On irony, emotional distance, romantic specificity, and the purpose of electronic music in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster
The Lobster A24 Films
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Lea Seydoux, Ashley Jensen, Olivia Colman, Ariane Labed and Michael Smiley
Rated R / 1 hour, 59 minutes / 1.85:1
(out of four)
Don't let anyone ever tell you that ironists are insincere. Good ones are simply ... particular. Patient, exacting, precise in their phraseology. A bit sideways about it? Sure. Backwards, even - but only in the sincerest of ways.
There's a misconception that it's about avoidance, or deflection, but it's actually kinda the opposite. Say what you will about distancing mechanisms or emotional withholdings, but there's a profound sense of purpose to it all. There's a compulsion to come at things from a specific angle to get to the emotional or existential truth you're after. If anything, a film with an ironic framework earns its stripes more, precisely because its expression doesn't come easy, or directly. What it's avoiding is the prepackaged veneer of meaning or sentiment. To be clear, this certainly isn't always true; there's plenty of the cheap version floating around. Too much. Just as there's a difference between simply saying something sarcastically and using sarcasm to make an actual point, so too is there irony that serves only to deflect or deter real engagement with the subject matter. But a good ironist uses the form to express a full-bodied point of view - just in reverse, or otherwise obliquely.
I recently rewatched Wong Kar-wai's great In the Mood for Love, which proves instructive here. Let me preface this by saying that Wong is most definitely not an ironist. But the way he gets things across has a similarly indirect effect. As the film's central affair-of-the-heart moves forward, the characters - distanced from their respective spouses, finding solace and want only in each other - begin to play out emotional motions and scenarios. Sometimes as themselves, sometimes as some combination of themselves and their spouses and their spouses' lovers. There is a perpetual conflation of meanings and intentions as the scenarios play out; their conversations are fiction, or rehearsal, and yet under the guise of these manufactured moments - the emotions meant to apply to other people, in other circumstances - the feelings of our protagonists bleed through. The very fact that their emotions are coming across while thinly veiled behind a façade - that these two lonely people are, technically, not speaking to each other as each other - is where each moment, and the film as a whole, gets its power. There is a palpable, almost unbearable ache to their moments together - an anguished conflation of distance and intimacy. The true meaning comes specifically in what's not being directly acknowledged. If they simply dropped all pretense and said how they really felt, the film's spell would evaporate.
Ultimately, what matters is finding the right language. Which is what makes Yorgos Lanthimos' hilariously poignant masterpiece The Lobster such an appropriate example, given the way its dry emotional temperament and deeply earnest (if necessarily obscured, hidden in plain sight) central romance dovetails with a premise built on the trappings of civilizing forces of behavior and communication. The film is littered with detachments and barriers - and, tellingly, requires the creation of an entirely new, esoteric language for its romance to survive. Lanthimos has dealt with the absurdities of language and social structure before, most notably in 2010's great Dogtooth, about children living in complete confinement by parents who have raised them on cruelly deliberate myths, right down to incorrect definitions of basic words. (The line "Lick my keyboard" is a running joke between me and a close friend and fellow Lanthimos fan.)
The Lobster posits a civilization - seemingly an alternate one, rather than futuristic or strictly dystopian - built rigidly on couplings. So rigidly, in fact, that anyone not in a relationship has to check into a special hotel with other single people, and is given 45 days to find a new partner. If they don't, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing. (An elliptical opening scene shows a woman driving out to the rainy countryside, getting out of the car and shooting a sheep in the head. An ex-lover, we presume?) There's a flip side to this world, and that's the loners - outlaws and outcasts who roam the woods, and who have just as rigid a way of life as the outside world. Among them, no sexual or romantic relationships are allowed whatsoever, and the punishments for breaking that rule are harsh. Harsher, even, than being turned into an animal.
