Depending on whether one were to anoint Yorgos Lanthimos as the preeminent satirist du jour, and in effect acquiesce to the gatekeepers of cinema, consider the alternative. Fascism comes to England in a middling, alarmist, masturbatory affair that in my struggle to brainstorm areas of improvement for I’ve come up empty handed time and again. The simple gist of it is in an undefined dystopian near-future, a ruthlessly enforced mandate requires the entire adult population is ultimately coupled following a set grace period. Bachelors are rounded up at The Hotel to socialize and be indoctrinated with propaganda. It is a policy borne not out of efficiency nor survival considering homosexual pairings are permitted and adoptions are preferred to procreation. The thinking must have gone like this, “in order to cross the arbitrary gate that is festival circuits let’s throw in a nod to the current social climate even if it undermines the nightmarish premise of our film.”
But does it really hamper itself with such intricacies? For one, through omission, was it a masterstroke of sorts in heightening draconian implications by suggesting child rearing may be prohibited or at least heavily regulated or a lack of foresight altogether when we see Lea Seydoux visit her biological parents? We are never certain and the film in a way becomes a victim or its pretenses. Regardless, there still is skill and grace to the film that belie the narrative ostentation of Lanthimos’ work and the film checks out within the frame of its constructed mythology. It helps that the comedy is supremely delivered even when untimely, with Colin Farrell and John C. Riley putting in turns against type such that when Farrell’s David is hit with his wife’s infidelity he, pitiful as if a career specialist in that role, seeks closure. “Was he shortsighted?” are the film’s first audible words. Unfortunately it was, as with other introductory passages, too early to absorb the intended comedy without the proper context of its later exposition.
Perhaps the cruelty of its setting is less understood from the ramifications of separation and beginning anew than in the potential of the capricious arrival of said fate. Take for example the opening line, a preoccupation reiterated as an inquisitive and, later, a vengeful impulse. In a later development David, still hurt by the betrayal, succumbs to his suspicions of possible shortsighted men instead of productively channeling his efforts toward asking women the same. It sure is great comedy but was the first example an attempt at closure or simply to a ploy to foil his ex’s new union at a later time? Consider the potential outcomes of the mating cycle since annulments are one. A successful pairing must involve a distinguishable common trait in a couple, to guard against collusion presumably, and must undergo a month-long trial on a nearby (anchored) yacht. Next, one imagines, the couple is released into general population to live normally like we do now but at any moment the nuptials can dissolve on a whim…
It’s a scary proposition on its own before contending with the added horror of Huxlean interventions, and a drawing well for comedy except the punishment for failing to find a mate is the absurd reincarnation into an animal of one’s prior choosing in a dedicated chamber called…. The Transformation Room! Ridiculous as that may be the institutional apparatus continues to stress two possible outcomes when in fact there is always the choice of turning rogue and prolonging one’s chances under the elements. Not exactly foolproof but The Lobster tries its best nonetheless. There is a ritual that legitamizes an extended stay at The Hotel involving capturing the wantaways in the woods with tranquilizers and scorekeeping. You see, it is dangerous to be seen wandering The City alone—and hence the feral offshoot—since it invites interrogation on the spot by authorities. Bring a loner in and you get an extra day to your stay to cajole companionship in. The sequence betrays Lanthimos’ desire all along. He wants to conjure Kubrick’s dark humor but ends up with regurgitating a montage from There Will Be Blood, the derrick scene set against Argo Pärt’s Fratres for Cellos and Piano. It’s still an impressive flourish despite the effigy under its veneer as a film.
As deadline day looms, David takes matters into his own hands so the film leaves that much for options and it is engaging enough to dispel any accusations of prolonging its chances as a film by exploring life on the run for example and relying on stark tonal shifts to warrant attention. Because it happens around the halfway mark it is obvious the film wasn’t in a rush to compensate for a wonky rhythm on the front end of its run time. Curiously, the splinter group has its own set of rules and retribution also which are contrary to the establishment’s credo. They don’t tolerate intimacy of any form and the film insists on its absurdist tendencies to a fault when they hand out iPods and headphones with rave playlists you can’t partner dance to! Seriously? As nuance, I get The Lobster’s version of chastity belts and the idea of tension/release behind cute maids twerking on a man’s groin to spur on just enough of a jolt to go and participate in sexual selection activities but surprisingly there isn’t the female equivalent. And modern criticism exalts that kind of equality. This breaks the most crucial rule in the cinematic expression, the tacit agreement that the intention remains slyly hidden and Lanthimos doesn’t bother covering up his tracks.