The Lobster Yorgos Lanthimos (Euro co–prod; 2015) Colin Farrell; Rachel Weisz
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle 7th Sept 2023; ticket £7
The Lobster Quadrille
Dancing or shall we say the dance, features prominently in both Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and in ‘The Lobster’. Like ‘Alice’ Lanthimos’ film is based on a proposition. It’s a proposition in which the relational expectations of the everyday are undermined and replaced with an otherworldly semantic logic. I don’t know whether Lanthimos has read Carroll but there is no doubt that ‘The Lobster’ not only appears to assimilate some critical elements of Wonderland’s situational humour but in addition aligns Carroll’s logic to a cruel Swiftian moral compass.
‘Tis the voice of the Lobster’ I heard him declare,
‘You have baked me too brown I must sugar my hair.’
As a duck with its eyelids so he with his nose
Rims his belt and his buttons and turns out his nose.
Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books were at one level parodies, albeit affectionately expressed, of Victorian England’s child rearing nostrums with their strange morally uplifting certainties. Swift was the arch satirist, author of ‘Gulliver’ a sardonic critique of human nature and the scathing vicious ‘A Modest Proposal’. Lanthimos like Carroll and Swift begins his film with a narrative device that involves arrival in a parallel universe. Thus in the first section of ‘The Lobster’ his ‘hotel/institution’ is located in a ‘Wonderland’ of his own devising, but loaded with a biting Swiftian satirical critique.
The target of ‘The Lobster’ is the 20th century’s obsession with coupledom. The tyranny of ‘the couple’. The feeling that in not being part of a twosome and all the conceptual baggage that goes with it, children home comfortable life style etc individuals pale into an inexistence – or worse. Protagonist David deserted by his wife is taken to : The Hotel. The Hotel is a sort of Ministry of Marriage whose particular concern is to match up its individual guests as couples. Special rules apply in this place, absurd strictures governing all aspects of life: comportment dress code sex relationships activity. The Swiftian thrust into the darkness devised by Lanthimos is that the ‘residents’ have 45 days to ‘partner up’ or be turned into an animal of their own choosing. David choses to become a lobster if he doesn’t make the grade. The principle in-house Hotel activities – the nightly dance for instance – revolve about finding a mate within the 45 day window. The main external activity is tracking down and hunting (Again Lewis Carroll’s ‘Hunting of the Snark may have been a suggestive influence here) ‘the loners’. These are hotel guests who have escaped, gone over the wall (rather than be zoomorphed) and hang out in the local woods. The idea is to hunt for these renegades, tranquillize them and haul them back in order for them to undergo ‘their transformation’.
‘The Lobster’ is a film of two parts.
The first part is built about the rituals and the mission of the Hotel. It pulls on an acting style in which the characters, although retaining an individuality are invested in the logic of their situation; and a script, which in the Carrollian tradition honours the logic of the Hotel’s existential demands, building them into the autonomic response cues of the roles, and feeding the actors with lines representative of the logic of their positions.
The second part of ‘The Lobster ‘tells the story of David’s escape from ‘The Hotel’, after presumably deciding he didn’t want to become a lobster. David makes his escape from the structured life of ‘The Hotel’ by fleeing into the woods where the loners hang out. At this point Lanthimos parts company with both Carroll and Swift. Both these authors contain their protagonists within the respective worlds in which they find themselves – Gulliver experiences a number of worlds but the action all takes place within them. Carroll’s narrative simply records Alice’s strange encounters as she endeavours to find her way back home.
My feeling is that the second part of the movie, doesn’t work, it falls apart when the action moves into the trees, losing cogency and the tensions endemic to the space of ‘the Hotel’. ‘The Lobster’ becomes crabby and uninteresting. The problem is that the style and nature of the structured relations have become so firmly established, that outside the bounds of ‘The Hotel’, in an oppositional setting, the controlling proposition loses focus, the film becomes fuzzy, lacking clarity in what it is doing. And this lack of clarity engenders a fall off in audience interest.
The proposition entails that the characters presented in ‘the Lobster’ are ciphers. They represent and express certain positions in relation to both the hotel and to each other. We are interested in them because of their positional criticality and their cognitive responses; we do not care about them. Like the pieces of a chess set what matters is where they are on the board, their attributes and powers, their relationship to the other pieces; they do not generate emotional resonance.
Much of the second part of the film simply drifts. Lanthimos indulges his vague notions of the loner community’s struggle against ‘the Hotel’ and the arbitrary (but sometimes amusing) trips to the City. But central to these two narrative strands is the developing relationship and bonding between David (who is short sighted) and the short sighted woman. As the film flips into muddled oppositional incoherence, the problem is that this developing relationship cannot hold the film together. It is uninteresting because Lanthimos cannot re-calibrate his script so that the relationship in itself and the attempt to destroy it, matter.
However the script does re-focus itself in the final scene in which the proposition re-establishes itself triumphantly and the script moves to test its central thesis to destruction. The short sighted woman, now blinded. escapes with her lover David to the City. In the final shot, locked in his internalised psychic struggle with ‘the Hotel’s’ precept of Coupledom, we see David, in front of a mirror in the toilet of a coffee shop, brace himself and prepare to gouge out his eyes with a steak knife. Lanthimos cuts the scene and ends the film before there is any outcome as to whether David will follow the inexorable logic of mutilation in order to be conjoined in blindness with his new partner.
The unevenness that characterises the two parts of ‘The Lobster’ is apparent even in Lanthimos’s filming. The shots that make up the forest scenes in the second part of ‘The Lobster’ lack conviction and intentionality of frame. They are a mess of foliage that struggles to locate the presence of the characters. This contrasts with the shooting of The Hotel section, where Lanthimos’ framing, camera movement are integral to the script and lead deeper into heart of the proposition. ‘The Killing of the Sacred Deer’ an earlier film is testament to Lanthimos’ ability to exploit particular framings of the situational architecture of contemporary interiors and exteriors as part of his filmic exposition.
This ability of Lanthimos is also most intensely seen in the final section of ‘The Lobster’ which intercuts between David with the steak knife in the aforementioned washroom and his blinded woman partner who is seated at a window table of the coffee shop. In the background through the window we see that the coffee shop is located beside a huge truck stop with a busy highway in the far background. We watch through the window as the trucks like huge mechanical animals slowly manoeuvre back and forth against the light. There is something ominous and indifferent in this view which the blind lady cannot see. It’s like a real life Lobster Quadrille.