THE LOBSTER (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos)
After a successful debut at Cannes in May 2015, then another well-received stint at Toronto that fall, it still took forever to get THE LOBSTER released to American audiences. It came out overseas last October, but Alchemy (formerly Millennium), the company who bought stateside distribution rights, fell on hard times. They laid off 40 employees in February 2016 and ultimately lost the movie completely. A24 picked it up, set a March release date, then moved it again to May, where it finally saw the light of day. Two reasons I’m telling this industry backstory: 1) it not only lives up to the expectations set by such a long delay and a year’s worth of hype; it exceeds them to become the best movie of 2016 so far… and 2) this is a movie about institutions: how they fail, why they cause people to suffer, but that the underlying emotions will not be extinguished and perhaps love (or art) can still win in the end. Even if it just gets delayed for a bit. Can it?
Too often social allegories like this fall prey to a common cinematic trap: filmmakers who rely heavily on What the Story Means and forget to spin a narrative. THE LOBSTER is so refreshing in that it not only sets up a sci-fi dystopian near-future rich with allusions to modern issues, but it also has a propulsive drive from a solid plot engine. New information is revealed every ten minutes, and the story keeps changing and morphing all the way to the final scene. It doesn’t give up on plot, even though it could easily use its fascinating characters as crutches and lean on them for material to sustain the running time.
What those revelations entail I won’t spoil here — but the focus is keen, as Lanthimos seems determined to investigate our society’s obsession with institution, law, and rebellion. Whereas other sci-fi films like, for example, LOGAN’S RUN or MINORITY REPORT, center around police states that exhibit the tyranny of youth or crime prevention, THE LOBSTER amusingly sets its sights on marriage. It drops in jokes about how people have kids to solve problems, or that they think they’re suited to one another because of some superficial similarity like being near-sighted or getting frequent nosebleeds, while observing that failed relationships are often built on lies with one person attempting to play an ill-fitting role they think their partner will enjoy. This is plenty-fertile ground, but Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou don’t stop there — they create a faction of rebels fighting this institution by trying to break couples up, standing for loneliness and self-reliance, then uncover problems with that side too.
I can’t overstate how clever and deep this commentary goes. Visually, Lanthimos creates a Kubrickian, antiseptic quality to the hotel at which his singles live, and that cold distance results in a black humor reminiscent of Stanley’s greatest works. But there’s more — he directs his actors (a fine cast with a solid bench) to deliver their lines like tired robots who don’t believe anything they’re saying and have given up trying to convince those to whom they’re speaking that any of this is the truth. It takes a good actor to play a person being a bad actor. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz emerge as stars, but EXTRAS’s Ashley Jensen makes an impact (so to speak), as do Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux. The tone is perfect — it’s never too jokey, but never self-serious. Lanthimos holds on scenes and shots long enough to really soak in the point, but doesn’t overstay his welcome. It’s the rare film that moves along at a brisk pace but takes time to draw out every key moment. Thimios Bakitakis’s camerawork may be the only weak link (color and composition fail to stand out as superlative like the other creative elements), but this is such a funny, smart, and sobering original story that it will be a pleasure to revisit for years to come.