The following contains SPOILERS. This is also in no way a negative reflection on the other four nominees for Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards.
At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the Jury Prize was handed to Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster, which is overjoying, but the jury that year got the Screenplay prize so so wrong with Michel Franco’s empty pages of Chronic that I was left disheartened as to how a good, great screenplay can be measured at all. I’ve seen The Lobster more than once, and I feel privileged to have done so. I’ve also read the unproduced screenplay, and am thrilled to declare so unmistakably it is a terrific read. Of course it is. With the small amount of dialogue and scene portions that they omitted from the final film, both mediums still ring the same magnificent bells, and turns out the screenplay edit made a perfect transition to film – given that what we see on screen can be worlds away from reading off a page. This is one of a kind.
The Lobster is an off-the-wall, unmissable journey, an education, in this very life we lead, but also in how to write a truly original, seminal movie. Original as in, not just making up a story and running with it, but an achievement of such kinetic, deep-seated exploration of the type of thought-provoking channels of mankind that rarely get touched on, let alone enlightened in this manner. But love, the yearning for a soulmate, the appreciation of singledom, the mystery of it all, is around us all the time, and we know it well. Greek screenwriters Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou shine a light on those predicaments, life cycles, blessings – whatever you want to call them – in such a unique method that we’d be forgiven for all the times that we’ve believed finding the right one is a head-scratcher.
That’s not nearly all though. You can certainly tag The Lobster as a love story, but it is not in the conventional sense as its log-line and execution suggest. Conceptually, the film-makers put the pieces out for us to decipher, allowing us to make all manner of preconceptions (if any at all) – take the opening scene, that the woman who pulls over to shoot the donkey dead, is bitterly lashing out at a former partner, or taking revenge on a family member, or putting a friend out of an assumed misery. I wish we could ask her, or Lanthimos – not that he would tell us anyway. The seed is planted, however, now let it grow. As we soon discover when we enter the hotel grounds in which the film is entirely set, if you do not fall in love with someone as a guest there then you will become an animal. And you have 45 days to do so. Simple as that.
David (Colin Farrell at his matter-of-fact, deadpan best) arrives at the hotel after his wife has left him. At his arrival induction, he is asked about aspects of his social life, including the length of his last relationship: “About twelve years.”, then prompted to give an exact answer he replies “eleven years and one month” – the rounding up is an astute observation on how we may buff up our own relationship history, not to mention the kind of bleak, authentic humor on offer here. When asked his sexual preference, he answers heterosexual, but volunteers he was with a man in college, and inquires if he should select bisexual, to which the inducter informs him the bisexual option no longer available. He tells them his shoe size is 44 and a half, but there are no half sizes. It’s a great set-up in that respect, a film demonstrating values we recognize, but setting them out by a rigid set of social standards, blending a strong whiff of dystopia with a fresh outlook on adult relationship schooling.
We also discover the dog by David’s side is his brother, who was also there a few years ago but didn’t make it. You have 45 days to find a partner, the morning alarm reminds you of those days left in your stay, in which case you’d avoid the fate of being transformed into an animal (for which there is a dedicated room). There’s no smoking, so you can run for longer, and not have smelly breath when you kiss. Masturbating is forbidden too, or else you could end up with your hand held down in a toaster. And you choose which animal you would like to become should it come to that. He chooses a lobster, his logical but amusing reasons are the length of time a lobster can live for, that they are blue-blooded like aristocrats, stay fertile, and that he likes the sea. Later an acquaintance thinks he is an idiot for such a choice, as he’ll only end up being dropped in boiling water, ripped apart, and eaten. Food for thought.
David forms a kind of mutual bond, never a strong friendship, with Robert (John C. Reilly), named in the script as Lisping Man, and John (Ben Whishaw), Limping Man. Having to match distinctive characteristics with other guests in order to be paired with a potential partner, John impulsively cracks his head on the pool side (I squirmed and held my own nose for a while) so he can claim to have the connection with Nosebleeds Woman (Jessica Barden). David, in his self-pitying, sorry state, seeks out the attention and courtship of a woman he (and the script) describe as Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). Out of his depth? While in a Jacuzzi she appears to choke to death, David does nothing but watch, and she sits up, removes the olive, and says she thinks they are a match. A brilliantly funny and smart moment, he must be just as heartless as her to not try to save her life. Later he kicks a little girl in the shins rather than accept her affection to enhance his supposed callousness. The whole concept is both simultaneously cruel and hilarious. When she kicks his dog to death, it appears to be a test, proving he does indeed have a heart when he cries for his brother. Heartless Woman notes a relationship cannot work based on a lie. A mournful, outlandish way to make a very valid point.
