Yorgos Lanthimos’s strange and original films observe and reflect the culture in which we live. At the same time they create a parallel, fanciful world by taking our social institutions, our common experiences, and our deepest emotions—and pushing them to their illogical extreme.
In his mesmerizing second film, Dogtooth (2009), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, a father and mother are raising three adolescent children amid the middle-class comforts of suburban Athens—and in total isolation. The parents create and edit their family’s reality and give ordinary words new meanings, often with weirdly comical results. When the kids wonder about the planes buzzing overhead, the parents arrange to have toy planes plop into their back yard. Dad asks if they want to hear their grandpa singing, and, straight-faced, plays them a scratchy recording of Frank Sinatra crooning “Fly Me to the Moon.” Even or especially when there is love, the family is a prison, and Lanthimos makes it a jail from which the only escape requires heroic determination—and violence.
His next film, Alps (2012), looks at death with the same peculiar, funny and compassionate eye with which its predecessor regarded the family. A group of four people who take the names of alpine mountains (their leader calls himself Mont Blanc) operate a small business that combines financial and humanitarian concerns. They (rather loosely) impersonate the dead. Clothed in the favorite outfits and accessories of the dead, they enact little playlets in which they say the sorts of things the dead used to say. This service can be utilized by grieving families and lonely survivors who—for a fee, though the first five visits are free—can have their sorrow assuaged by tender and nostalgic interactions with these “substitutes” pretending to be their lost loved ones. Inevitably, the Alps’s enterprise is subverted by the ways in which grief is destabilizing and contagious, and by the living’s desire to be loved and cherished as much as the dead.
Lanthimos’s new film, The Lobster—which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and which recently made its American debut at the New York Film Festival—takes on the subject of modern love. It posits a dystopian near-future in which it has become illegal not to be part of a couple. One can be heterosexual or homosexual, as long as one is in some kind of relationship. Those without a partner are remanded to a fortress-like Irish country hotel: a cross between a singles resort and an internment camp. Each prisoner-guest is given forty-five days to find a soul mate. Those who remain unattached are sent to the Transformation Room, where they will be turned into whatever animal they choose to become, and set loose to live in the forest.
Our hero, David, says he would like to be turned into a lobster because it lives for a very long time, because it makes its home at the bottom of the sea, which he likes, because lobsters have blue blood like aristocrats, and because the lobster remains fertile for much of its life. He remains unfazed when, later in the film, another character, in a moment of pique, points out that David will likely be caught, boiled, and eaten, his shell cracked and the meat removed from his claws.
Expertly played by Colin Farrell, who has been rendered nearly unrecognizable by a moustache, eyeglasses, a goofy haircut, weight gain, and a tentative shuffling gait, David is a dejected architect, recently divorced by his wife. Accompanied by his dog which, we will later discover, was formerly his brother, he arrives at the hotel, surrenders his clothing and possessions, and is given the first lesson in how “everything is easier in pairs.” He must spend his first twenty-four hours at the hotel with one arm tied behind his back, obliged to perform the small daily activities (undressing, going to the bathroom) that would be much simpler with someone to help him.
This unpleasant instruction is reinforced at a group meeting, where the audience watches brief skits illustrating the perils of solitude. A man dines alone, chokes on his food, and dies; the man dines with his wife, who performs the Heimlich maneuver and saves him. A woman walks alone and is set upon by a rapist; the woman walks with her husband and remains unmolested.
The new arrivals introduce themselves with short speeches in which they list their distinguishing characteristics: in most cases, a defect. Two men who befriend David are identified only as Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Limping Man (Ben Whishaw). It is understood that the unattached will seek partners who share their disabilities—presumably a comment on contemporary dating culture and the online sites that encourage the single to describe their tastes and preferences, indulge their narcissism, and to search for a mirror rather than for the other. As Limping Man courts Nosebleed Woman, we watch how desperation can inspire the lovelorn to lie about who they are.
Among the recreational activities/obligatory torments offered by the hotel is a hunt in which the guests are given tranquilizer guns and transported by bus to the forest to track down and shoot the Loners—a tribe of rogue single people. But lest we imagine the Loners as the rebel heroes of this comic critique of social control, we soon discover they are no less rigid, intolerant, and punitive than those who enforce the conventional norm. Their leader (Léa Seydoux) is as righteous, beautiful, and cruel as the bad queen in a fairy tale. For, Lanthimos appears to be suggesting, our desire to make everyone else live exactly as we do has more to do with power, control, and group identity than with the actual substance of how we think others should lead their lives.
Lanthimos trusts the viewer to connect the dots, get the jokes, and understand the initially bewildering scenes for which no explanation is given. The shocking opening sequence—a woman who appears nowhere else in the film stops her car along a country road, gets out, and shoots a grazing donkey point blank—becomes clear when we realize that she is not simply committing a random act of animal cruelty but settling a score with the human being whom the donkey used to be, in a previous life.
At a question and answer session following the film’s screening at Lincoln Center, a woman asked Lanthimos if he had instructed his actors to seem dispassionate. The director and the cast members who joined him on stage, Rachel Weisz (who plays a nearsighted Loner and narrates sections of the film in voice-over) and Ariane Labed (who has appeared in earlier Lanthimos films and here plays a maid at the hotel), questioned the word dispassionate, correctly pointing out that the film is extremely romantic. But one knows what the woman in the audience meant. A great deal of the humor and pathos in Lanthimos’s films comes from the deadpan seriousness, the slightly rushed and monotonous line readings with which characters say the most outrageous things, and the equally straight-faced blankness with which their listeners accept statements that may strike us (if not them) as hilariously bizarre. After the Hotel Manager (played by Olivia Colman) calmly lays out the rules of the establishment and the punishment for not “making it,” she sensibly explains a few of the fine points. One’s choice of the animal to become in the next life will affect one‘s chances of finding a mate when one is transformed into that creature and sent into the wild. Most people want to become dogs, she says, which is why there are so many dogs. But “a wolf and a penguin can’t be together, nor a camel and a hippo. That would be absurd.”
Lanthimos’s films often contain such disturbing moments of unexpected, startling violence that people who have never been able to watch Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to the end might be wise to spare themselves. Like Sophocles, Lanthimos understands that sudden self-mutilation generates a particular kind of adrenaline in the viewer. Consequently, the director’s fans learn to brace themselves every time one of his characters stands in front of a mirror.
Sex and dance scenes (of which there are many in Lanthimos’s work) are so awkwardly choreographed that lovers and dancers seem as twitchy and graceless as marionettes. In Dogtooth, the manic ballet that the two sisters perform to celebrate their parents’ anniversary strikes us as exactly the duet that might be created by girls who had never seen other people move their bodies to music. There’s a good deal of graceless and quasi-robotic dancing in The Lobster and impersonal, mechanical sex, though there is one highly romantic and erotic scene in which a pair of lovers begin to kiss passionately on the couch at the city apartment of the Loner Leader’s parents, while the parents are playing a guitar duet for their guests.
Lanthimos’s approach to sex and dance, as with so many elements in his films, make us feel that he is stripping away the familiar conventions of filmmaking (the gauzy love scene, the seemingly effortless grace of Fred Astaire) to show us something at once familiar and entirely new. Dipping into the past to borrow from Greek tragedy, picturing the future as a surreal and horrific exaggeration of the present, The Lobster frightens and entertains, saddens and inspirits us—in this case with a final vision of self-sacrifice and devotion that ultimately transcends society’s attempts to commodify and regulate the mystery of love.
The Lobster premiered in the US at the 2015 New York Film Festival and will be released in other theaters in spring 2016.