Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and the Cinema of Abeyance
In an era of inane blockbusters and superfluous digital effects, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film comes to restore confidence to the continuing significance of cinema in the contemporary world of spectacular capitalism. The Lobster (2015) seems like a film from another era, despite the fact that it comes out of the panics, phobias and dead ends of our time. It employs a cinematic language that challenges expectations and predispositions, while simultaneously providing a novel visualization of plot-structure. In reality, it transforms, or indeed re-imagines, the well-established codes of telling a story cinematically, into a new open-ended plot structure which for the time being frustrates and puzzles.
The Lobster is Yorgos Lanthimos’ fourth movie; through all his previous films, the anxiety of storytelling cinematically can be detected from the deconstructive Kinetta (2005), through the post-linguistic Dogtooth (2009) to the cryptic Alps (2012). In all his films Lanthimos visualizes a main plot which is impacted by countless hidden subplots, which never enter the field of its visuality. What is not depicted is probably what is more significant for the structure of his films; if contemporary films suffer of excessive visual rhetorics, what distinguishes his work is the minimalistic ellipsis in story line, acting style, dialogue, and settings. As his work is still evolving, it is obvious that the Lobster will have the same impact on cinematic debates as Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) had in the recent past.
The Lobster is a landmark in the early decades of the 21st century. It is a prime cultural text through which the semioticians of the future will unpack the dilemmas and the reorientations of contemporary cinema, as traditional modes of representation implode under their meaningless repetition while new forms of cinematic storytelling emerge in many yet uncrystallized patterns. Lobster’s script, co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, is a hybrid textual space, partly theater of the absurd, partly Kafkaesque story, partly dystopian fiction, or indeed a Dantesque escape from Hell. The script is full of sparkling humor, absurd jokes, illogical non-sequiturs, and surrealist associations: It is Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Ionesco and Greek tragedy at the same time. Its dialogue is offbeat, awkward, monotone, with long pauses and longer fast-paced monologues as the camera links the scenes through circular movement and off-stage references. Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography captures through deep-focus shots, muffled sepia-like colours and wide angle shots the sombre mood and the lugubrious atmosphere of the story, while moving constantly between closed and open spaces or dark and grey surfaces. The flattening of the image makes the film look like a surrealist painting, especially in the scenes in the wood, creating a space of oneiric displacements: The animals become symbols, not of failed humans but of frustrated desires. The film is about desire without a name or object to be projected upon – a self-consumed blind libidinal drive.
All actors, especially Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, give memorable performances sometimes going beyond their usual cinematic personas and performative styles. Farrell, a walking filmic intertext, transcends the cliché acting in some of his most successful films and reminds us of his best self as seen in Woody Allen’s Cassandra Crossing (2007). Weisz also performs with imposing simplicity and restrained maturity, without the usual self-conscious style with the annoying affectation of her British accent. However the whole cast also deliver superbly unnerving performances as behind their normality there lurks a sinister dissociative character: Olivia Colman rules supreme over the story, with her face and voice, as the dark witch that changes humans into animals. Angeliki Papoulia is another central figure which unsettles the viewer – with her plain crudeness she takes the gloss out of every culturally embellished ritual of bonding and mating. John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw are horrifying in their triviality: The performances are made of tragic understatements which indeed unsettle viewers especially after having seen them in the usual roles in commercial films; the performative intertexts further enhance the bewilderment of the viewers. Special mention must be made for Jacqueline Abrahams, Jessica Barden and Roger Ashton-Griffiths who have been transformed here from their usual roles into highly sophisticated self-contained performers. Finally, both Léa Seydoux and Michael Smiley deliver amazingly focused performances. Their style enhances the emotional vacuum that dominates the story and create a sinister atmosphere over the one-dimensional flat surfaces of its landscapes. The peculiar selection of music adds another level of significations to the story: Nick Cave’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” Tony Maroudas’ “Ti einai afto pou to lene agape” and Attik’s “Apo mesa pethamenos” alternate with classical and rock music in a very strange melange of sounds that enhances the quirkiness and the whimsicality of the story.
