So I was mulling over this film last night because I needed more time to think about the film, and it made me think of the concept of “spirit animals”. In the show Brooklyn 99, there is one episode where Gina Linetti, the goofy sarcastic office manager of the 99, says that her spirit animal used to be the wolf, but after sleeping with her coworker Charles, she feels so ashamed that she goes around the office wearing a sweater with a picture of a naked mole rat on it (when she wore it, I thought about Rufus the naked mole rat in the show Kim Possible) and adopts it as her spirit animal. The Lobster takes the question of “If you could be an animal, what would you be?” and makes it literally a question that people must ask themselves if they cannot find someone to love within such a short time. Also, I had to develop a strong stomach because I consider myself to be an animal rights advocate, and seeing Jacqueline Abrahams shoot the donkey at the beginning was hard to watch, and I had to tell myself, It’s just a movie. Not all films are going to have the “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer in the end credits. Indeed, while watching the end credits I found myself waiting for the four minutes they rolled to say that disclaimer as film companies had done for previous films I saw in which animals were depicted in scenes of torture or some other inhumane violence. However, I saw no such thing. I was wondering, Wait, so that donkey at the beginning was actually killed? And the heartless woman (yes, her character lacks so much backstory that she is in fact called the Heartless woman as her character role) actually killed that dog (aka David’s brother who couldn’t find a partner in 45 days)? And wait, those rabbits that David takes to Shortsighted Woman were actually dripping blood?
I think what’s interesting about this film is that even without making an explicit commentary on the treatment of non-human animals, it does in a way make such a commentary because turning into a non-human animal such as a dog or a lobster is seen as a punishment that humans should avoid if they want to live their fullest lives. However, as we find out later in the film, David and Short-Sighted Woman (who by this point has been blinded as punishment for wanting to fall in love with David) are no happier being humans than they would be as non-human animals. It also seems that they wouldn’t be happier being animals, either, because these animals end up getting either killed for merciless fun or for food. So basically, humans and non-humans are caught between a rock and a hard place, and there’s no hope for salvation for either party (although I must say, there are still living animals roaming around the Loner forest in the film, but they probably don’t get to live long either before turning into someone’s food).
And then I saw the film’s “Making of The Lobster” feature and understood why the harm-to-animals disclaimer probably went unused in the credits. The actors revealed that they had to do a lot of uncomfortable stuff during the film’s production, and this was very hard for them to process. The actress who plays the Heartless Woman, Angeliki Papoulia, said herself that working with Yorgos was challenging because he had them go outside of their comfort zone to shoot these scenes, but she said in retrospect, it really helped her improve her acting skills because she was able to take on demanding acting work, and a lot of times, some of the best films require actors to go outside of what they traditionally do. Colin Farrell, who plays David, says he has starred in movies where people don’t really care about the film afterwards, but this film, The Lobster, really makes people think long after the credits are rolling. There’s no self-awareness or stream of consciousness going through David’s head, he just goes with what society tells him should be done because he’s literally in danger with his life if he disobeys society. But I think the silences in the film and the lack of dialogue is what makes the film so incredible. But after seeing the film Widows, I thought, “Well, Colin has starred in other thought-provoking films. It’s just that in The Lobster, he plays this extremely vulnerable character who isn’t in a position of power.” I last saw him play men in powerful positions; in the 2017 legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq. he plays a lawyer who hires a civil rights attorney to work for his firm. He talks a lot and assumes an air of manliness in his powerful-looking suit and legal jargon. In last year’s heist film Widows, he plays a corrupt politician named Jack Mulligan who says he’s going to support young black women’s businesses and help the low-income communities of Chicago, and yet his idealism doesn’t match up with the fact that he doesn’t genuinely care about the black community and only really wants the campaign money for himself. While these films were thought-provoking, they didn’t stress me out as much as The Lobster did because Colin Farrell’s characters in Widows and Roman J. Israel are rooted in real life. You’re going to have attorney and you’re also going to have corrupt politicians. These people exist. However, a society in which this lonely man has to turn into an animal if he doesn’t find a partner is scary, and it’s something that we’ve never really heard of happening before. Also this film puts Colin at the front and center of the film, while Widows and Roman J. Israel have him play supporting roles, so you really get to see how much this dystopian world is messing with his mind, body and soul.
I am really glad I watched the behind-the-scenes special after the film. Not only did it relieve me a little bit of the film’s stressful nature, but it allowed me insight into why Yorgos had people play such disturbing roles. Yorgos kept a certain distance from the actors and used long lens and wide angles to give a sort of space for the actors to really embody these unemotional but still human characters. This distance allows the script and the structure of the film to preserve its sensitive nature. Even with the lack of backstory for the characters, as well as melodrama and emotion, the film is still incredibly poignant and conveys a deep sense of isolation and loneliness without outwardly referring to it. In the forest, for example, the Loners have a silent dance party in which they dance alone with their headphones on. This is actually a thing, and it allows the Loners time to themselves. However, when you think about how the Loners can’t actually fall in love with each other, the idea of a silent dance party has a certain level of discomfort to it, unlike real life, where people can go to these silent dance parties and still go out and love who they want.
