Painstakingly crafted to defy easy classification, The Lobster is the superbly original English-language debut by Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps). Smuggling in elements of science-fiction, chase thriller, and ultra-deadpan comedy, the 2015 Cannes jury favorite is a disquieting riff on the absurdities of romantic relationships.
The first hint of its off-kilter style arrives in the form of Colin Farrell, who eschews his familiar brand of muscled, glint-eyed swagger to melt into the role of protagonist David, a paunchy sadsack freshly ditched by his wife for another man.
In the twisted dystopia conjured by Lanthimos, there's no time for David to indulge in traditional reactions to such trauma—a period of soul-searching, say, or bouts of rebound sex. Rather, in accordance with the strictly enforced rules of the mysterious City, David is immediately transferred to a coastal hotel populated by fellow singletons, all of whom are afforded 45 days from arrival to partner up.
Those who fail are then transformed, by some magical, never-quite-revealed process, into an animal of their choice, and left to fend for themselves in the ominous nearby Forest. David, who arrives at the hotel with his brother—now a loyal dog—in tow, opts to transmogrify into the titular crustacean.
The method by which new guests arrive at the hotel is deliberately reminiscent of countless prison flicks: New inmates are stripped, brusquely interrogated, and processed. Here, however, as captured by the brilliant cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, these sad flesh bags have the bleak aura of subjects in a Francis Bacon painting. Yet, whether shooting in jaundiced interiors or verdant, autumnal exteriors, Bakatakis ensures that The Lobster is never less than beautiful to behold as he employs a series of painterly tableaux intensified by patient, barely perceptible zoom-ins. The film's visual splendor functions in jarring contrast to the ugliness of the situations faced by its characters.
Hotel guests are constantly monitored, treated like lab rats, and prohibited from masturbating, presumably to increase their desperation to mate. As one poor sap (a lisping John C. Reilly) discovers, the punishment for such transgression involves the offending hand being plunged into a red-hot toaster. Activities include mandatory attendance at baroquely conceived yet joyless song-and-dance sessions led by the hotel's matronly manager (Olivia Colman) and her rotund husband (Garry Mountaine); or, more disturbingly, group outings to the Forest to hunt down Loners, a secret society of hotel escapees that fetishizes singledom—"No sex, or flirting," admonishes their severe leader (Léa Seydoux)—as much as the City endorses traditional domestic pairings.
If this all sounds terribly depressing, it's worth noting that The Lobster is also screamingly funny. Farrell gives a master class in deadpan comedy, while the inherent absurdity of the set-up provides constant fodder for amusement. There's hope, too, in the form of the mysterious, Forest-based Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).
Earlier this week, I spoke to Weisz over the phone to discuss her attraction to the project, her philosophical take on the film, and the difficulty of keeping a straight face around Colin Farrell.
VICE: Had you seen Yorgos's other films before working on The Lobster? Were you a fan of his work?
Rachel Weisz: I was. I actively sought him out a year before The Lobster. I'd watched Dogtooth, and I thought it was one of the most remarkable films I'd ever seen. I was attached to an independent script that didn't have a director, and I asked to meet Yorgos. He agreed to do it, but the producer at the time thought he'd make it too dark, so it didn't work out. I said to him, "I long to work with you." In that meeting he said, "I'm writing something at the moment, so I'll send it to you when it's done," and that was The Lobster.
The performers in Lanthimos's films all have a similar, idiosyncratic style, including a slightly stilted manner of speech. Did it take a while to key into that, and have all the actors on the same page?
He would disagree with you. He would say it's not stilted, and that most people's acting choices are too "big." I think he'd call it minimalist. But everyone sees the acting style differently. I've never heard "stilted" before. I've heard "deadpan," "monotone," but you're right: He did get everyone in the film to act in that unified tone, which is just not as expressive as people normally are when they act. How he did that, I have no idea! That's the magic of an auteur. He hypnotizes you.
