I was surprised to hear Minnesota Public Radio promoting to its listeners the new film by Yorgis Lanthimos, The Lobster. Apparently, the producer of the film sponsors some air time and the announcer politely suggested that listeners attend the film, implying that the picture is audience-friendly, witty, and charming: "A comedy about a world in which people must find romance within 39 days or be changed into the animal of their choice." Woe to those who harken to this suggestion and, perhaps, consider the film to be a 'date-movie." The Lobster is not a ' date movie' -- it is dire, brutal, and appalling, more like Pedro Almodovar's alarming The Skin I live in than The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The Lobster's opening shot establishes the tone -- the landscape looks like the Outer Hebrides islands, barren moors and stony headlands; a woman drives her car through the rain, stops by a primitive stone wall, and, then, taking a gun from her purse, strides up to a Shetland pony firing a half-dozen shots into the unfortunate creature. Rabbits are skinned in big close-up and an endearing border collie gets kicked to death -- the act occurs off-screen but we see the bloody-spattered foot of the woman who has tortured the dog, there is a grotesque verbal account of the animal's death, and, then, we are shown the poor dog mangled, lying in a pool of blood and entrails. Loners from the tangled woods are shot with tranquilizer arrows and dragged to lie in a hotel courtyard like so much wild game gathered after a successful hunt. A man caught masturbating has his hand fried in a toaster. People discovered kissing one another are mutilated, their lips shredded with razor blades and, then, are forced to continue kissing so that they bleed all over one another's faces -- this is the so-called "red kiss" torture. The transformation from human to animal that occurs as a penalty for not finding romance is not a charming metamorphosis out of Ovid -- rather, the process is more akin to torture porn: We are told that the victim's eyes, heart, and parts of the brain are extracted to be grafted into the animal -- the victim is exsanguinated and his or her blood delivered to a local hospital to be used in transplants. The movie ends with a man using a steak knife to gouge out his eyes. Whatever one may think about his subject matter, Lanthimos is a great director -- his visual imagery has immediate presence and authority and the film is not abstract or remote but rather powerfully palpable and vivid. The rotting seaside hotel where much of the action takes place is clearly visualized -- you can almost smell the shabby, genteel panic investing the place. The characters are concrete and plausibly miserable. The landscape of sodden forest where the "loners" hide in their long, muddy rain slickers is also extraordinarily vivid. The experience of watching the movie is schizoid -- the grotesque fantasy elements motivating the plot keep you remote from the action except that the extremely realistic and carefully imagined staging of events involving what seem to be actual people keeps pulling you back into an emotional engagement with the film. The movie is like some of the exceptionally disturbing films by Peter Greenaway, for instance, A Zed and two Naughts or The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover -- it's all as abstract and cerebral as a theorem until someone is stabbed to death in huge lurid close-ups or roasted for a cannibal feast. (Also disorienting is the fact that the script was apparently written in Greek and, then, translated into English, a language that Lanthimos seems not to know very well -- the performance by the actors involve lines that are, often, recited robotically or as if learned phonetically; it's not clear to me that this effect is wholly intentional.)
The Lobster is a melancholy middle-aged man played by Colin Farrell as a bemused, ineffectual milquetoast. He goes to the resort to find a romantic partner. At the resort next to a barren rocky coast, the assembled guests are treated to lectures and demonstrations enforcing upon them the urgency of finding a mate. Sexual tension is kept to a maximum by maids who wriggle their buttocks over the genitals of the male patrons, but won't have intercourse with them. (Olivia Coleman, spectacular in the John Le Carre mini-series, The Night Manager, plays the role of the steely eyed and sadistic hotel proprietor -- she is particularly effective in this part.) Under the pressure of the deadline -- you have 39 days to find a partner or be turned into an animal -- the people form couples that are, more or less, unhappy. A number of people fail and are turned into animals. Generally, the patrons fixate on their deficiencies and try to find someone who shares those failings. For instance, a woman has repeated bloody noses; one of the men smashes his face into a table to cause his nose to bleed and, then, bonds with the girl on that basis. One couple limps. The hero, who will be turned into a lobster if he fails in his quest for romance, tries to form a couple with a woman who has "no heart" -- she recognizes him as a potential soul-mate when she begins to choke in a hot tub and he does nothing at all to save her. (Of course, she is only testing to see if he shares her brutality.) The two pair off, but she distrusts his coldness and cruelty. To test him, she kicks his dog to death -- the animal is more than his dog; it is also his brother who has been transformed into a beast. The hero explodes in rage when he sees his dead dog-brother and he shoots the woman with a tranquilizer and has her turned into a Shetland pony. Then, he escapes into the woods helped by a maid. The maid falls in love with our hero. The two meet in the woods among the loners. The loners are a group of people who live in the forest and have renounced love. They are allowed to do anything they want -- they can masturbate and listen to music on their head phones and dance so long as they dance alone. But if one of the loners is caught flirting with another loner, dire consequences follow -- "the red kiss" involving razor blades and lots of blood and another worse punishment called "the red intercourse." Unfortunately, the hero and the maid fall in love and are subject to punishment as loners. One of the rules of Lanthimos' world is that couples bond by mutual disability -- the maid has good eyes, but the hero's eyes are weak. She goes to the city to get a kind of reverse Lasik surgery -- her eyes will be slightly damaged so that she will be nearsighted and have astigmatism like the hero. But the villainous leader of the loners instead has the ophthalmologist blind the girl. The hero is horrified but decides he will gouge out his own eyes to seal his bond with her.
The film is an allegory, but one that takes itself very, very literally. Three propositions about human nature and relations between the sexes are argued by the film. First, the man or woman who has no romantic companion is not a human but a kind of animal -- this is made literal when people fail to couple within the prescribed time period and are turned into beasts. (It's the opposite of Ovid -- in the classical myth, people turn into beasts when they are loved by the gods; carnal love makes people into animals as in Apuleis The Golden Ass). Second, people form couples on the basis of their perceptions of mutual affliction -- for instance, I love you because you have a bad hip like mine. Third, those who are without romantic love, the loners, have their own rules, protocols for being alone, and seem to inexorably hated by those who have formed couples. These are the rules of the game of love. There is a fourth proposition implicit in this allegory, one that is particularly disheartening: Almost all couples fail to be together -- after an initial honeymoon in the hotel, the couples are sent on a 15 day yacht cruise. Almost invariably, the yacht cruise ruins the relationship. Management at the hotel promises that if the couple successfully completes the cruise, "a child will be available" to further cement the relationship. At one point in the film, the loners attack the hotel and interrogate the man and woman who run the place -- at gun point, even the successful couples, admit that they really no longer love one another.