many characters are not named but are known simply by such avatars as Nosebleed Woman (Barden), Lisping Man (Reilly), Biscuit Woman (Jensen), or Short Sighted Woman (Weisz). In the world of The Lobster, such are the criteria by which matches are made.

This is not to suggest that shared interests and characteristics are not important to relationships. Also, implicit in the fact that many of these defining characteristics might be seen as weaknesses, is a recognition that relationships can gain strength from places of vulnerability. But shared interests and characteristics separated from authentic interaction are not the stuff of relationships. Lanthimos demonstrates this by taking the rituals of courtship to extreme and absurd places — by having them dictated by legal rather than human need, and effectively under threat of extermination.

In light of these circumstances, it is hard to blame some characters for going to extremes — say, by self-mutilating in order to pass oneself off as a fellow nose-bleeder, or by pretending to be a sociopath in order to woo a Heartless Woman (Papoulia) — except for the fact that other vulnerable individuals are exploited in the process. If some characters (including our 'hero' David) behave in monstrous ways, it is in no small part because they are the product of a monstrous society. In this regard, as the film progresses you sense there is something more going on than a sardonic look at modern relationships.

This seems to be confirmed as we later spend time among the nomadic Loners, who are hunted by Hotel residents for the promise of a priceless reward. They are not merely hapless prey, but represent a kind of ideological resistance. They enforce singleness as brutally as The Hotel does couplehood, and a night-time raid on The Hotel has strong overtones of terrorism. It's another layer to Lanthimos' kaleidoscopic allegory — a commentary on radicalisation, with this brutal underground existing as a direct result of the oppression enacted within an equally brutal mainstream. They are two faces of the same violence.

If all this sounds rather dark, well, it is. But the efficacy of Lanthimos' satire is underlined by its capacity for both shock and laughter, even in the same instant. A character's inefficient suicide attempt is no laughing matter, yet the circumstances that surround it, and other characters' responses to it, so perfectly articulate both the horror and the absurdity of the film's premise and the fictional society in which it is enacted that you might find yourself laughing before you even realise it. At other times humour and shock operate independently, but both prove to be equally effective satirical devices.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos, Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ashley Jensen, Léa Seydoux, John C. Reilly

 

 

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