The Lobster is part of a transformation which is possibly less believable than the transplanting of a human brain into the body of a Shetland pony: over the last two decades, the star of shlock such as Phone Booth and Alexander has managed to become an actor!
To be fair to Colin Farrell, he is a performer who showed signs of wanting to break free of the confines of playing “Good Looking Guy 1” early on in his cinematic career. While 2003’s Daredevil was an unmitigated stinker, Farrell’s commitment to go full-egg as the film’s hairless villain Bullseye hinted that there was some potential for him to hone a more diverse portfolio of characters than he was currently afforded. At the same time, Farrell exhibited a sense of humour and willingness to be the butt of a joke with his turn as bungling hitman Ray in 2008’s In Bruges – an endearingly vulgar portrayal which showed he was not afraid to play the fool sometimes.
In The Lobster, Farrell synthesises these two earlier experiences into a single vessel, utterly divorced from his earlier turns as the one-dimensional hunk. Sporting a gut, moustache and all the charm of a damp sponge, he is the antithesis of the main character you would expect to find in a comedic film centring on dating.
Of course, no movie from the mind of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (who successfully worked with Farrell again two years later in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is ever going to be your run-of-the-mill rom-com, but Farrell’s transformation for this film is particularly key to immediately explain where we are in this bizarre dystopian set-up. Over the course of the film, we follow the trials and tribulations of David (Farrell), as he desperately tries to find love after his former partner left him for another man who may or may not have been short-sighted.
While David’s obsession over this strange detail seems absurd to us at first, it soon becomes clear precisely why it matters. In this world, individuals with no partners are sent to a state-sponsored dating hotel, and those who fail to find a partner in a certain period of time have their brains spliced into the body of an animal of their choosing. While that might not sound that difficult, it is a grey, sexless, abrasively humourless world, where relationships can apparently only be based upon lone arbitrary similarities between two people. In keeping with this world, utterly bereft of personality, while eternally cosplaying as Ned Flanders, David seems doomed to be transformed into a lobster.
In a more conventional Hollywood plot, this might culminate with the insertion of some quirky, left-field woman suddenly injecting some colour into David’s life – but rest assured, this is not a conventional story. Even when he escapes the beige confines of the hotel, to live in the nearby woods with an enclave of revolutionaries who chose to remain single, everyone else is just as pallid and unengaging as David. It just so happens that he manages to stumble upon someone else who has Astigmatism – and they begin a relationship, despite it being explicitly forbidden by the other singles, to the point where cruel and unusual punishments such as the ‘scarlet kiss’ are meted out for even a hint of flirting.
Most of the humour comes from the complete lack of charm and emotional nous everyone on screen exhibits, which is impressive since the cast is made up of actors including Farrell, Olivia Coleman and John C. Reilly who on their day can be irrepressibly charming, however, there are is also a humorous critique of monolithic life-philosophies. The escalating absurdity of everyone’s desperation to find a partner with one specific commonality is one branch of this. In order to have that key shared trait, people punch themselves to invite nose-bleeds, commit unspeakable acts of animal cruelty, and even contemplate blinding themselves – as Lanthimos relentlessly lampoons couple-centric culture, and the asinine nature of so many relationships people conveniently enter into seemingly just for the fear of being alone. At the same time, the singles are so brutally individualistic that they refuse to help one another when injured, glibly telling their comrades “go to your grave” – a grave which each truly atomised individual has dug for themselves in preparation for this moment.
While The Lobster is enjoyable, it is by no means perfect of course. Like many allegories, the story only really works when it is screaming “THIS IS A METAPHOR” at its audience, and completely collapses under even the most minor pieces of scrutiny.
If the alternative is essentially death, why are so many people fearful of their transformation, but unwilling to enter into alliances of convenience with one another to game the system? Why is the system not clogged up with recent widowers who have recently lost their partner? Why are the singles apparently unable to help one another, but still able to cooperate to take action against the oppressive hotel? Why is one of them apparently allowed to tell jokes, but everyone else lives in fear of being seen as flirting? Why can’t you just live in a different part of the seemingly endless woods to them and do whatever you like?
The answers to these questions don’t really matter, unless you are obsessed with obsessing over minutia to appear smarter than an absurdist social satire, but I also don’t believe it would have taken much just to deploy some kind of sci-fi MacGuffin to explain them away.
All in all, though, this year of all years, it is surely easy to look past the smaller details to enjoy The Lobster’s more enduring message. Modern life is a toxic synthesis of all the worst elements of the society it depicts. We have states run by governments who would sooner you “go to your grave” than offer you help during the spread of a lethal virus. At the same time in this cold and indifferent world, those who weren’t lucky enough to have someone already have either had to rapidly form a ‘household’ with a partner on less stringent criteria than usual, or they have faced lockdown alone; scraping by during a pandemic and a historic recession, with a complete lack of external support.
The domestic sphere has often provided a crutch for the failings of the status quo; and as The Lobster and the year 2020 have made perfectly clear, it is a state of affairs which offers the possibility of just about surviving physically, but also sees countless people waste their one life in psychological distress. It provides people with a deep lack of emotional fulfilment, forcing them to go through the motions while living out their years in self-imposed purgatory for the sake of a bare minimum of survival. Having your brain slapped into a donkey seems quite humane by comparison.