If you haven’t seen Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, you may be under the impression that it is a dark comedy about modern romance. At least, that’s how the movie’s social media accounts and many reviewers portray it. “Still haven’t seen the year’s wildest comedy?” asks a tweet in @LobsterFilm’s stream. An out-of-context gif of Ariane Labed twirling in the forest accompanies the post.
This representation, bolstered by trailers that cut out any mention of the movie’s most disturbing aspects, needs to be corrected. While watching The Lobster, I kept noticing the drastic differences between the movie I expected and the one I was viewing. Moments of The Lobster explicitly show violence to an extreme such that, if I had known about them on the way in, I probably would have passed on seeing it.
Be forewarned that this review is going to give away important plot points from the movie and, as I’ll be discussing the disturbing elements I wish I had known about, this review will also discuss violence, suicide and sexual assault. Viewers should know about The Lobster’s sadism and violence before buying a ticket based on tags like “dark comedy.”
The Lobster: doubtlessly dark, dubiously comedic. The movie has been successful in both the festival circuit (winning Jury Prize at Cannes and other awards) and the press. Most reviewers describe the movie as such: The Lobster uses dark humor and absurdity to lampoon societal pressures to find a partner. The movie’s plot easily lends itself to this reading. In a dystopia, single people spend 45 days in a state-run propaganda- and punishment-filled hotel to find a partner. Failure to do so within the time limit leads to being surgically transformed into an animal of their choice. (Guess where the title comes from.) Writer/director Lanthimos aptly chose a concept that piqued black humor fans’ interest. When filling out his bleak society, however, he falters.
The details that would best illuminate the workings of Lanthimos’ dystopia are neglected or grotesquely distorted for laughs. When protagonist/Joaquin Phoenix in Her-knockoff David (Collin Farrell) checks into The Hotel, the clerk (Nancy Onu) asks him for his sexual orientation. He asks if he can register as bisexual and gets a deadpan response: the option was eliminated last summer for operational reasons. In the moment, it is a funny take on how bureaucratic formalities distort and simplify sexuality. But a few scenes later, The Hotel’s pro-couple propaganda is starkly heteronormative, even though the check-in shows that the dystopia recognizes homosexuality. The clumsy shift occurs during a scene that seemingly exists only to allow Lanthimos to deliver a grotesque “joke” in which The Hotel’s propaganda includes two workers acting out a pantomime rape.
The inconsistent treatment of themes and details is the common factor in Lanthimos’ exposition of the society, not an occasional mistake or simplification. The dystopia also requires that state-approved couples must have something in common — a shared musical talent, frequent nosebleeds. David attempts to pair up with a sociopath (Aggeliki Papoulia) by pretending to also lack emotions and succeeds for a while. When he attempts to re-assimilate into society with another outcast (Rachel Weisz), however, they run through a list of potential commonalities, ultimately unable to find one.
But if David and his earlier partner could share their lack of emotions, why can’t David and the other escapee share their deep emotions? The shared quality requirement varies greatly from specific to intangible examples. The inconsistency grows from the fact that Lanthimos foregoes explaining the intricacies of his societal rules in order to focus on disturbing imagery and cultivate a jarring atmosphere.
Consequently, the movie fails to work as satire. Lanthimos does not seem interested in parodying the strangeness of dating as much as the movie’s marketing states. Instead, he tries to challenge the viewer with disturbing imagery, scene after scene. Even the twist that gives the movie its name and gets the most airtime and page space in trailers and ads almost entirely disappears by the halfway point.
Given that the movie’s distressing imagery is not embedded in a coherent outline, the extreme violence that Lanthimos portrays, but hides in trailers, seems sadistic. Stated bluntly: some images are irrefutably disturbing and upsetting to many viewers. Seeing a woman’s mangled body and hearing her gasping screams after she attempts suicide is disturbing. A dog slowly bleeding to death in a bathroom is disturbing. A pile of bodies strewn on the pavement as nonchalant observers look on is disturbing. A pantomime rape played for laughs is disturbing. And, because of Lanthimos’ inability or unwillingness to embed any of these images in a symbolic framework, they never become more than horrifying and offensive.
This is not to say that terrifying imagery, on its own, has no place in art. Distressing imagery should not be cut out, especially when it pushes viewers to confront important ideas that we usually ignore (Hermann Nitsch’s work with slaughter, for example). Even as a supposed critique of dating, however, The Lobster works harder to create a harrowing alternative reality than to discuss the real-world topics it supposedly addresses.
Furthermore, The Lobster is a reminder that even at their most detached, extreme, surreal or experimental, creators still tip their hand as to who they assume will be in the audience. When a creator offers an alternative society of their own making, note who is present and who is absent.
In this case, Lanthimos’ movie would be better described as a take on white, heterosexual, upper-middle class dating. Two people of color appear in the movie, both in minor roles, for a total of three scenes. After the check-in scene that shows homosexuality and heterosexuality as options on equal bureaucratic footing, we see a gay couple for a few seconds out of the entire movie, blurred out in the corner of the screen.
On the other hand, the explicit erasure of bisexuality is the movie’s sole strong societal criticism. The check-in scene wryly repeats the doubts and disqualifications that lead to a belief that bisexuality is less real than homosexuality and heterosexuality, and to biphobia.
In the end, my criticisms of The Lobster deal not just with the movie as a final work, but as a misleadingly marketed work. Would I still rail against the movie if its trailers and ads warned viewers about its violence? Maybe, I can’t say for sure. Lanthimos’ failure to create a believable society, compelling characters or an interesting plot remains. Yet, except for the rare moviegoer who picks a film at random, we interact with movies as final products, but also through trailers, ads and reviews. Reviewing The Lobster without considering the clever and quirky ads that lure potential viewers ignores that its producers cast the work in two lights: light, share-ready trailers and a brutal product.
A Facebook ad suggests I visit thelobster-movie.com, where a ten-question test offers to tell me which animal I should choose if I fail to find a partner. I should become a lobster, an ant or a camel, the test determines. How fitting.
Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.