The Lobster, Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ deadpan dystopia and English-language debut, plays its fairy-tale absurdity completely straight, and its weird power accumulates from there.
A plot summary reads as farce, and there are certainly farcical elements. In a world that is recognizably ours and yet exhibits all the trappings of a near-future period piece, or maybe a Wes Anderson whimsy turned poisonous, coupledom is the norm: singles are sequestered into a castle-like hotel and given 45 days to find their mate. If at the end of their stay they remain single, they will be turned into an animal of their choosing – effectively relinquishing their humanity for the crime of singlehood. Renegade singles have fled to the woods and set up a mirror society in which coupledom is banished instead – flirting, much less pairing off, is a transgression leading to gruesome punishment. The singles of the castle can buy a few extra days by hunting down the escapees.
It only gets more ridiculous from there. The basis for coupling can be the most mundane aspects possible – near-sightedness, being prone to nosebleeds, heartlessness, and any number of bizarro-world, OkCupid-ready match attributes are enough to form a union and allow the lucky couple to move to the City, a gleaming land of shopping malls and express trains where the authorities check papers to ensure that no single people are lurking around threatening the social order of binary monogamy. Unsurprisingly, this leads some hotel denizens to fake conditions in the hopes of securing deliverance from the beastliness of spinsterism.
A nearly unrecognizably paunchy and sunken Colin Farrell, playing well against type (and simply playing well), is our protagonist David. (A review of the IMDB credits reveals he’s one of the few named individuals: everyone else comes saddled, appropriately enough for this world, with monikers like Nosebleed Woman, Limping Man, and, my favorite, Biscuit Woman.) Having recently been divorced by his wife, David gives the film its title: his animal of choice, should he fail to mate, is the titular lobster, which he notes lives for 100 years, remains fertile all its life, and, after all, he’s “always loved the sea.” (The hotel manager, a gloriously matter-of-fact Olivia Colman, commends him: “Most people choose dogs. This is why there are so many dogs everywhere.”)
Lanthimos details daily life in the hotel in exacting detail. There are painfully awkward dances, prom-style celebrations/coronations when matches are made, painful punishments exacted when rules, like the one against masturbation, are transgressed. (Poor John C. Reilly, perfectly cast, discovers this.) As David tries and fails to engineer a match with Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), he eventually finds himself with the renegades, and a second and third act follow, as we follow our anti-heroes in their cultish outings among the desolate trees and brooks outside the Hotel’s walls.
Lanthimos has a great deal of fun with the contrast between rigidities. If the tyranny of the couple rules inside, the revolution is no less exacting in its rejection of anything approaching individual union. In a wonderful touch, the renegades dance too, but always alone, to antiquated Discmen on headphones. (Léa Seydoux’s Loner Leader, in humorous contrast to her Bond Girl turn, blithely explains, “This is why we only listen to electronic music.”) Rachel Weisz, a fellow renegade and as near-sighted as David himself, provides occasional narration – the similarity of their impediments indicates trouble ahead for everyone.
There are moments of brutality and moments of tenderness, but The Lobster functions primarily as a satire – of modern notions of connections in the internet age, where a single attribute is considered enough to form a bond; of cultural expectations which view the unmarried or uncoupled with suspicion; of group dynamics formed on what amount to totalitarian systems of human relations, and the ways in which their rejection and countering end up replicating their worst aspects. It’s a heady mix for a film in which the protagonist’s brother is named Bob The Dog.
If this sounds like a drag, it really shouldn’t. (Except for the parts where it really, really should.) A running gag involves the random former humans/current animals just traipsing through the back of the frame – a crucial conversation occurs as a camel walks by, unremarked upon. Lanthimos never once blinks, and neither do his leads. There is no backing away from the central conceit, which adds an uncanny, odd, and occasionally heartbreaking mood to what could have either been a laugh-out-loud comedy or a horror story. It’s commitment to its world of unremitting loneliness and alienation recalls a film like Spike Jonze’s Her (indeed, Farrell and Her’s Joaquin Phoenix share more than a few superficial aspects of demeanor), but Lanthimos’ vision is decidedly darker.
But The Lobster is neither purely comic or horrific. It’s not purely anything. It’s something else entirely – a deadpan and comic examination of how we live, the ways in which we are judged and deemed worthy, and a skeptical, anxious, and intermittently horrified consideration of the cruelties we casually inflict on each other in the search for connection.