Lanthimos has been considered as the director who introduced the so-called “weird wave”; in this film, however, he goes beyond this and establishes a completely new hybrid genre, tragicomedy, which fuses theater and cinematic visuality, in a magisterial, one could even claim in a radical way. The theme of human relations seems to dominate its reviewing; Alex Billington was highly positive towards the fresh look of the film towards human emotions:
Lanthimos’ The Lobster is the next film to make its mark in romance in this way, being such an original and one-of-a-kind creation that actually speaks volumes about love and relationships. Rather than tell another typical story of break-up and falling in love the hard way, do something different yet discuss romance, and that's what these filmmakers are doing here. Presenting such refreshingly original looks at how to navigate the world of romance without becoming overwhelmed by it, either. And maybe laughing at some of it, too.” i
Most reviewers stress that although it starts well the film loses its pace halfway and finally fizzles out. The Greek film critic Dimitris Bouras wrote that:
Lanthimos seems too afraid to leave the aquarium. The first half of the movie prepares the viewer for going off the deep end. But that never happens. The other half – up until the last 10 minutes, which confirm that he is indeed an inventive director – resorts to the repetitive and the trivial. When it comes to the hard stuff, the Lobster chooses to hide behind riddles.ii
One could claim that herein lies the most innovative experimentation of the film and Lanthimos’ most daring contribution to the reinvention of cinematic language.
Consciously or unconsciously, the story line challenges the usual plot structure of cause and effect, and stresses an episodic, linear yet at the same time cyclical narrative. As viewers of one hundred and twenty odd years of Hollywood films we are accustomed to the usual Aristotelian structure of continuity: theme–reversal–recognition–closure, as pointed out by David Bordwell and Thomas Schatz. With his film, Lanthimos creates a story of possible alternatives, leaving the main story line into abeyance, without closure, ending or solution. Together with Filippou, they have introduced an abeyant narrative of acausal episodes, linked together by space, color and music. The extra-diegetic elements glue the unconnected episodes together. As in a Kafkaesque nightmare as found The Castle and The Trial, nothing is explained, accounted for or clarified. Nobody knows why something happens or what for: The usual causalities are not sufficient to explain where we are and how we got there. The polyglossia, or even the multi-accented performances indicate, beyond the origin of its producers, the transcultural, post nation-state, political identity of the film.
The Lobster is a psychodrama, exploring the inner landscapes of people without identity, centre and ideal self. As such it discards of all illusionistic techniques or forms of suggestive verisimilitude and invents a Wizard of Oz like land as ruled by the evil witch. It is a parable, un-realistic but not necessarily improbable. Furthermore, it belongs to the series of films like Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), 1984 (Michael Anderson, 1956), Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973), Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom, 2003), The Island (Michael Bay, 2005), THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971) amongst others, which construct similar parables about contemporary realities, especially the anxieties and the phobias of societies in self-imposed crisis; as sequential meaning implodes, the absurd becomes the only condition for self-definition. This absurd which relates to Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Ionesco and Harold Pinter, the film is also surrounded by its indirect references to popular literary works, such as Zamyatin’s We (1921), Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), P. D. James’ The Children of Men (1992), together with their film adaptations.
In the era of franchise films, like The Hunger Games or the Twilight series, and of so many other industrial visual commodities, the Lobster undermines the complacency and the conformism of escapist sagas in artificial paradises. Its bleak dystopia “unhouses” the viewer by presenting the dominated world of everyday familiarity as the locus of a frightening hidden forces that suffocate the mind and indeed annihilate the body. The story about a retreat hotel in which failed lovers try to form affairs that would save them from being transformed into animals is a unique and somehow an impressive concept. The two main heroes form an unexpected bond (Love? Despair? Survival Instinct?) which brings a catalytic interruption of normality: T.S. Eliot talked about “Who then devised the torment? Love. / Love is the unfamiliar name…” iii The unfamiliarity of love becomes the ground for all awkwardness and quirkiness that dominate the artificiality of acting and the unnaturalness of verbal communication. Bertolt Brecht’s defamiliarization technique appears to undermine the traditional function of affective images for empathic identification with the heroes. Love confronts the usual romanticism of emotions with the cruelty of an invisible society which imposes conformity and homogeneity. Yet at the same time, love as an affective bond becomes the strategy for such homogeneity: It becomes the coercive mechanism for eliminating individuality. As Francine Prose observed: “Dipping into the past to borrow from Greek tragedy, picturing the future as a surreal and horrific exaggeration of the present, The Lobster frightens and entertains, saddens and inspirits us – in this case with a final vision of self-sacrifice and devotion that ultimately transcends society’s attempts to commodify and regulate the mystery of love.”iv
