To those familiar with Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ work, it is no surprise that the elevator pitch for his new film, The Lobster, requires a second or third elevator. Some might categorize the film as a dark romantic comedy or a dystopic consideration of social engineering, but Lanthimos’ latest—along with his other recent works Alps and Dogtooth—strains to preside on the fringes of genre convention. What makes the director an essential voice in international cinema—however—is his imaginative attention to detail and decidedly precise aestheticism, both of which allow his English-language debut to beguile and transfix the viewer. Even if the premise of The Lobster is sizably farfetched, Lanthimos’ masterstroke is making us believe it is not farfetched enough.
Colin Farrell stars as David, an unremarkable fellow by almost every measure, who at the beginning of the film learns that his wife is leaving him for another man. The laws mandate that singledom is illegal, and therefore David is shipped off to a remote resort with other singles. If the oft-imitated Overlook Hotel approaching sequence was not enough to suggest something is awry about David’s temporary residence, we soon learn that he has 45 days to find another mate lest he be turned into an animal for the rest of his life. In this sense the resort resembles more an institution than a means to “get away,” employing daily demonstrations by the property managers (a married couple, of course), issued uniforms for the guests, and public torture to those who break the rules in an effort to facilitate the message that being single is far from optimal.
The humor comes from witnessing how David and the other guests deal with these increasingly silly rules. John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw play guests that befriend David, and their methods of finding a companion strike a chord by being equally absurd and logical. The hotel seems to stress that a certain level of compatibility is essential to forming a meaningful relationship. Therefore, many of the conversations between David and his peers are oddly fixated on identifying similarities, even in features as trivial as nearsightedness or chronic nosebleeds.
This all comes together to establish a remarkably assured tone, and Lanthimos’ directorial flourishes serve to accentuate it. From precisely rendered compositions to deliberate costuming and production design to a piercingly unsettling score, The Lobster succeeds because it is exceptionally confident in the view of the world it aims to present. Even the slow motion sequences of a rather unsavory hunting ritual in the woods near the hotel carry an element of grace to them.
In most films the constraints or rules laid out in the story are meant to manufacture certain plot developments, but in The Lobster the rules themselves make a statement and contribute to the film’s larger themes. It seems Lanthimos wants to underscore the propensity for humans to follow a set of rules, regardless of how preposterous they may appear. In this case they are set forth for the sake of the continued preservation of a species, which raises some interesting questions about relationships and love. The first hour of The Lobster is an unwavering skewering of marriage, an institution that Lanthimos argues has been misappropriated in a fashion not too dissimilar from how companionship is viewed in his film, but the film’s stance develops in its second half when David finds himself caught up with a group of “Loners,” individuals who escaped the resort and prefer to live as singles, led by a mysterious young woman played by Léa Seydoux. Her own strict rules as to how the Loners should carry themselves appear equally bizarre to internment at the resort, and sometimes they are even more brutal. Flirtation and any other gesture that could be construed as romantic are harshly punished by painful acts like “The Red Kiss” which put David into an even more precarious scenario when sparks fly with one of the Loners (played by Rachel Weisz, who also provides the robot-like voiceover narration to the film).
Farrell’s bespectacled, pudgy David is easily the most fascinating character in The Lobster. His investment in the physically comedic aspects of the role is in lockstep with Lanthimos’s penchant for dialogue-free scenes that nonetheless say a great deal about the hilarity of the odd scenarios in which his characters find themselves. (One might think Lanthimos has a soft spot for Keaton and Chaplin, the comedic masters of the silent era.) But Farrell also shines when actively appearing aloof and emotionless. Even in the moments when he is provoked to feel something, the awkwardness in which he overcorrects to diffuse any troubling situation manages to be hysterical and disquieting. This is amplified in scenes with Weisz’s love interest (credited only as “Short Sighted Woman,” a hint at why David fancies her). Their obvious connection is stymied by the restrictions of the Loner group, so even their more affectionate exchanges are markedly un-sexy.
Such a stark contradiction between the pro-relationship and pro-singledom fronts hints at the film’s evolving point of view, acknowledging how love is something that is both needed and wanted. This is best communicated by a recurring shot of David straining to put pain-relief lotion on a difficult-to-reach portion of his back. One can hardly think of a better representation of Lanthimos’ ultimately hopeful, if somewhat cautious, outlook. It all leads to a finale that has been the focus of most critiques of The Lobster. Without revealing too much, it presents David with a seemingly impossible choice: to commit to his new relationship at a great personal cost, or preserve the individual at the risk of potential compatibility. But the ending acts on another level as well: to highlight the lengths we as humans go in an effort to belong, even if it means subjecting yourself to ridiculous rules or physical harm. In this regard the opportunity for freedom rests outside of the quandary David is presented with. The real question then is not “Does he do it?” but “Does he see it?” For many this will appear somewhat bleak, but to an eccentric like Lanthimos, it just might be romantic.