Slipping Into Something a Little More Uncomfortable with “The Lobster”: Tone in Visual Story Telling

In a sea of summer Rom-Coms and big-budget franchise films, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ the Lobster emerged much quieter but just as decadent with an interesting aftertaste.

To briefly explain, the narrative centers on a society in which being single has been deemed illegal and the concept of love, impractical. Hours after his wife has left him, our protagonist is forced into a hotel where he must find a new companion within 45 days, based on even the most inane similarities, such as being nearsighted or be turned into the animal of his choice to try again in that realm. The plot alone is enticing, but what really makes the film work is how the story is presented. Like any good dystopian sci-fi film, the viewers are made to feel unsettled, presumably to invoke cultural or self-reflection. The Lobster is far from discreet in its criticism of a culture that commercializes swiping right to find a soulmate but it also pokes fun at the over-romanticization of “the single life”.

Although dystopian in nature, the world presented looks no different than our own, creating an eerie sense of reality that makes the subtle but strange sci-fi elements (like a random camel roaming in an out of frame) pop. It’s made even more uninviting by creating a sideline perspective; much like Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the audience watches the confrontations from a distance, from behind branches, or passenger seats of the car— almost as if we aren’t supposed to be seeing it. Yet, with long tracking shots and scenes devoid of any musical cushioning, we’re stuck. Stuck searching for any sense of warmth and relief— much like the main character.

The hotel represents the rational side of a partnership with indifference and consistency proving to be the quickest way to a mate (and if that doesn’t cut it, you get the bonus of a child to smooth things over). The environment is muted, a bland barrage of yellows and greys. Everyone dresses the same and most, if not every interaction is spoken through soft, monotone dialogue. Every act of passion is met with horrific punishment, whether its a man having his hand burnt via toaster for pursuing his “animal nature” or a woman’s screams from failed suicide attempt ignored. These shots are not short. The pacing of the hotel sequence drags and is done so to raise the tension in these characters. Stress, anxiety, and almost boredom stack on each other until the protagonist eventually escapes. Suddenly the screen is filled with a burst of color.

The second act of the film in which the protagonist lives with the Loners in the woods acts as a stark contrast to the hotel, filled with a lightness and that the audience quickly laps up. The pacing speeds up and just as we are getting comfortable a newfound and naturally intimate relationship, we’re reminded that there’s no in between in this world. The group sneaks into the city to gain supplies, posing in couples, but the protagonist and his love interest stick out without the lushness of the woods to hide them. And in this world, you are either blandly together or vividly alone. After they return the love interest is blinded, taking away the near-sightedness that had matched them.

Although we’re shown scenes of them attempting to continue the relationship, filled with the hope of a happy ending— of beating the system, the final shot is of her sitting alone. She waits for him to return after blinding himself as a sign of true love. The viewer sits waiting for a release, any sign of commitment, and we’re left wanting as the last thing we see is her alone.

The question ever-present in the Lobster is this: what is worse, being alone and “free” or being loved and less alive? And much like the ending of the film, no one knows the right answer, so, we sit and wait to decide what we would— or should—  do if placed in these circumstances. Even the promotional posters speak to this absence of an answer to what we’re really looking for by having both characters lovingly embrace empty space.

Lanthimos has created a message that stays with his audience well after the lights come back on, and he did this not only through the intriguing world he created but in the way he served it to us. Pacing, lighting, color, sound, and staging are all crucial seasonings added into the pot that makes this type of narrative so striking. Trust me, there aren’t many fish out there in the sea like this one.

To see more  discussion of visual storytelling technique and development of craft in film, check out the marvelous youtube channels, Every Frame A Painting and Channel Criswell

To read more reviews of “The Lobster”:

“The The Lobster (2016) Is Thought Provoking Indie-Weirdness – Movie Review”

“Yorgos Lanthimos: ‘I just think it’s interesting to start a dialogue’”

“The Lobster review: ‘like nothing you’ve seen before’ “

“Why ‘The Lobster’ Is So Lopsided”

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