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NYFF Review: Oddball Movie The Lobster Says Plenty With Satire

4 1/2 out of 5 Stars


Chances are you’ve heard strange rumblings about The Lobster. It’s the movie from Yorgos Lanthimos (director of Dogtooth) starring a pudgy, mustachioed Colin Farrell as a single man who will be turned into an animal if he doesn’t find a partner (he wants to be a lobster). Why? Because … that’s the premise of the movie. That’s the kind of world-building Lanthimos has decided to do here, and as strange as that idea is, once you get over the hump that this is the world, the movie is actually a surprisingly accessible, funny, and touching story about love, marriage, and state-sanctioned relationships. How timely.

Compared to Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, which is best viewed as a satire about the power parents have to influence children in the most extreme and worst ways, The Lobster is a larger look at society’s control over citizens. In both, rebellion or resistance can never be completely stamped out. This film is being described in some reviews as science fiction, and while I understand the reason (a surgery that can transform you into an animal), The Lobster seems completely disinterested in any kind of scientific explanation (even light science fiction) to justify these concepts.

We’re given no explanation of how our world connects to this one. Is it an alternative reality or the future? No idea, and I don’t think Lanthimos wants us to think about it. In his world, the rules are relatively simple: people must have a mate. If you become single for any reason (widowed or divorced) as an adult, you will be sent to a retreat for singles and hopefully find your partner. If you find that partner, you are tested and then released back into the city. If you don’t find a mate in 45 days, you will be turned into an animal (Farrell’s David already has a brother-dog). The only way to extend your stay is by hunting singles that escaped and live in the woods as fugitives.

At the retreat, the stand-in for society’s control is the manager, played by Olivia Colman (who is pretty darn amazing in the movie), who is later mirrored by resistance loner leader Lea Seydoux (also doing some of her best work). Both are as controlling and vindictive as the other, only with different resources and support staff. The movie has all the cast working on a strange, monotone level the entire time … like a lot of Wes Anderson performances.

But by doing this, small moments register bigger than outbursts would, and it never breaks the structure of this specific world. All the performances are pretty much excellent across the board, from the limping and lisping men at the retreat (Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly) to the nose-bleeding or heartless women (Jessica Barden and Aggeliki Papoulia). With the exception of David, whose story is narrated by the short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz), the entire film has characters defined purely by their “defining characteristics,” because in the world they exist, this speed-matching leads people to find partners with similarities, rather than chemistry or attraction (like grade school children who find kids with a similarity to “be their friend”). And as we see, some will even take extreme measures to alter themselves when they see a potential match.

But loners have it no easier in this world. If one chooses to join them, there is no form of “affection” towards each other allowed. We see moments of real, physical cruelty to those who can’t resist natural desires for tenderness, warmth, and sex. Yes, couples can have sex, but only after they’ve made a commitment (and if that commitment doesn’t start to work, then throw some children into the mix).

The movie is really, really funny at times, but it also touches on some very real issues we’re experiencing in society. The ostracizing of single people as something to be fixed or thrown away is funny in how ridiculous is seems, but it also has some disturbing comments on our real society’s treatment of those who choose to be single. And the professional, sterile way relationships (and marriage) are encouraged as being good for society isn’t that difference from encouragement for marriage in real life.

The film also has moments that are genuinely sad, such as Whishaw recounting the story of his mother’s transformation and explaining why he would torture himself in order to be in a relationship. The film even manages to become truly romantic, without contradicting the satirical comments already made. The trap Weisz and Farrell find themselves in as outsiders, wanting to be together despite choosing to be loners, shows that real love (whatever kind it may be) comes from free will.

This movie is definitely not going to be for everyone, although this is certainly a much easier watch than Dogtooth. I was a thrown off by one concept towards the very end that I couldn’t shake, and there’s cruelty to animals on-screen (along with people), which is hard to see. But it isn’t treated as a joke, and if you can tolerate seeing that, the movie will be worth seeking out—especially if you have a chance to discuss the big ideas the movie comically dances around with companions afterward, because this movie screams for analysis. I definitely haven’t seen a film like it before.

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