Consider ‘The Lobster,’ Wherein the Amusing Idea of Being Turned Into a Crustacean Becomes Potent Body Horror

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Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster landed in US theaters last Friday, after a long festival-circuit gestation period and gap between its release in the US and its release everywhere else. This means that those interested could have already found out way too much about the film and its wild premise online. But although you may have known from the trailers you might have caught nearly a year-and-a-half ago that the film’s premise, crudely, is that people who can’t romantically partner up must select an animal to be turned into, it’s hard to anticipate just how well this exceedingly absurd premise is executed — and not simply in achieving exceeding absurdity. “Zany” or “bonkers” are among the onomatopoeically goofy words you might associate with such a plot, but the film itself takes something that on paper sounds endearingly weird and makes it indelibly disturbing. What’s even more significant is how it manages to do so by telling rather than showing. Lanthimos achieves brutal body horror in the absence of the excesses that define the genre.

Don’t get me wrong, Lanthimos isn’t at all one to shy away from violence — The Lobster involves various acts of bizarre brutality — but here he always controls it deftly, rendering it just as disturbing as it should be, rather than as titillating as Hollywood films often make it out to be. (“Hollywood’s feel-bad-lite films tend to make more concessions to catharsis than their European cousins,” Judy Berman once wrote for Flavorwire, and that differentiation is particularly relevant here.)

In the film, we watch as John C. Reilly’s character’s hand is literally toasted as a punishment, we see what’s left of a dog (and former human) who’s been kicked to death, and we hear the almost comically revolting dying screams of a woman who’s jumped from a not-high-enough hotel window as blood flows from her head — but the shot hovers far overhead, then cuts to Colin Farrell’s character commenting nonchalantly on the screams, as they continue to overwhelm the scene. In the case of the dog, we only get the image of the near-corpse of the animal after the character who committed the act of brutality describes it in a deadpan manner, but we do not see the act of killing itself. And with the toaster, we are not shown any images of a hand in a toaster or even the burnt hand, but rather rely on John C. Reilly’s facial expression as his hand is plunged into the quaint burning domestic appliance — and that is quite enough to make one’s stomach churn. Even in the hilarious and thankfully never-explained beginning scene — where a woman exits a car on a country road in the rain, shoots a donkey (who, given the premise, we’ll soon assume was some human who wronged her in a very human way) in the head, and then gets back in the car and drives off — we see everything through the window, with the windshield wipers alienating us from the violence.

But the most interesting and sustained act of vivid withholding on the director’s part is in the non-depiction of the animal transformations that are the core scare tactic of The Lobster‘s romantically oppressive society. In case you’ve missed the relatively explanatory trailers, the film follows Colin Farrell’s David — a man whose wife has just broken up with him, leaving him at the mercy of a society that has no tolerance for single people. He goes to a purgatorial hotel where he’s given 45 days to find a new mate within the “heterosexual” box he’s selected (“homosexual” is another option, but “bisexual” has been eradicated due to “complications”), or, as is the potential fate of all singletons, be taken to a chamber and turned into an animal. (If it’s any consolation, he gets to choose the animal — a lobster.)

Lanthimos creates a world so assuredly that its strange laws feel just as palpably threatening as if being turned into a lobster were an actual real-world consequence, reading in parallel with real-world notions of what governments are capable of doing to the human body.

The Lobster manages to take a fairy tale trope — a spin on therianthropy (humans turning into animals in myth) à la Beauty and the Beast or The Frog Princess, where permanent animalism is an externally inflicted curse — and make it every bit as clinical as something in a David Cronenberg film. Interestingly, Lanthimos combines the magical idea of shapeshifting — which of course usually attributes transformations to magic that cannot be explained — with the more clinical and expository qualities of body horror, where corporeal damage is scrutinized, fixated on, and even relished.

In order to sustain an air of opacity and not fall too thoroughly into sci-fi explanation territory, one might assume that Lanthimos would opt out of any descriptions of the process of transformation — or even out of saying whether the process is scientific, magical, or some kind of abstract philosophical. Oddly, he instead chooses to describe it in detail. And even more oddly, that works best. Ben Whishaw’s character — a man identified within the dating pool solely by his limp — explains the procedure to his friends in the same defeated, matter-of-fact-tone with which everything else in the movie is relayed.

“What they do as soon as you enter the room is wash your body and your head really well…they peel off the skin, which has become soft due to the water and the soap. Afterwards they remove the heart, the eyes, and other vital organs of the body with a laser or scalpels. Then the procedure changes according to the animal one has chosen,” says Whishaw’s character, billed as “Limping Man.”

“That makes total sense!” interjects David.

Whishaw continues: “Afterwards they throw the remaining body parts into casks outside the hotel restaurant, and distribute the blood to hospitals in the City.”

Like the tone of the film, the description is grimly pragmatic, with a logic that of course makes no scientific sense. (Also there’s the fact that the character is relaying the process as he’s heard it rumored.) Setting those plainly stated words to the actual transformations in the film, however, makes for vivid Pavlovian storytelling, where every time we see an animal, we imagine a person’s flesh cooking and being peeled, and their innards being somehow scooped and shrunken into whatever animal form (a lobster is particularly puzzling).

The process is as self-awarely absurd as if the transformation room simply contained a fairy with a magic wand, and yet it’s also described with such limp nonchalance that it’s imbued with a sense of bleak reality. Lanthimos creates a world so assuredly that its strange laws feel just as palpably threatening as if being turned into a lobster were an actual real-world consequence, reading in parallel with real-world notions of what governments are capable of doing to the human body.

With scene changes punctuated by the dictatorial anachronism of analogue technology — through old answering machine beeps — a purposefully lackluster color scheme, and delivery from every actor (including Rachel Weisz, as an equally deadpan narrator) that matches the greyed palette, Lanthimos wrangles words and tone to just as much to create his body horror as he does blood or bodies. There’s a body horrific systematism to the words, but the very fact that it’s told instead of visualized speaks to Lanthamos’ consistent care in depicting violence that’s always obfuscated in such a way to make it both more haunting and less satisfying. And while a Cronenberg movie might (in its own fascinatingly clinical approach) have shown the process in progress and while a fairy tale would have had a character simply morph from one to the other, The Lobster trusts its premise’s odd intersection of the two to do the work. The mainstream could learn a thing or two from this movie that manages to make something more unsettling than anything you’d see in a horror movie — out of a concept that mostly just sounds amusing.