Lanthimos remains on the boundary between emotion and its parody. Robbie Collin observed that “despite The Lobster’s slicing weirdness, and the way it elides a clean allegorical reading, the emotions it stirs and the fallacies it attacks are all too real.” v As in all comic situations there is an underlying tragic despair that permeates all dialogue, action and music with a nihilistic mood. The actor who is missing from the film is Buster Keaton, the only actor whom Samuel Beckett used to make his only movie Film (1965). The Lobster is replete with tragic jokes and jocular tragedy. It is very close to the tragicomedies of the theatre of the absurd as Martin Esslin defined it as:
[T]he modern, highly sophisticated, tragi-comedy genre produces much of its effect by the sudden disappointment and redirection of expectations. […] [T]hese sudden shocks, these unexpected readjustments, are a source of pleasure and insight: tensions are created and relived, riddles set which the spectator must solve.vi
Like ancient Greek masks, the witty dialogue distracts our attention from the despair of a horizon-less reality, from a world with a vertical dimension of being, and a societal structure that only the tyranny of the empirical dominates its visual field. As Charlie Chaplin said: “Life is tragedy in close-up but a comedy in wide shot. To truly laugh you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”
Probably we can draw comparison with Roy Andersson’s Living Trilogy and his special way of breaking narrative into distinct episodes with improbable but inescapable connections. However, while Andersson in his You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch reflecting on Existence (2014) experimented with comic long-takes on the absurd nature of the human condition, Lanthimos still maintains a minimum of mythopoeic completeness. Certain reviewers indicated that the film is lost after the first half. In reality the filmic narrative was lost already from the beginning: It unfolds as accidental moments in an unpredicted series of events that are connected through the cunningness of synchronicity.
Within the dominant conditions of film production in the first fifteen years of the twenty first century The Lobster changes cinematic narrative strategies subtly but firmly. By suspending closure he leaves the story in abeyance, neither closed nor open, but in a total deferral of all possible solutions. The true drama takes place outside the screen, in the daily drabness of meaningless repetitions and habituations. In an interview with Danny Leigh, Lanthimos gave some directions for deciphering his work:
But that is not just romance. Look at how small children cry, then stop the moment they get what they want. So you think “Is this just something we do?” Even how I’m speaking to you, trying to appear thoughtful and intellectual – in a few minutes I will meet a friend and then it will all be different. vii
The film is precisely about the unexpected and unpremeditated differentiations that happen to all of us daily. It challenges perceptions and expectations and frustrates beliefs and emotions. Yet deep down there exists a profound tenderness and affection towards the vulnerability and the fragility of human existence.
Robert Kolker denounced the “larger cultural cynicism” of contemporary cinematic production, as foregrounding “a belief that individual agency has been lost, worldviews are pointless, history is finished, and that the pleasures or terrors of the moment are all that can provide solace or excitement.” viii It is obvious that The Lobster tries to reconfigure a story-form that would restore individual agency and rehabilitate the primacy of human affect; its success will be better appreciated by what it follows it.
i Billington A. (2015), “NYFF Review: Yorgos Lanthimos' Insanely Brilliant Film The Lobster,” FIRSTSHOWING.NET, Sunday, September 27. Available at http://www.firstshowing.net/2015/nyff-2015-yorgos-lanthimos-insanely-brilliant-film-the-lobster. Accessed December 9, 2015.
Bouras, D. (2015), “Lanthimos's Lobster Drills to the Soul of Modern Man,” Kathimerini (online), Friday, October 30. Available at
lanthimoss-lobster-drills-to-the-soul-of-modern-man. Accessed December 10, 2015.
iii Eliot, T.S. (1970), Collected Poems, 1909-1962, London: Faber and Faber, p. 207.
iv Rose, F. (2015), ‘Totalitarian Love,” The New York Review of Books (online), Tuesday, October 6. Available at http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2015/10/06/totalitarian-love-lobster-yorgos-lanthimos. Accessed December 11, 2015.
v Collin, R. (2015), “The Lobster Review: Like Nothing You ’ve Seen Before,” The Telegraph (online), Thursday, October 15. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/the-lobster/review. Accessed December 9, 2015.
vi Esslin, M. (1976), An Anatomy of Drama, London: Temple Smith, pp. 75-6.
vii Leigh D. (2015), “Interview: Yorgos Lanthimos: Director of the Lobster,” Film & Television (online), Thursday, October 15. Available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f5f489ca-719f-11e5-9b9e-690fdae72044.html. Accessed December 9, 2015.
viii Kolker, R. (2000), A Cinema of Loneliness, 3rd edn., Oxford: Oxford University press, p. XIV.