Courtesy of A24

Courtesy of A24

June 14, 2016

The Lobster: You’ve Been Warned

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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.

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Courtesy of A24

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 scollins@cornellsun.com. 

19 thoughts on “The Lobster: You’ve Been Warned

  1. Thanks for this review. Especially in the light of nearby Orlando’s recent horrific bloodbath, I have no desire to watch victimized gore-for-gore’s-sake on the big screen. You just saved me my time and money.

    • Violence in this world does not simply go away because we no longer see (satirical, direct, humorous, etc.) representations of violence. We need to address violence by thinking how such violence (or intolerance of the non-normative or the ambiguous) came into existence in the first place. Art creates a space for us to think.

  2. The extreme formalism of the film, which consists of three rigid dystopian settings (the city, the forest, and the hotel), is meant to highlight the equally extreme formalism inherent within the totalitarian structure it portrays: homosexuality/heterosexuality; human/animal; single/committed, etc. The film works as a satire of society’s ideological demands of its citizens staying in monogamous relationships (or even, perhaps, of online dating based on finding superficial “commonalities”) precisely because of its anti-realism; it questions the normative world “we” live in by presenting the oppressive “norm” to the extreme that is meant to make us feel uncomfortable. The violent imagery therefore works to make the audience confront the horror of the fascist world of relationships, which is not “an alternative reality” as you suggest but, again, a “normative” world highly formalized in the tradition of any dystopian fiction and one we can definitely recognize.

    I see your point about the film’s lack of “representations” of other racial and non-normative sexual groups. It IS a big problem in many current Western representations that need to be seriously addressed. But to the extent that the film serves as a formal satire on the way we find relationships now, it is a brilliant work of art.

  3. Saw the movie yesterday, horrible. It raised many questions with no resolution. Senseless. Reminded me of atlas shrugged when powerful people convince their constituents that the poorly written play is so deep and meaningful that only very intelligent people would grasp its meaning. No loose ends tidied up which might have made it worthwhile. Just don’t bother.

    • Is art supposed to give us, directly, an answer or resolution to real-life problems? The inability to tolerate ambiguity is precisely what the movie wants to tell us through its extreme portrayal of the dystopian society’s deadly demands of clarity.

      • art: do you intend to ever engage anything in the actual movie, or is your position that stuff that markets itself as art cannot be criticized because of generalized hand-waving?

        • Leon: I’m a bit confused. What do you mean by “generalized hand-waving”? Anyway, no, my reply isn’t an engagement with the actual movie at all because I don’t see any serious commentary on the movie in the original post. (I actually agree with Reviewer 2’s review if you really want my opinions). It’s instead a response to the problematic attitude towards art, reflected specifically in Cindy’s opening lines: “Saw the movie yesterday, horrible. It raised many questions with no resolution. Senseless. ” There are plenty of bad artworks from ancient time to the contemporary, but they’re bad NOT because they don’t offer resolutions to social problems. If you want to know why society promotes the ideology of monogamy or “happy relationships” and how it can be fixed, go to read a sociology book. There are plenty of avenues through which one can find an “answer” to save the world, but definitely not from the genre of satire.

    • Yep, spot on. So poorly resolved, and marketing manipulated. I can imagine the salon reviewers who actually professed to like the move. Self-induced vomiting can be fun, too.

  4. I enjoy satire. I don’t enjoy being bludgeoned over my head for several hours (or what felt like several hours) with an accompanying sound track of the same three violin screeching screams throughout. I felt like a prisoner of war. Maybe that was the point. My husband and I finally walked out when this violent, mirthless, deathful movie appeared to be endless.

  5. I just saw this movie two nights ago with my husband, in the SF Bay Area. I never pay much attention to trailers (designed to pull in theatergoers rather than be a “true portrayal” of the movie itself), but some of the local reviewers found it intriguing. I agree that this movie is far from a comedy, dark or not. But it is most certainly art.

    Good art shakes you up. It makes you think. It disturbs your comfortable position. By those standards, this was good art. Three days later, my husband and I are still talking about this movie.

    Was it perfect? No. Was it completely understandable and coherent throughout? No. Surgery to turn a man into a lobster??! Please. Pantomines of the benefits of coupledom being offensive because they portrayed in one case, a choking man (saved by his spouse!) and a woman saved through coupledom from a laughable enactment of a rape, fully clothed and standing ala Fellini’s Frankenstein husband fucking his wife while she stood at the stove stirring spaghetti, being deeply disturbing? Really? Gosh kids, you need to get out more!

    Dead dog in a bathroom, formerly a brother to the protagonist, kicked to death by a psychopath? Horrifying. Dying woman after jumping from a window? Deliberately horrifying. But perfectly reasonable within the context of the film, a very dark dystopia. It would appear that the reviewer here missed the fact that the “bodies” lined up on the ground were not of dead people but tranquilized ones, loners hunted from the forest with tranquilizer rifles, thereby forcing the “innocent” “hotel guests” to be complicit in the pervasive oppression of individuals.

    In fact, there were no good guys or gals in this movie. No matter where you lived or whether you were paired off or a “loner,” life was ugly and brutish and not a happy place. The City had its fascist police force, checking shoe bottoms and fingernails, the Hotel had its sadistic administrators and the Forest had its sadistic leader with bizarrely civilized parents performing a beautiful duet on classical guitars for a quartet of so called “loners,” escaped from the forest to the City for a civilized afternoon of shopping.

    Throughout, various preposterous, out of place animals, which we were led to assume were formerly people, walked through a dripping and gloomy temperate rain forest, where loners were not allowed to couple up without extreme, mostly just alluded to, punishment.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    Ambiguities were threaded throughout this movie, most deliberately. The open-ended final scene left you filling in your own blanks from your own psyche. Think final episode of the Sopranos!

