The Lobster – particularly the first, superior half – reminded me a lot of Milan Kundera, whom I read a lot of, devotedly, when I was in my early 20s. Yorgos Lanthimos’ slightly surreal, slightly dystopian, slightly funny and slightly profound fifth feature – his first in English – shares those qualities with Kundera (at least as I read him) and Rachel Weisz’s story-book narration – both objective and subjective simultaneously – reminded me of Kundera’s voice, which always had an omniscient quality while also being teasing and witty.
The characters in The Lobster all speak in a way that sounds translated, which may also contribute to my “Kundera effect”. Their delivery is deadpan, formal, relatively flat, and highly deliberate. It’s not just that they may indeed be speaking dialogue that has been translated from Lanthimos’ native Greek. The actors are following a strict line of direction here; they’re all on the same page, aspiring to a slightly mysterious goal, and together, along with the natural lighting (mostly available light was used in the shooting), the absurd elements of the script, and the constant use of highly brazen metaphor, a specific and unique universe is created.
The fist half of the film is set in a lush but chilly resort hotel (placed nowhere in particular but shot in Ireland) where David (a pudgy Colin Farrell), a recent divorcee, arrives to discover his destiny: life with a new partner or life as an animal of his choosing. In the rules of this world, he has forty-five days to find a soulmate within the resort – one who shares at least one major trait of his own – or undergo the transformation. He can choose any animal he wishes, and he chooses a lobster. It’s a good choice, according to the hotel manager (Olivia Colman, once again proving she can do no wrong); “most people choose to be a dog, which is why there are so many dogs”.
These scenes in the hotel are intriguing and often very funny (in a very dry way); Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Jessica Barden, Ashley Jensen (from Extras) and in particular Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia all do specific work here, adhering to the rules of Lanthimos’ game admirably. The second half, which expands the story significantly, is less engaging, and feels longer and more self-indulgent; it also can be a little baffling, which the first half, despite its overtones of surrealism and absurdity, never is.
Lanthimos is an acquired taste and shows no signs, as his career ascends, of altering his style to expand his audience (which is happening anyway, especially given his move into English and his use of movie stars). This is an accessible, fun and occasionally frustrating entry into his body of work.