The Lobster has much to say about the conquest for companionship, some of it on the surface and some of it you have to seek out yourself. And there is a melancholic, lonely feel to the whole affair, not too unlike how we might actually feel in certain longing-for-romance circumstances. Of course Lanthimos and co stick to their loony guns with this. Characters talk in monotone, but make sense. Small talk escalates in one scene when Biscuitwoman (Ashley Jensen), a woman fond of eating and talking about butter biscuits, is speaking to David on a coach, and she calmly claims if she does not find a suitable partner soon she will kill myself by throwing herself out of one of the hotel rooms, out the window. We now know just how desperate she is. When she does just that, she survives it, sprawled bleeding and helpless on the concrete, the casual exchanges between David and Heartless Woman is unavoidably harrowing and hilarious: “There’s blood and biscuits everywhere.” she says, to which he adds that he was going to take a nap but the last thing he wanted to hear was a woman screaming and dying slowly. You shouldn’t laugh, but you do.
Rachel Weisz’s droll, tongue-in-cheek, very fitting voice-over (like instructions on flaying and cooking a rabbit) applies itself to the way the characters wander about their day with such a meandering, transparent existence. Weisz plays Shortsighted Woman, who bonds with David in the film’s wilderness second half, when he escapes into the woods and joins the Loners (those escaped the hotel’s dictatorship for a self-sufficient life of being single). However, the implications of imprisonment and detachment from emotion soon has its part to play – here you are a loner til the day you die, a privilege, and no romance or flirting or love is allowed. This portion of the film morphs into kind of murder mystery territory, never losing its unique flavor of illuminative, conceptual story-telling. It questions the genuine nature of love (on a scale of 1 – 15 at one point), when held at gunpoint the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) and partner, not business but pleasure, are questioned who can live alone better, thus killing the other. The pulling the trigger on the unloaded gun foils the now afflicted, and the very notion of loyalty itself.
David and the Shortsighted Woman meanwhile develop a kind of sign language as they begin to quickly fall in love, turning their heads to signify danger or love, hand and arm movements can mean anything from shall we dance to let’s fuck. The Lone Leader (a wicked Léa Seydoux) soon suspects this forbidden evolution, and surprises Shortsighted Woman with a trip to the doctor for eye surgery. You might guess, but this turns out not to be as pleasant as billed. The not-ultimately-tragic love story ensues, and the relationship defies such obstacles, and becomes even more enrapturing. In a restaurant, David asks to see parts of her, her elbows, her smile, before asking for a steak knife – and with it the horrific prospect of irreversible human sacrifice for love is throw into our path.
You evaporate into the surrealism seamlessly, it’s captivating and impossible to not engage with. The Lobster is a remarkable piece of screenwriting, fitting the standard story-structure of film, while employing a whole host of intriguing and magnetic ideas about the human interaction. Given the nature of the piece it is not really a surprise to see a camel walk by in the background at some point. Dry humor is given straightforward delivery, and that works like a dream. Nosebleed Woman reads her best friend (who is about to be let go as a pony) a lovely letter, but she gets a slap for her supposed affections – we can only assume it was a bitter envy, but Lanthimos and Filippouit don’t need to tell us that. The hotel staff act out lackadaisical, dispassionate examples of companionship like theater. Man eating alone chokes, but man eating with woman means she saves his life. Then again woman walks alone, is raped, but when woman walks with man the rapist does not approach. The performances on stage get a round of applause, not for their acting, but that crucial message of coupling. Earlier, a maid gyrates on David’s crotch, and congratulates him on his faster erection, but leaves him unfulfilled: “That’s awful, just awful” he says with such an obvious disappointment. Again, the laugh is hard to avoid.
The laughs in The Lobster, though, are not all sources of comedy in the generic sense, but somehow an appreciation of the genius, the way you would perhaps gasp a laugh with exuberance at the joy of really good news or unfathomable innovation. I know people perhaps stuck their noses up at the concept of The Lobster, certifying it as weird before giving it a chance. Believe me, weird is a worthy compliment, but The Lobster is far more than that. Much more. Layered with intelligent perceptions and inventive ways to tell a story, this is a screenplay that deserves more than to be classed as one of the year’s finest. The Lobster is not just the most original work in film released in 2016, to which I claim without any doubt, but it is the best screenplay. And in that respect, see it, read it, live it, and I feel I may have only scratched the surface of this gem here, but make sure Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou are handed the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – they deserve that at the very least.