    Violence is and should be disturbing. Many modern movies use violence and it is treated as comedy. There was nothing funny about this dystopia, but many many reasons to think deeply about some of the issues that it raised.

    Life for most, all around the world, is brutal and short. We here in America, and especially children of privilege attending Ivy League schools, have perhaps been insulated from the worst of human nature. Nonetheless, it is still real.

    Violence and fascist control by ones society should be disturbing, and in this film, it is. “The Lobster” is an eye-opening film, no pun intended (you will have to view the film to get the joke) but it is not a film for entertainment.

    • Exactly, thanks for writing this great review! If the movie contains any single “message” at all, I would add, it would be the horror of a world where ambiguities are violently suppressed and mandatorily formalized according to number (personal preferences in the movie, for example, have to be rated on a scale of 1-9). The lack of bisexuality as an option, seen early in the movie, is an instance of this violent erasure of ambiguity insofar as bisexuality marks a structural threat to the binaristic world the movie darkly satirizes. It is not a contribution to biphobia as the reviewer suggests but, rather, a clever and indirect critique of it.

  6. I went with my daughter but did not enjoy this movie at all. I think it is one of the worst movies I have seen in a very long time.

    • Hi Claudia,
      And how old is your daughter? Not a kid, I hope. This is hardly a kiddie movie. And again, I couldn’t say that I “enjoyed” it either, any more than I would “enjoy” a movie about the holocaust or something deep and tragic and moving like “Cries and Whispers,” another dark masterpiece by the late Ingmar Bergman.

      Still, those topics and movies affect me and change me and make me think and feel in a different way about the human condition, which is what good art is supposed to do. If you were looking for a fun time at the movies though, you were definitely in the wrong theatre! And I guess that was the point of this original review.

      This is no light relationship comedy, people! Still, one would think that Cornell students would be up for the challenge of a deep and difficult movie that does have something important to say.

  7. The Lobster’s cruelty has a very pertinent point. In that when people go against the rules of either the hotel or the forest, they are punished. This is a way of representing the ways that single people view couples and vice versa, as pain and misery. I also think this movie has a lot to say about the banality of evil and our indifference to human suffering. The violence in this movie is upsetting, precisely because no one in this world seems upset by it, and doesn’t see it as anything out of the ordinary.

  8. Dude, disappointed by the movie because it’s not what you expected from the marketing is like disappointed by the fact that George Orwell’s Animal Farm is not a story about these cute, happy, adorable animals that make you happy.

  9. “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?”

    Exactly.

    You criticize the movie for it’s alleged heteronormativity, but isn’t that the point? Everything exists in black and white binaries in this universe. Immediately after being told bisexuality isn’t an option, David is also told his shoe sizes must be even numbers, no halves. That’s the spirit of the film – the oppressive nature of extreme binaries.

    You don’t even mention Lea Seydoux’s equally oppressive rebel leader. It’s either you stay in the hotel where coupledom is forced, or you live in the forest where all intimacy is banned. In the hotel your hands are burned for masturbating, in the forest your lips are slashed for kissing. Two evil sides of the same coin. Binaries binaries binaries. That’s what the movie is talking about.

    So emotion. Where is emotion in this society? Emotion is everywhere, but it is suppressed. Sure, the movie is a satire on relationships and the way single people are shamed and feel forced into coupling off, but it’s moreso a political film about the way society oppresses us all and limits true freedom either through government sanction or societal pressure. The idea that couples need a superficial trait in common to pair off is part of the satire. It’s a bureaucratic absurdity that because two people have nosebleeds, or have good hair, or are near-sighted they will match. David, the escapee in the forest, almost everybody at the compound is overwhelmed by their suppressed emotions and yet they’re forbidden to truly express them.

    But David and the woman in woods have had this ingrained in them. Even as they rebel – first against the hotel and then against the rebel leader – they still buy into this learned knowledge that they need a superficial matching trait. The propaganda has weaved itself into their beings. Their emotional bond, which is so true and honest and comes out brilliantly in that scene with the parents playing guitar, ultimately is defeated by societal shame and stigma. They either share a trait or they don’t – binaries. “Opposites attract” is blasphemy in this society. The entire film ends on a love is blind pun.

    It’s grotesque and dour and mean, but just because it was marketed wrong is not the movie’s fault.

  10. This was an excellent article. I started watching the movie earlier today with my girlfriend. We had both seen the trailer a while ago and it seemed intriguing. It was gripping but very odd and then more and more disturbing. The mood throughout is somewhat creepy and tense from the beginning of the movie, and is very artfully created with the help of a fantastic (effective) score. We decided to stop watching at the dying dog scene because it was too much for us at the moment. So to be fair I can’t judge the movie as a whole but your poins about how the trailer and marketing were misleading are totally on point. Just re-watched the trailer and it confirms this.

    I’m sure it’s a movie that’s worth watching, and will probably finish at some point later on, but in my view it’s not cool to brand a movie as a quirky dark comedy whereas in reality it’s closer to being a creepy, disturbing dystopian psychological thriller (at least for the first 45 minutes or so that we saw). Not that all trailers/marketing isn’t inherently misrepresenting the movie, but this was particularly egregious because the actual film is fairly disturbing and the trailers deliberately left that out (yes i understand I am a privileged person etc.) Not sure if they did that to make the film more viable and wide-reaching in the film markets, or just didn’t realize how much some people could be disturbed by some of those things (especially if they are expecting something very different). I can’t say that part of me doesn’t enjoy the trolling aspect of the situation, but still, on the whole, thumbs down for the marketing/promotion team on this film.

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