Whether in utter garbage like Adam Sandler’s Anger Management, the anti-comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, or historical epics like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, watching John C. Reilly fight is an absurd pleasure. He runs headlong into the fray, his considerable dome a battering ram. However, his slumped shoulders and aimlessly flailing arms show fear in his charge. These brawls—no matter the length—can be the comedic highlight of whatever films showcase them.
Beyond its hilarious 10 seconds of Reilly throwing down with actor Ben Whishaw, the comedy of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster—my favorite film of 2016—favors the dark and deadpan over the physical. In a world where newly single people must find mates in 45 days or be changed to an animal of their choice, Colin Farrell stars as an architect and college professor whose wife of 11 years and one month recently left him for another man. Like all individuals in his situation, he is sent to a countryside hotel where singles—including Reilly and Whishaw in supporting roles—are given another opportunity at companionship. In a feat not successfully achieved since Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the film actually packs the plot and tone of two films into one; after a first half dealing with Farrell’s adventures in the hotel, the second half focuses on his survival among the Loners, a militant group of singles living in the woods, and his wooing of fellow Loner Rachel Weisz.
During a recent screening at New York City's Museum of the Moving Image as a part of its Curators' Choice series, I enjoyed my third time seeing The Lobster on the big screen, which is crucial to enjoying it. Lanthimos' unique compositions look better on a large canvas. In a layout that he has used since his first feature Dogtooth (2009), characters are often placed in the bottom corners of the screen, visually marginalized as they deliver dialogue or interact. If viewed on a laptop or tablet, the subtleties of his actors’ performances are lost in translation.
The Athens-born Lanthimos’ unique style of directing actors survived a more literal translation in The Lobster, his first English language film. In his two previous films Dogtooth and Alps (2011), much of the humor stems from the metered, matter-of-fact cadences that actors use regardless of the words they are saying. At a hotel dance that reads more like a high school prom, Farrell slow dances with a young woman played by Jessica Barden. They are surrounded by other dancing couples, but they are set apart by a golden glare of backlight. As she tenderly balances her head on his right shoulder, Barden realizes her nose bled onto Farrell’s white shirt. While continuing their dance, she launches into a deadpan speech explaining three methods of removing blood from clothing, ignoring the fact that blood continues to stream from her face. Hearing her discuss a very human process in a very cold, inhuman fashion creates a tension that is essential to Lanthimos’ style. Throughout the film, contrast between language and tone provides hearty-but-uneasy laughs.
In the world of The Lobster, love is a hard-and-fast equation. When Farrell goes through intake at the hotel, a bureaucrat asks for his sexual orientation, shoe size, and other details; while this is a great means of introducing the character to the audience in the film’s opening scenes, it is indicative of the film’s society, which asks that all individuals seek their own “defining characteristic” in potential partners. In fact, Barden’s character is known only as Nosebleed Woman, and she is joined by characters with handles like Biscuit Woman, Campari Man, and Short Sighted Woman. By showing the willingness of all individuals—single or in a couple—to render a complex life as one-dimensional for the sake of finding and keeping a partner, the film mocks the superficiality that can govern romantic relationships in the real world.
The Lobster loses its way a bit as it moves into the second half, where Farrell escapes the hotel and joins up with the Loners in the woods. In addition to a narrative meandering, the film’s visuals veer away from the daring compositions of the film’s first half, presenting the viewer with fairly straightforward forest tableaus. Colors also shift from the rich blues and golds of the hotel to drab palette of greens and browns.
With her flame-red tangle of unkempt hair, French actress Léa Seydoux’s performance as the leader of the Loners is a highlight of the second section. Cunning and manipulative, her violent opposition to relationships proves to be just as restrictive as the hotel’s support of them. Seeing her cold, reptilian gaze carefully observe the forbidden relationship budding between Farrell and Weisz—slowly moving back and forth between the two of them as she registers what she is seeing—lends the sense of danger necessary to propel the narrative toward its gloomy conclusion, an open ending like in Lanthimos' other work.
The second half ends on a strong note with an ambiguous climax, a hallmark of Lanthimos' work. In doing so, he refuses to acknowledge either the hotel's or the Loners' stance on romance as definitive. This open ending suggests that a hybrid ideology is preferable. Instead of searching for (or creating) superficial commonalities just to have a partner or avoiding romance altogether, simply love who you love with the cautious enthusiasm of a fighting John C. Reilly.