Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Opens May 13
In the stifling law-and-order society of The Lobster, a brilliantly deranged take on the type of conformist dystopia that’s lately made the studios a mint, no one’s out of a so-called “romantic” partnership for long. Single people are sent to a coastal resort where they have 45 days to partner up or else risk permanent removal from civilization—by getting surgically transformed into the animal of their choosing and let loose in the wild. Upon arrival, the “guests” can identify as either gay or straight, but the film, which goes after the tyranny of the most grindingly conventional hetero mating rituals, quickly settles in with the latter group. Talk about lonely hearts: The proceedings at the hotel, where the first part of The Lobster takes place, have all the joyless formality of the judgiest professional conference imaginable. The protagonist, vaguely schlubby divorcé David (Colin Farrell, sporting a paunch and mustache), slips on a boarding-school blazer to attend reenactment-heavy relationship seminars and one very forlorn mixer. Meanwhile, another single guy, identified in the credits only as “Lisping Man” (John C. Reilly), gets duly punished for violating the strict no-masturbation policy: Hotel management thrusts his right hand into a toaster just as it heats up.
The Lobster, titled after the crustacean David has chosen to become should he fail to find a mate, is the first film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos to feature a posh international cast—in addition to the names mentioned above, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, and Ben Whishaw all appear. But there’s not the least whiff of bigger-budget compromise as the nightmare, Kafka by way of The Bachelor, plays out. Lanthimos—perhaps best known for his 2009 study of warped behavior in a closed system, the unlikely Oscar nominee Dogtooth—has only seemed to double down on the type of lamely pathological interaction, almost calisthenic in its roteness, that’s become his stock-in-trade. Amusingly for an English-language feature debut, The Lobster’s dialogue, co-written by Lanthimos and frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou, is deliberately stilted, like the kind of too-literal sample conversation you’d find in an ESL workbook. And the actors, game across the board, deliver it with a stage-frightened blankness. “Turn the light on please so I can see you better,” says a woman (Dogtooth’s Angeliki Papoulia) to David as they commence making love. “I am going to go hunting for truffles. They are delicious and quite rare,” explains a double-dealing hotel maid (Ariane Labed, another Lanthimos vet) later on. Even the small talk here lands with a thud.
Marshaling his lo-fi sci-fi toward the natural social-critical ends, Lanthimos takes dead aim at the legislation of “traditional” family values, showing as well that the dating-app era, with its swipe-right confirmation bias, has been nothing but a boon to the herd mentality. In the skewed logic of the film’s future, the only socially acceptable union happens to involve two people with corresponding impairments. Thus Whishaw’s character, whose supposedly defining characteristic is his pronounced limp, must fake a chronic-nosebleed problem to court a woman afflicted with the genuine article. When David fails to demonstrate cold-bloodedness to match that of Papoulia’s prospective partner, he flees before his time is up, eventually taking refuge among the singles who rove the surrounding woods like chic Resistance fighters. Led by a severe Seydoux, the Loners, as they’re called, conduct raids on the hotel and hand down medieval punishments to their own for even the most innocuous instances of flirting. It is among these militants that David, inconveniently, winds up falling for a myopic woman played by Rachel Weisz.
In a particularly memorable shot early in the film, Reilly’s hapless character gets tripped up by tree limbs and tangled overgrowth, the dart gun in his right hand throwing him further off balance, as he enters the forest on a mandatory hotel excursion to hunt Loners for sport. The man’s pained flailing, which acquires a sort of majestic awkwardness as it unfolds in slow motion, throws into relief the extent of his desperation to hang on to his place in society. On the other hand, David—no graceful creature himself, his chronic back pain resulting in a permanent stoop—finally finds a foothold as a free agent: first by fleeing the official matchmaking, and then by taking his true feelings underground among the partisan singles. He must invent a new language altogether, a system of signals not unlike those a third-base coach would give to a runner on first base, to safely correspond with Weisz’s Loner. Almost before you know it, The Lobster has morphed into a parable about sacrifice in the name of love—all without dialing back the brutal absurdism one bit. Turns out, in this world as in ours, you can’t deviate from the norms of courting and come out unscathed.