The lack of lights also conveys the overall dark tone of the film; it’s not just the forest that is darkly light but also in the hotel the lighting is dim and the colors of the upholstery and furniture (as well as the outside environment) are dull. Jacqueline Abrahams, who not only shot the donkey at the beginning but also was the film’s production designer, said that the hotel felt like a prison, but the point was to contrast the hotel with other places such as the forest and the city in which the Loner Leader takes the Loners to go shopping. The simplicity of these places shows how rigid the customs are in this futuristic society. The American actor John C. Reilly, who plays Robert in the movie, said that it was actually a beautiful opportunity for the actors because they got to film at the Parknasilla Hotel and Resort, as well as the Dromore Woods in Coillte Teoranta, all in Ireland (he called it a “summer film camp for actors”). Indeed, even though the film is grim in tone, it is just so organic, and the actors and producers who worked with Yorgos on the film said he didn’t care if the actors weren’t perfect; he just wanted them to play the roles even after just a couple of takes. The actors didn’t have to wait until the lighting was perfect, there was no stop-and-start of the filming, just a couple of rehearsals, then shooting the film. Yorgos’ use of mostly non-professional actors for the film really allowed him to perserve the film in its originality rather than having seasoned actors who would tell Yorgos, “Oh, I couldn’t do that, that’s not the kind of acting I usually do.” This is pretty rare for films because, this is just my amateur assumption, it seems that most directors would do multiple rehearsals before actually shooting the film.
Although I must say, props to the actors for keeping such straight faces throughout the film; there is very little smiling that goes on, and the world these characters find themselves in is rather absurd (it is categorized as an absurdist film, and absurdist films typically portray characters’ experiences in very hopeless situations where they can’t find any reason to live for its own sake, and are full of meaningless events to convey the hopelessness of the situation). Then again, Yorgos wants viewers to think for themselves about the actions and characteristics of the film’s characters, so he doesn’t impose any prior judgment on the characters. The film is one of the few I’ve seen that doesn’t really have any “likeable” characters because even the ones we think are sweet and vulnerable become conditioned to be just as cold and distant as the people they are with. David, for instance, wishes nothing but pain and misery on a woman who injures herself very badly, and he just stares as the Heartless Woman chokes on an olive. Because we don’t really see him develop in any way through the film (aka he just stays miserable the whole time) we as the viewer are left to judge for ourselves what kind of person David is and what purpose he had saying things that normally would be considered obviously quite cruel in nature. David really doesn’t have any choice though in what he says because he is literally hanging on for his life.
Another thing I thought about while watching this film was the hotel options for residents. I used to work at the front desk of a hotel and didn’t pay much mind to the options of room sizes for guests; it was just a job that I clocked in and out of, and I didn’t really think much of it. We also had to do what is typical of customer service jobs, and personalize the guests’ stay. However, after watching this film, I have reflected more on my brief time working at that hotel and never understood how much I took all this info about hotel sizes and rooms for singles, couples and families for granted. As I discussed earlier, the hotel is very austere, especially for singles. The wardrobe is monotone, residents gets punished for doing things forbidden in the rules, and they can only choose between two sexual orientations. Couples get to enjoy things that singles don’t get to do and they enjoy upgraded room sizes. Their wake-up times and everyday schedules are heavily structured, but in real life, the wake-up call is never forced and the hotel staff don’t care what time you check out or what time you go to breakfast. In the film the hotel manager doesn’t care what the residents’ names are and the waitstaff address them by their room numbers. Even the couples’ lives are subject to nosy investigation at the hands of the waitstaff and management; they are expected to stick together as a couple, and even when David and Short-Sighted Woman are in the city mall and Short-Sighted Woman wanders off, a security guard asks David if he has identification on him to prove he is married and not just wandering around (they profiled a woman earlier seen by herself).
Overall, very excellent film with a brilliant social commentary about love, marriage and the stigma around being single. It was one of those films where it was hard for me to articulate my thoughts about the film in a cohesive way because there are so many layers to it (similar to Sorry to Bother You, another very layered film), but I think that’s what makes the film so excellent. I’ll probably have more thoughts about the film come up and it will be hard for me to adequately convey them in words. The trailer for the film might help sum up all my feelings about it because I still cannot convey how this film really felt for me in words even after writing about it.
The Lobster. 1 hr 59 m. Rated R for sexual content, including dialogue, and some violence.