At nearly any given moment in its two-hour running length, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster has the power to make you laugh or cry. If you choose to laugh out of derision or cry with frustration, that’s your business, and it’d be hard not to empathize with either reaction. If, however, you find yourself on Lanthimos’ and his movie’s shared, absurdist-deadpan wavelength, you might find the Greek writer/director’s latest tragicomedy – and first English-language one – both extraordinarily funny and almost embarrassingly moving. Never before has the mere sight of a Shetland pony made me chuckle, or well up once I registered exactly what it was I was chuckling at.
For a point of reference regarding The Lobster’s appeal (or, possibly, lack thereof), the most universal one I can think of is Spike Jonze’s and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, in which it was treated as a given that paying customers could, and would, enter a literal portal to the actor’s psyche. (Those also familiar with Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, the ne plus ultra of dysfunctional-family satires, might have an even better idea of what to expect here.) And the rules of this film’s particular universe are established early in a few quick scenes, and can be boiled down to one basic talking point: Staying single will kill you.
Recently dumped by his wife, the morose, bespectacled David (Colin Farrell) checks himself into a European rehabilitation facility known only as the Hotel, where he’s stripped of his personal belongings and sent to his room. The next morning, the hotel manager (a magnificently dry Olivia Colman) welcomes him, and through their tersely riotous conversation, we come to understand what kind of panicked, totalitarian world The Lobster is set in. David, like the Hotel’s other guests, has 45 days to secure a mate that shares with him one significant characteristic – a lovely smile, say, or a frequent nosebleed. (Same-sex relationships are allowed, but you have to choose “heterosexual” or “homosexual” at check-in time, and bisexuality, we’re told, is no longer tolerated, as it tended to confuse the paperwork.) If David meets his romantic ideal, they’ll be treated to a public ceremony and vacation aboard a yacht. If he’s still alone at the end of his 45 days, he’ll be turned into an animal of his choosing. David has decided on a lobster, should worse come to worst, because he likes the sea, and because lobsters stay fertile all their lives. “An excellent choice,” says the manager, who notes that “most people choose dogs. That’s why there are so many of them.”
That bare-bones synopsis might be surrealist enough to get you to a screening ... or hint that you might want to steer clear of this one. (The movie is currently playing in Iowa City at both FilmScene and the Marcus Sycamore Cinema.) But one of the great, oftentimes harrowing thrills of The Lobster lies in our discovery of the rest of its “rules,” both inside and outside the Hotel, that Lanthimos and co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou gradually clarify. Pets are welcome, as we glean when David brings with him the beloved pooch that was once his 48-year-old brother – a man, apparently, of previously limited imagination. Hotel staffers, including an inscrutable one played by Ariane Labed, will sexually service residents, but only up to a point. Masturbation is strictly prohibited (which John C. Reilly’s lisping guest learns the hard way). Lying about one’s romantic affections is the most heinous offense (which David learns in the harshest way imaginable). And those who buck the partnership-or-peril edict don’t necessarily have to die. They do, however, have to live in hiding in a forest outside the grounds, where these capitalized Loners – among them a militant Léa Seydoux – are routinely hunted by Hotel guests for sport, and for the chance to earn extra days of mercy for successful kills.
It may seem that I’m giving away too much. In truth, those narrative descriptions don’t even get us to the halfway mark and the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s fellow singleton, who narrates the proceedings long before she appears. Weisz’s presence, and her deeply touching silent communication with Farrell, is what transforms The Lobster from a satirical romance to the genuine article. It also, only somewhat ironically, amps up the film’s cruelty. There are hideous, and hideously amusing, moments all throughout the first hour; the fate of Ashley Jensen’s talkative sad sack is especially unnerving, and I think our entire FilmScene audience reacted with audible shock when Ben Whishaw’s limping guest demonstrated just how he snagged his “perfect match.” (Meanwhile, if a nearby patron’s mortified keening was to be trusted, dog lovers are advised to stay far, far away from the film.) Yet the performers’ collective (and intentional) impassivity and Lanthimos’ deliberately artificial staging – evidenced in the meticulously, practically geometrically arranged compositions – keep you, for long stretches, at a safe emotional distance from the on-screen horrors. It’s only after you become attuned to the exquisite subtlety of Farrell’s melancholy that you begin to feel the devastating, serio-comic loneliness and sorrow that drive both David and the movie itself. And it’s only after Weisz’s character arrives that David, and you, see an escape route to happiness – even as Lanthimos and Filippou continue to suggest that happiness, in such a dystopian world, comes to no one.
Apologies for all of the “Is this damned thing funny or not?!” mixed signals. For my money, yes, it very much is ... until suddenly it isn’t. What it more accurately is, it seems to me, is startling, and I was startled into more varied responses at The Lobster – laughter, anxiety, dread, profundity, misery, exhilaration – than at any other 2016 release I’ve yet seen. From the bucolic ridiculousness of a camel and flamingo traipsing through the woods to the hauntingly unresolved and heartbreaking final image, to say nothing of that sad and confused Shetland pony, Lanthimos’ achievement has stuck to my heart and guts in ways that are proving impossible to shake off. It’s stuck its claws in and won’t let go.
Although Colin Farrell’s David picks a crustacean as his reincarnation of choice, he might have gone with different marine life had he seen director Greg MacGillavray’s Humpback Whales, giving that starring in your own, self-titled big-screen edu-doc would be infinitely preferable to winding up in a pot of boiling water and being served to a customer in a bib. To be sure, and despite the lingering threat of whalers, the Putnam Museum’s latest 40-minute entertainment makes being a humpback look like several tons of fun, at least considering how much time they spend singing. The Putnam’s documentaries are nearly always worth watching. This is the rare one that’s eminently worth hearing, not only for the glorious shrieks of the whales’ melodic, high-pitched squeals, but for the majestic sea creatures’ thunderous grunts, groans, snorts, barks, and cannonballs; listening to their activity here is like experiencing the mother ship’s attempt to communicate at the end of Close Encounters. Sadly, at least for these tired old eyes, the film’s 3D is nowhere near as impressive as its sound design. Unusually for him, and especially for a largely underwater doc, MacGillavray takes little visual advantage of the many splashes and bubbles and krill swimming in our faces, and at several junctures I actually took off my eyewear to see if the advertised 3D was in operation at all. (The hazy underwater photography made it hard to tell, but the even blurrier end credits revealed that the process was indeed working, if underwhelmingly.) Still, there’s plenty of strong footage involving a Hawaiian whale-rescue team, and the score – punctuated by charming use of American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life” – is peppy, and I certainly learned a lot. (Did you know humpbacks don’t have teeth, but rather the dental equivalent of really big combs?) And as mentioned, that oceanic singing is amazing, although I do have one bone to pick with MacGillavray: You stockpile Humpback Whales with songs, and then deprive us the opportunity to hear narrator Ewan McGregor sing one? Speaking on behalf of all Moulin Rouge! fans: Not cool.