“Wherefore the International Art Cinema?”
As I sat watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ elegant new film, The Lobster (2015), I was struck by how out of time it seemed. It is an exquisite piece of international art cinema, seemingly released fifty years too late. In the middle of the 1960s, such films proliferated around the world, with post-oligopoly American theaters thirsty for non-Hollywood films to show to increasingly film literate audiences. A drug trip ends La Rupture (1970), Claude Chabrol’s French New Wave masterpiece about the inability of human beings to be kind to one another. A film about the impossibility of love, The Lobster speaks the language of such modernist cinema. It concerns David (Colin Farrell), a lonely man who arrives at a hotel where he must find a mate within 45 days or be turned into an animal of his choosing. He befriends two other men in the same pathetic situation, the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly).
The film rejects the traditional generic categories into which one might normally place such a plot. Set ominously at The Hotel, located in the woods outside of The City, with some imperative for people to pair up and mate, The Lobster might have been a science-fiction film. However, since Lanthimos doesn’t care much about the premise, or about that genre’s central themes, we never learn what could have happened to this dystopian society for such extreme measures to come about in the first place.
Similarly, The Lobster could have become a romantic comedy—Colin Farrell’s performance eerily invokes the vacant masculinity invented by Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013)—but again, Lanthimos’ strategy is to retreat from such genre markers. The culture at The Hotel appears to posit people as romantically compatible when they share only a minor character trait. And such traits are easily faked: the Limping Man daily smashes his face into tables so that he may be paired with a woman prone to nose bleeds. David seems to find his soul mate, the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) because he also suffers from myopia, hardly the stuff of Pride and Prejudice.
The Lobster rejects Hollywood genres, but equally, I think, it rejects its art cinema predecessors, presenting these forebears in quotation marks. In the film’s opening sequence, a woman (Jacqueline Abrahams) listed in the credits only as “Donkey Shooter” drives her car out into a pasture and shoots a donkey for no apparent reason. We never hear from this character again, nor does the film ever explain the opening event’s importance to David’s story. Later, a woman David is pretending to be compatible with, the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) kills David’s dog, which we are told was his brother, but the execution of an animal is the only narrative information we have to piece together any equivalence.
The most famous donkey in the international art cinema is Balthazar from Au Hazard Balthazar, a 1966 French masterpiece directed by Robert Bresson. That film concerns Marie, an abused farm girl who gets separated from her only friend, Balthazar the donkey. But dislocated from any connection to the former film’s plot about divine transcendence, the intertextual equivalence between The Lobster and its fifty-year-old forebear does not lead us anywhere.
A more extended reference in The Lobster is to what Martin Esslin coined the Theater of the Absurd. Haunting most of Lanthimos’ plot is Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros (1959), about a drunkard, Berenger who witnesses everyone else in his small French town turning into rhinoceroses. Ionesco’s play explores the history of fascism in Europe, indicting group thinkers who succumb to diseases such as anti-Semitism.
What The Lobster shares with the Absurdist plays of Ionesco is an interrogation of people’s proclivity for performance, acting that often shrouds, not illuminates, their true nature. In The Lobster’s funniest moment, at a kind of twelve-step meeting for the lovelorn, David and his fellow romantics must watch small one-act plays put on by the Hotel’s director. In one such play, a man assaults an unaccompanied woman. The cure, argues the play’s second act, is for her to be paired with a mate. Then, as she and her male companion walk by, the would-be rapist can only stand inert.
But by no means is The Lobster an adaptation of Rhinoceros. Lanthimos posits no allegorical linkages to Ionesco’s critique of Nazism. The Hotel demands that David declare equivocally his sexual preference as he checks in, but nowhere else do we get the sense that this dystopian society is abusing its citizens because of discrimination of out-group members.
The film’s final moment best demonstrates its rejection of the history of modernist cinema. Fed up with the rules of the Hotel, David escapes into the forest and joins up with the loners, rebels hunted by the inhabitants of the Hotel. In this final phase of the film, The Lobster most invokes Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), about a group of cannibals who have rejected mainstream French society. But again, The Lobster does not seem to share Godard’s strident critique of capitalist, bourgeois society.
David falls in love with one of the loners, the Short-Sighted Woman, violating the rules of celibacy set up by the Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux). As punishment, the leader takes the Short-Sighted Woman to The City to have her blinded. Realizing the failure of their alternative community, David and the blind woman flee into the city. At a café, David continues accepting the society’s false logic of compatibility, deciding to blind himself in the bathroom. David points a knife at his eyeball, but seems to have difficulty following through on his plan.
The film ends with this moment of narrative ambiguity, an invocation of the famous opening of Luis Bunuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), in which Bunuel slits a woman’s eye open for no apparent reason. The 1920s Surrealists were rebelling against a classical civilization which brought not human betterment, but instead only the devastation of World War I. Relying on an “aesthetics of shock,” Un Chien Andalou rejects the values of Hollywood cinema in order to force us to watch the disturbingly violent nature of the world.
As much as The Lobster rejects the narrative coherence of such Hollywood cinema, it also parts company with the modernist cinema’s unified critique of civilization. Lanthimos ends his film where Bunuel and Dali began theirs. It equivocates against the aesthetics of shock, refusing to even tell us whether the central protagonist, the only named character in the film, was able to mutilate himself in the interest of keeping intact his flimsy relationship with another human being.
The Lobster leaves the world in far worse shape than did the modernist culture of the 20th century. Ionesco’s Berenger, about to succumb to the lure of the rhinoceros, comes to his senses and vows to fight against their fascism. Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou forces its audience to confront the violence and incoherence of so-called civilization. The Lobster instead forwards a different, more pessimistic insight into humanity: David never even had the chance to come to such consciousness.
David ends the film with no hope of resistance. If he refuses to blind himself, he cannot continue his relationship with the woman he loves. If he succeeds, he has capitulated to the insane hegemony of his dystopian world, where love is fueled not by concern for another, but by petty surface relationships. In either case, humanity loses. What will become of us? We will revert to our animal natures, the only piece of reliable information given to us by The Lobster. After our 45 days, we will become animals. The brilliance of Lanthimos’ film is that it demonstrates quite clearly that we are already there.