The phrase “like nothing you’ve ever seen before” is a cliché adored by the critical establishment’s quote-whores, but The Lobster is that rare beast to wholly earn the designation. An absurdist riff on monogamy, singlehood, and the various personal and romantic issues — and pressures — that surround them, this latest feature from Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos follows in the footsteps of his Dogtooth and Alps by offering a dystopian sci-fi scenario that’s almost as off-the-wall wackadoo as it is unnervingly cool, droll, and melancholy.
Beginning with a non sequitur in which a woman driving in the rain stops her car at a field so she can shoot a donkey dead, Lanthimos’s film quickly segues to pudgy, spectacled David (Colin Farrell) getting dumped by his wife, then being shuttled off with his dog by guards to a van that takes him to a remote hotel. There, he’s questioned about his sexuality — a query that requires him to think long and hard about whether to define himself as hetero- or homosexual — then stripped of his personal belongings (they give him new suits) and given the basic guidelines of his new home: He’s to find a new mate within 45 days, or be transformed into an animal. David chooses a lobster, and he has his reasons: They live for up to 100 years, reside in the sea, and remain fertile.
That alone makes The Lobster something like a surreal riff on The Bachelor and its twisted transformation of courtship into game show, though Lanthimos’s focus extends beyond mere reality-TV spoofery. Employing precisely manicured compositions and confining close-ups that often crop people out of the frame and sometimes slip into slow motion set to ominous symphonic music, the director creates an aura of malevolent disjointedness. Such a mood echoes the hotel’s rigid romantic activities (including gala balls set to the sounds of the manager and her husband’s crooning), as well as routine hunting trips into the woods, where David and his cohorts — including one who limps (Ben Whishaw) and one who lisps (John C. Reilly) — are tasked with using tranquilizer rifles to subdue and capture “loners” living forbidden solitary lives. As embodied by a mesmerizing Farrell, who buries his charisma beneath a veneer of bewilderment and schlubbiness, David is an amusingly lost, morose soul in a sea of sad sacks, speaking in a halting Irish voice in tune with his constantly shifting eyes.
Next he faces robotic interactions with other guests and crotch-rubbing sessions with a maid — that’s designed to check for erectile function, albeit not to ejaculatory completion, since masturbation is punished by sticking hands in toasters (seriously). David attempts to save himself by cohabiting with a heartless woman, but the ruse goes murderously south, a development presaged by the Psycho-ish strings blaring on the soundtrack during the duo’s frigid lovemaking. So he takes matters into his own and flees into the woods. There, he joins up with the loners, a group led by Léa Seydoux that prohibits love and partnership via equally extreme means. Nonetheless, despite those restrictions, David meets a nameless woman (Rachel Weisz) — who’s previously functioned as the narrator — and, thanks to their shared nearsightedness, he deduces that she’s his soul mate. This initiates a forbidden relationship that plays out with the sort of stilted, off-kilter rhythms that define Lanthimos’s persistently strange story.
The Lobster‘s atmosphere is pitched at a deliberately oppressive level, and its humor comes from both the sheer insanity of its conceit and the blunt, awkward fashion in which its characters articulate their desires, hopes, fears, and preconceptions about togetherness and aloneness. In both halves of its bifurcated narrative, the film functions as a mind-bogglingly weird, deadpan commentary on the fallacy of monogamous unions as a surefire means of staving off loneliness — in a hilarious bit, couples experiencing problems are given children, because “that usually helps.” At the same time, it’s a caustic satire of the noble purity of being single. Tearing to shreds the urge to conform to romantic and sexual socio-cultural conditioning (and the methods used to do so), as well as ultimately casting love as a force that (if real, and attainable) compels people to want to transform themselves into a partner’s true kindred spirit, The Lobster plays like a black comedy of the most bizarre, biting, bleak order.