For the first half of the film, you're offscreen, but before you appear, you have a key role narrating the voiceover, describing David's plight…
When we went to record it, I said, "How do you want me to do it? Like anti-Terrence Malick?," and Yorgos said, "Exactly." I love Terrence Malick, but he's known for exceptionally lyrical voiceovers. We deliberately went for something completely de-poeticized.
Even so, I found the voiceover urgent and passionate, and I was moved by that. I felt your character brought a lot of heart to the film, which, as you say, is extremely deadpan.
She is the one person who has some genuine desire and heart. She falls in love with David.
Was it difficult to keep a straight face around Colin Farrell? He's absolutely hilarious here. He didn't have to do anything except be onscreen to get me to laugh.
Yes, sometimes it was very hard. He was much better at being straight-faced than I was. Sometimes I would just completely crack up, and they'd wait for me to finish, and then we'd carry on.
The film is dystopian and fanciful in its own way—turning people into animals, for example—but to what extent did you see it as a comment on how real-life dating has gone into territories that would have seemed surreal, say, 15 years ago? I'm thinking of stuff like Tinder and Grindr.
I saw it more as a comment on the way we're all supposed to fit in boxes, and the normalization of everything: of dating, of matters of the heart, these notions of "a perfect couple." The heart and soul are eccentric and problematic—they're not as simple as Agony Aunts [the UK term for advice columnists] or dating sites lead you to believe.
It was interesting to me that the film seemed not to be just a one-way satire of how "traditional" heterosexual coupledom is lionized, but also how, in the form of Léa Seydoux's tyrannical Loner Leader, singledom can be fixated on to a similar degree.
There's heteronormative culture, and there's radical, queer culture, and counterculture—but that can become very normative as well, right? Everyone can become normative. The Loner Leader's world is radical and revolutionary, rebelling against the normative world, but it ultimately becomes just as regimented. That could be a comment on a lot of things in our culture. I think it's something that frightens people who are part of queer culture; they're worried that their culture is being "normalized."
I found the film had a strange tone that I couldn't put my finger on, but I wouldn't say it left me feeling uplifted. Do you see the film as downbeat or depressing?
No, I see it as a love story—two people who find love against all odds. It's a very intricate, rule-bound world, and these are two people trying to slip through the rules, and find a human existence outside the constraints of "normal" life. The first half of the movie sets up this world—it's very funny and satirical—and then in the second half mine and Colin's characters are trying to peek through, to find a way out. It's incredibly romantic. Our characters are earnest, and quite innocent.
I think it's a film that questions [the idea of doing] anything original. How can you even make an original film? We're all set within bound patterns by our culture and our conditioning, and it's very hard to break free. We're cloned and brainwashed within our little world. Even films are brainwashed: There's lots of genre pictures. How do you break free of genre in your life? It asks those questions. It's about how you can be original, and I think it succeeds in being an original film.
There are obviously elements of sci-fi in The Lobster. Are you a fan of the genre?
What I like about the film is that it's science fiction without any spaceships—it's just planet earth with different rules. It's low-tech, but high, high-concept, which I like because it doesn't cost any money! I respect that. The elegance of it just comes from the organization of Yorgos's imagination, not from building vast sets.
And it was all shot on location in Ireland?
Yes, we were all staying in that beautiful hotel. The area where we shot the Forest had a tropical micro-climate, and it looked like it had been art-directed by The Hobbit's art director, but it was just Mother Nature at work.
In the second half of the film there's lots of exterior scenes [in the Forest], that feel pretty grueling. Were these scenes intense to film, physically and emotionally?
I loved it, I loved it, I loved it! I loved wearing no makeup and being in a windbreaker, and having mud in my hair. That basically was the makeup: mud in your hair. I felt like a forest creature, which is what I was playing, I guess. I found it really liberating sploshing around in the mud. I was happy as a pig in shit.
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The Lobster is playing in theaters nationwide.