Whatever else The Lobster may be, it is most certainly odd. This, after all, is a movie in which persons who cannot find a suitable mate in 45 days are turned into animals. The good news is that you get to choose what kind of animal. As one of the few people who was completely underwhelmed by Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2010), I wasn’t as keen on seeing his new film as everyone else seemed to be. And having seen The Lobster and liked it, I am not so blown away as to be in a mad rush to reassess Dogtooth or check out his other works. For that matter, I am not sure I’d really like to revisit The Lobster — estimable as it is — any time soon. Or maybe ever. That is not a criticism, merely a personal reaction. It’s the same one I’ve had to every Lars von Trier movie — at least the ones that I’ve liked (if like is a term that’s applicable to von Trier). On nearly ever other, I’d have to call The Lobster a genre-defying (it has been called everything from a comedy to a horror picture) success of fairly constant surprise.
The Lobster gets by on giving the viewer as little information as possible. We are never told where this law about people pairing off came from, nor how much of the world it pertains to. The world of the film consists of a hotel, a forest, a road and a place known only as The City. If the rest of the world exists, we never hear about it. Like the characters in the film, we accept this world as real.
Our main character is David (Colin Farrell), a pudgy, sadsack with glasses, an unappealing mustache and a mostly blank expression. He is, however, luckier than most in that he has a name. (The only other character with a name is his brother, who has already been turned into a dog.) Everyone else is identified by a defining characteristic — Shortsighted Woman, Limping Man, Nosebleed Woman, etc. — or an occupation — Hotel Manager, Hotel Receptionist, Maid.
But characteristics seem to define people in the world of the film. They are the key to pairing off — with some people so desperate to partner-up that they fake someone’s defining characteristic as a means to an end. For instance, Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) cuts himself or bangs his head against tables to induce nosebleeds so he can woo Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden). It seems absurd, but is it that much more absurd than our own tendency to present ourselves as the person we think someone wants rather than the person we are?
David is here because his partner abandoned him. And so he has the requisite 45 days (the time can be extended by catching runaway loners) to find a new partner among the other guests. His choice of a lobster as the animal to be turned into should he fail is reasoned, “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.”
But before that can happen, he makes an attempt at a relationship, runs off to the forest, joins the “loners,” and meets Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz, who has been narrating the film from the begining) and falls in love. The problem is that the “loners” are just as opposed to couples as the officials are insistent on them.
Where the film goes from there is something you’ll have to see for yourself. It is characteristic of Lanthimos that much is left unexplained. (The film opens with a woman casually shooting a donkey — something we are left to guess the motivations behind.)
That will please some and alienate others. Every genre The Lobster has been tagged with — comedy, romance, dystopian sci-fi, satire, horror — are not unreasonable, but no one term quite describes this very unusual — and vaguely depressing — work.