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Film Review | The Lobster

The Greek master of the weird Yorgos Lanthmios makes his English-language debut and triumphs, with this blistering black comedy about the gamified nature of romantic relationships

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
7 March 2016, 7:52am
Rebellious love: Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in one of the weirdest romantic comedies you’re likely to see
Rebellious love: Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in one of the weirdest romantic comedies you’re likely to see
 

Society has a strange relationship with romantic relationships. Evolving historically as either methods of self-preservation and/or bonds to strengthen financial and dynastic security, they now appear to cater to a variety of human needs.

That some people still get into relationships or marry for reasons of security – financial, emotional or otherwise – is something of a given, but the spectrum encompassing those things is complex, delicate and touchy. Romantic love that ‘transcends’ practical considerations has been elevated to one of the highest peaks of social expectation.

But how genuine is the truism that love is all you need? The first English-language film by the Greek master of the weird, Yorgos Lanthmios, tackles that question with his own brand of strange panache.

In a near-future dystopian society, people are legally required to be in a committed relationship by The City.

Failing that, they need to register into The Hotel, where they are encouraged to couple up with either members of the same or the opposite sex – “the bisexual option was discontinued due to operational complications” – and to hunt down those who have failed to partner up within forty-five days. The ‘loners’ are then tranquilised and turned into an animal of their choice.

When his partner leaves him for another man, David (Colin Farrell) signs up for a stay in the hotel, along with his brother, who was turned into a dog for not conforming to the City’s relationship rules. There he makes a couple of friends, The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and The Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) who compete for the affections of the females to varying degrees of success, while he rejects the advances of a kindly fellow visitor (Ashley Jensen) in favour of The Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia).

But when the mysterious narrator of the story (Rachel Weisz) finally reveals herself, it’s also the point in which David’s story takes a different turn. Discovering that the ‘loners’ are forming their own resistance to the Hotel’s authoritarian rule – whose Leader (Lea Seydoux) is as uncompromising in her resistance to coupledom as the City is to the opposite – David finds himself thrown from one oppressive system into another.

Lanthmios’s two previous films, the disturbing Josef Fritzl-inspired Dogtooth (2009) and the blisteringly uncanny Alps (2014) – about a team of gymnasts who offer a service that has them ‘standing in’ for recently deceased loved ones – appear to be both abstract and specific, obliquely picking on a social phenomenon but expanding upon it in a neutral space, where characters are deliberately flat, with dialogue to match.

They’re also as funny as they are dark, and The Lobster, though it boasts a more decorated cast and bigger budget than what Lanthmios is normally used to, is certainly no exception in this regard. Penning the script together with frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou, the film’s most delightful surprise is just how many belly laughs it contains. It’s an absurd situation that’s also strangely recognizable, and the metaphors and situations can resonate as equally hilarious and horrific.

The actors all seem to be game, perhaps because they’ve finally found a film that respects their talents and can coax the best out of them – from pot-bellied Farrell’s quiet despair (think Woody Allen put through a David Lynch wringer) to Weisz’s sensitive love interest, who also helps with the humour quotient thanks to her deadpan narration.

Though the tempo loses steam somewhat past the halfway mark – with the loner’s attack on the Hotel feeling like something of a premature climax – it never feels as though the film has run out of things to say. And though it’s unfortunate that animal cruelty often ends up being its go-to effect to ratchet up tension and unforgiving edge, neither does it feel gratuitous or inserted purely for the sake of shock value.

We should be grateful for Lanthmios, because he seeks to tell stories that are both unique and resonantly human – without making a big thing about their supposed universal appeal. As the Oscar contenders have been showing us year in and year out, any film that transcends genre also has to ‘sell’ its topic really hard: be it slavery, the stock market crash or LGBTIQ narratives.

Instead, Lanthmios decides to rip open the truisms and assumptions that prop up such a model for big screen drama, and he does it with brutal imaginative heft and a strange kind of grace. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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