Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster sees recent divorcé Colin Farrell sent to a remote hotel compound wherein he is required to find a life-partner within 45 days or be turned into an animal of his choosing (from which the film gets its title). Its world is one of absurd rules and regulations, a sort of ironic, dystopian satire in which its characters are always performing roles of one type or another. It also might be the funniest film of the year. We spoke to the director about narcissism, power and the unconscious, in advance of its October release.
Do you believe in love?
Well, that’s the question really. That’s why I made the film, so there’s not really an answer… Right now I do, but it changes throughout life, I think. One of the main reasons we made that film is to ask that question, and many others around it, about how we’ve organised our lives or how we value whether someone is successful in their life, or happy, just by seeing if they’re in a couple or in a relationship or not, or single. So I don’t know what the answer is. I think it should be different for each person, and maybe in different periods of one’s life it will be different as well.
How about monogamy?
I mean… I am a monogamist [right now]. I don’t have a theory about it. Again, there have been periods in my life when I have been monogamous, and others where I haven’t. I think it’s about where you are in your life, what the circumstances are and how you feel about it.
If you look at social organisation, monogamy seems to tend to be a structuring force. I wonder whether that’s a structural, or societal, impingement or something that is endogenic…
This is what we’re doing with our film, wondering about those conventions, rules about our everyday life, how we see certain things and our values. I don’t know where it comes from. There’s definitely an element of structuring and organising our lives with certain rules. But whether that’s inherent to us, whether it’s our nature or not… it needs to be explored.
There’s this theme of people structuring their lives based on sometimes abstract rules or principles that comes up often in your films, suggesting almost unconscious guiding impulses. Is the idea of an unconscious something that interests you as a filmmaker?
Well I think that our lives are very much like this. We are used to considering certain things as normal. The main question for me is whether these things have a claim on ‘normal’, or whether they should be questioned every now and then, and by individual people. And also whether all those rules and principles, as you call them, are appropriate for everyone or whether different people should live by different rules, and even if, in fact, we are free to think the way we want to, or make up our own minds for certain things. And obviously the unconscious is that area where you can investigate whether those things are right for every person or for our society, or world, or however far you want to go. I think that’s the connection with it.
There seems to be a sense of an inescapable fate to the narrative in The Lobster, as though the characters are there in a certain way, but also without maybe active agency. Your actors tend towards a sort of detached, automaton-like style…
I’m not fond of those generalisations or characterisations. I mean the actors in this film act quite differently to how they did in Alps or Dogtooth even. But maybe this is my personal taste. I can’t really comment on those things. That’s what I like, and I try to have my characters be as present and straightforward as possible in my films, and then the text and the situation moulds them into something. And then, when you put everything together, it becomes something else… it’s very complex for me, so then it’s hard to say something like they are like automatons. I don’t see it like that, I don’t work like that, so…
I realise I’m making a critical projection here… I suppose what I wonder is whether the inescapability of violence, injury, or death, in the narrative is a result of perhaps your perception of those same qualities in societal organisation?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, there are so many different individuals and groups that society is made up of, and I think that’s quite oppressive. Even if it makes sense for most people, it will always be oppressive for some. We’re so different and so individual and unpredictable that I don’t think conflict – not necessarily violence – within a group of people comprised of so many different personalities, characters, natures, backgrounds and educational experiences, is avoidable. That’s one of the reasons that I was interested in creating these two different worlds within this film: the world of the hotel and the city which has these rules and principles, and then the forest and the loners who have their own, and have a person go through both, thinking he’s escaping from one and becoming free in the other, and seeing that that’s not really true. Again, you enter a different kind of organisation or community or society, which nevertheless has its own rules. So it’s that irony of believing you’re oppressed in this world, and escaping, choosing something very different, and then finding yourself in a similar situation to before: this is what I find interesting about the story.
Perhaps this is a crude analogy to draw, but the trials endured by your characters, in the hotel for example, and their sort of placid, obsequious acceptance of these, and given that this is a film set in Ireland, by a Greek director… does this reflect on some level the concessions made by the governments of these countries as part of their respective EU bailout deals?
*[Laughs]* No, not at all! I mean this isn’t set in Ireland, it could be anywhere with a big city, or anywhere in Europe, so such a thing was never on our minds. It’s a nice parallel to draw, or interesting, or whatever, but the initial part of your train of thought: it’s people just accepting certain things that interested us, that if you see it from the outside [those things] might seem absurd or extreme. It’s wondering about that state of mind, of people brought into a certain environment, brought up and educated a certain way, and they get used to certain things that, if you get some distance and shine a light on them, might seem absurd. That’s obviously very similar to what happens in our real world, with various things: as you say political, personal, financial, economical, all those sorts of things, it’s a very elemental part of how we are. We’re used to so many things that we don’t question.
