Attending any film festival is a bit like walking into a glitzy casino. Do you seek out the safe bets, or put your chips on some potential wild cards? Looking at the Day Two lineup for this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I saw a lot of high-profile Hollywood movies staring back at me, like Ridley Scott’s The Martian. And while I’m really eager to see Matt Damon in space, I also know that I’ll get the chance to see it at home right after the festival ends. Why not use that precious time for something I know virtually nothing about, hope to be surprised, and share that discovery with you? After all, that’s basically what going to film festivals should be about. If I had any doubts about my decision, they vanished after the first five minutes of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. It’s one of the most beautifully strange movies I’ve ever seen.
Although Lanthimos’ films aren’t exactly for everyone, the Greek writer-director has become a bit of a world-cinema darling over the past few years thanks to his 2009 breakout, Dogtooth. That movie, which I admired more than loved, laid out a haunted, dreamlike scenario where three teenage children are raised in Skinner Box seclusion by their domineering parents with no experience of the outside world…but a lot stranger than that sounds. It’s a deeply unsettling film…in the best possible way. His follow-up, 2011’s Alps, was just as unusual, revolving around a business that has actors impersonate the recently dead to help their loved ones get through the grieving process. Like Dogtooth, it was visually stunning, narratively bold, and totally singular. But there was also something a bit chilly and remote about it. The Lobster has a remoteness too, but it slowly recedes as the movie goes on and reveals a warmth and underlying heart and sense of romantic longing that makes it the filmmaker’s most mature and fully realized film yet. Unrelated, I think, is the fact that The Lobster is also Lanthimos’ first film in English with Hollywood stars.
The Lobster, which premiered at Cannes back in the spring, stars Colin Farrell as a hangdog widower who, in Lanthimos’ wiggy alternate universe, has 45 days to find a new romantic partner or else he will be surgically altered into an animal of his choosing. Most people in his position choose to be reincarnated as dogs. Farrell chooses to become a lobster because, he says, they can live to be a hundred years old, have blue blood like aristocrats, and he’s always loved the sea. Like all citizens in his situation, he must register at a spa-like retreat where he can meet and find a partner. There, he meets a couple of other lonelyhearts played by John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, all of whom nail the deadpan, absurdist tone that’s Lanthimos’ stock in trade.
The spa is like something out of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. And there, Farrell (with a mustache, glasses, and a paunch) does his best trying to find a mate with no luck. His deadline of Lobsterdom is quickly sneaking up on him to the point that he decides to break free of his four-star prison and join forces with a rebel group that lives in the woods comprised of radicals (led by Lea Seydoux) who refuse to play by the rules. One of them, Rachel Weisz, may be the love he’s looking for that’s arrived too late.
I know this premise sounds like a surreal, preposterous arthouse rabbit hole. It’s so bonkers that it shouldn’t work, but it does. Brilliantly. It’s like Kafka written by the young Woody Allen, but utterly original. There are lots of close-ups of exotic animals wandering in the forest that make you think: I wonder who that animal might have been before they were reincarnated. And, as far as I’m concerned, any filmmaker who gets you thinking on that wavelength is doing something right. Beneath its almost-sci-fi trappings, The Lobster is a clever, satirical indictment of the way our culture condescends to people who aren’t in romantic relationships or don’t have spouses or children. The Lobster is the kind of unexpected and unexpectedly moving revelation that film festivals exist to share with the world. It opens your eyes to a new way of storytelling. It’s a love story unlike any I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see what Lanthimos comes up with next.
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