Lanthimos is a brilliant absurdist, and he exploits these two versions of society - first one, then the other - for scathing comic value, while remaining rooted (distanced as it may be) in a sense of humanity yearning to be unleashed. Like everyone else, the film's characters accept the world with which they are presented; in that spirit, there are frequent examples of people insisting on making sense of a world that, of course, doesn't. When the hotel's co-manager (Olivia Colman) explains to our hero David (Colin Farrell) the rules of the hotel and what will happen once his 45 days are up, she's careful to bring logic into the equation, giving sound suggestions on choosing a mate both in this life and his next one. "A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus," she says, deadpanning, "That would be absurd - think about it."
When one of David's acquaintances at the hotel - a young man with a limp, played by Ben Whishaw - explains in detail how (he's heard) the transformation process works, there is a slight pause in the conversation before David offers, almost convincing himself to believe his own words, "That makes total sense."
Accepted without question are the assumptions about what does (or does not) make for a "compatible" relationship - namely the matching of "defining characteristics." Whishaw and his previous girlfriend both walked with a limp. Now that he's facing the prospect of literally losing his humanity, he's spotted an attractive young woman (played by the spectacular character actress Jessica Barden) who gets frequent spontaneous nosebleeds. And so, he goes about giving himself nosebleeds - smashing his face down onto tables if necessary - in order to forge an apparent bond. The two seem satisfied with this arrangement.
Lanthimos has a very specific performance style in mind here, which once again gets across by omission and distance what a more straightforward approach could not. The characters speak in a stunted way that lacks obvious emotional inflection - which makes their emotions, seeping out underneath those stilted patterns of speech, all the more potent, and convincing, and sad. Farrell pulls this off astonishingly - once again proving what a versatile, idiosyncratic and sincere actor he is - giving the film a strange, and sweet, emotional weight. (His delivery of the line "That's awful, just awful" should be put in a time capsule and shot into outer space for future civilizations to find.)
Lanthimos emphasizes unbalanced compositions - often stacking his characters to one side of the shot, and framing coupled characters together to emphasize the space between them and a third person - which is part of what makes the near-symmetry of the final shot so agonizing and so perfect. He uses his ideas and his images - his warm, earthy palette, one untouched by any splashes of color that would distort the film's aesthetic - to underscore the hilarious discomfort of the coexistence between human passion and strict behavioral decorum, as well as the cruelty (also, as it happens, hilarious) that comes from a world bent out of shape in the name of social order. This is not a surrealist film, but it does have surrealist impulses and inspirations (its visual nods to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are memorable and appropriate).
I hesitate to say too much about the romance that blossoms between David and a near-sighted woman (played by Rachel Weisz, who also narrates) among the loners, just because so much of it occurs in the second half of the film. But I will say that the best romances usually - if not always - come from an unexpected angle, and this is no exception. That's what makes it specific, speaking directly to the nebulous, idiosyncratic nature of how one person connects with another. Any movie can tell us that two characters are falling in love. A great movie makes sure those two characters are falling in love in a way no other two characters have. Or could.
At the risk of sounding crass, that's kinda how I feel about The Lobster as a whole. If I were tasked with interviewing Lanthimos about this movie, I'd basically just be Chris Farley from The Chris Farley Show, babbling like an adoring idiot and muttering uncontrollably about favorite scenes and lines and moments. Remember that part where ... Yeah, I probably shouldn't get myself started.
There's an intangible alchemy to how a film works - how it expresses itself, what it says and how it says it. What is not said is just as important - so much can be found in what's hidden - and The Lobster is rooted in part on that very idea, right down to its core premise. It uses the limitations of its internal logic to glorious advantage, offering a fable of human connection that transcends the rules that govern it. The lengths you'll go to communicate something can say a lot; the greater the lengths, the more specific, and unique, it can become, as if it's being whittled down into a simple and perfect expression of it, transforming it into something that's never been said before. Maybe, even, that what you're expressing is so powerful that common language can't contain it.