What struck me in this film, as well as in Alps, was situations in which characters were not forced to, but rather seemed to *need* to pretend on some basic level, in order to feel happy. Do you think that it’s possible to be happy without pretending?
I observe that people need to pretend, need to take up certain roles in their everyday lives in order to succeed and achieve certain things, and certain goals that they have, from very simple things to larger goals that they set for themselves. You acquire so many different roles every day in life… I mean even right now, the way I speak, the way I have to think, it’s not very natural to me, I’m not like that. When I go out of this room, when I’m with my wife, or out having lunch with a friend or something like that, I don’t behave the same way I’m behaving here. I think you can notice that in many aspects of our lives. So then I wonder, is that natural? Maybe that’s natural. Us saying that we’re pretending, maybe it’s not pretending, but part of human nature to acquire these different nuances within one’s life. So that might not be a bad thing. It *might* be a bad thing because all these types of behaviour are preset and prescribed and taught to you from an early age and, because we are kind of imitating animals as well, we learn how to do what is appropriate and what is acceptable in certain social structures and instances in life, and this is what we follow. So I don’t have the answers for these things, it’s just observing and wondering about them.
In The Lobster, individuals find a match based on a shared defining characteristic. Do you think our capacity to love in inversely proportional to our narcissism or self-interest?
I guess it’s one part of us. In The Lobster, it’s just an exaggeration of something. Mostly I think about the superficiality of the things that we consider important, at least in the beginning, in order to be able to approach another person, or to have the confidence that we can actually get along. It doesn’t necessarily have to be *similar* things in real life, it could be the opposite, or something that you’ve idealised which might not even be true, but you’ve done that theoretically in your head. So narcissism is one side of it, it could be something else.
Do you think we are living in an increasingly narcissistic society?
I don’t know if it’s technology that has made it much more obvious, but you know, seeing people looking at themselves all the time on their phones, and taking all those pictures of themselves, I guess…. yeah. That’s another question: is it because technology makes it easier, and there’s more visibility to it? Because you can share so much more, it’s so incredibly fast and easy to reach, you know, thousands of people now. So is that because of technology or was that always there for people, but they could not exercise it as much?
It seems as though we are more inclined to comment pessimistically on the way society is going nowadays, that our pessimism needs to find an object, as it were, which tends to be ‘narcissism’ or ‘technology’.
Well, I think we should be more critical. Because we’re able to instantly educate ourselves, read things, see things, and we have more information and clues and elements to make up our minds. But at the same time, it’s so much easier to get false information, controlled or confusing information. So you have to develop a very critical attitude to be able to make conclusions. Now more so than ever, now that we’re getting so much more information that needs to be filtered in a certain way.
Are you pessimistic about the way that society is going?
I am concerned [laughs]. I don’t know if that’s why I make films that focus more on the problematic nature of how we have organised ourselves, but yes.
In your films there tend to be moments of violence or cruelty that punctuate an otherwise ironic narrative. Do you think that irony is inherently violent?
[Laughs] I don’t know. For me I do these things instinctively. I don’t have a theory about it.
It feels like the films wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as well, without those moments though…
Yeah, well that’s the point up to which I get it. I feel like it wouldn’t work if I didn’t include that kind of violence. But I don’t know why exactly. It’s just a feeling that you need that juxtaposition in order to complete something rather than let it hang. But that’s the furthest point I can get to, not knowing exactly why that works or how it doesn’t.
Is it difficult for you to work, as you say, instinctively, in an environment where you have so many people coming together – actors, crew, etc. – who necessarily have their own disparate instincts and impulses?
It is difficult not necessarily because of other people, but because of yourself. Because you need to recognise your instinct, and understand what it’s saying, and that’s quite difficult. That’s a difficult thing, because all these different people have their own part to play, and I don’t just mean actors, but whoever the collaborator is, and it’s all filtered through you. So you are in control of most elements in a film as a director, and also as a co-writer. So the hardest part is for yourself: to decide when something feels right, to understand your instinct and where it leads you, not to confuse it with fear or insecurity.
As someone who makes films that are so critical of the wielding of power, is it difficult to adopt a position of, as you say, control, as a director?
[Laughs] It is! But mostly because of the responsibility that is bestowed upon you. But at the same time, I do allow a lot of individuals to bring things into whatever it is that we’re doing. So I feel comfortable with that. I understand that someone needs to distil all this input into something, and take the responsibility for it, really. Taking that responsibility is the difficult part, I have no guilt about it. It’s about that weight of making the final decisions, and saying, ‘Okay, this is the best thing we could do with what we have,’ and then showing that to the world. That’s the hardest part to do.
The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Colin Farrell, is in cinemas now.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall