“Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own.”
The quote, loaned from David Foster Wallace’s August 2004 essay for Gourmet magazine titled Consider the Lobster, is in reference to the boiling procedure associated with cooking a lobster. Rubber-banded crustaceans make the live dive from the belly of household kitchens into a boiling pot, whereby they rattle and clang within the interiors of a banked sauna until they don’t. The transition, from sentient creature to clinging to the metal interiors of a boiling pot, leaves a particularly nasty moral impression, if only because the passage – from life to death – is done within such familiar confines, all by y/our own hands. Pain, in some form, is being inflicted.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is about pain, not the kind that is explicitly expressed through rattle and clang, but mollified within the interiors of a carapace. The film finds David (Colin Farrell) at a seaside hotel/resort/asylum for singles. Lanthimos stages the initial sequences, with a wonderfully detached voiceover from Rachel Weisz, as a series of interrogations in an effort to define the particular eccentricities of The Lobster’s society: everyone must be paired, with singles left with a number of days to find a mate. Failure to do so results in their transformation into an animal of their choosing.
The Lobster’s cadence is the first measure you’ll pick up on. Stilted, direct, and monotonous, Lanthimos’ characters are deadened, stiffly acknowledging each other in a vaguely insect-like sort of way. It’s refreshing, whereby the bullshit gamesmanship of social interaction is stripped away and replaced with candid varnish. As David befriends other lonely men in the h/r/a, we become aware of some of the deep-rooted anxieties that afflict these wounded hearts – none of which are afforded a name, but rather distinguished by their defective traits. There’s Ben Whishaw with a limp, who provides the tragic story of its origin with such deadpan flatness that it becomes a genuine struggle not to laugh at such profound agony. John C. Reilly is a man with a pronounced lisp, Jessica Barden has perpetual nosebleeds, and most pathetic of all is Ashley Jensen, credited as “Biscuit Woman”, who’s so desperate for a suitor that she throws herself at every man, all before throwing herself out the window.
What these defects help illustrate is Lanthimos’ concern with the ritual of dating itself, along with how people mollify their inherent self in accordance to a perceived version of themselves. This becomes key in understanding the tonal aberrations of The Lobster. For this is a film about people who are concerned about whether they are being liked by people they themselves are unsure if they like. As David’s days at the resort begin to reach single digits, he begins to mold himself after a woman who’s chief characteristic is her cruel temperament. It worked for his friend with a limp, having courted the girl with nosebleeds, by purposefully bashing his nose to instigate his own epistaxis. This absurd similarity in the two was enough to prompt marriage, which, in essence, is no less ridiculous than a dating site pairing two people together for their similar affinities in the arts or sports teams. But David’s capacity to conceal his pain, to not rattle or clang when True Suffering occurs, has its limits, limits that are tested by Angeliki Papoulia’s Heartless Woman. What follows is David’s rejection of institutionalized pairing, forced to fend in a wilderness of loners.
Unlike Lanthimos’ breakthrough film, Dogtooth, The Lobster is most notable for bridging the passage between passive and involved viewing. Both films are fundamentally shocking in their examinations of human behavior, but The Lobster’s satirical deconstruction of the pangs of relationships and the delusions we subsist on in order to make sense of the world register as vitally True. In Lanthimos’ candid approach, where every character speaks in a blunt and forceful manner, there’s a genuine sense that you’re peering into a kind of warped mental experience had by someone struggling to make sense of relationships and a culture that complicates them. It’s daring and unspools the anxieties and hesitations of meeting someone better than any other film I can recall.