Even the most fantastical settings need consistent internal rules. You can envision a world with three-headed dragons and six-legged goblins but as long as there’s an internal consistency to the conditions governing that world, everything has the potential to hang together and make sense. In fact, the rules can even be made to mirror the real world in all kinds of interesting ways. Yorgos Lanthimos knows this. He demonstrated that understanding in his breakout Greek hit Dogtooth, a brutal allegory about a trio of teenagers raised in isolation under a seemingly arbitrary set of linguistic and behavioral systems. Now, with his latest film The Lobster, he makes an effortless transition into English-language cinema, using a high-profile cast to take his surrealist tendencies to greater, even more unsettling heights. His target: modern romance and relationships.
The Lobster is a dream entry for festival programmers. On one hand, it’s the sort of knotty and thoughtful arthouse piece that could never get made in the mainstream studio system. On the other, it features a recognisable cast and is, in its own mordantly amusing way, accessible enough to attract casual (albeit reasonably curious) cinemagoers. The film is set in what might be cinema history’s most mundane-looking dystopia, a world of suburban condos, shiny shopping malls and tacky resorts. However, as Lanthimos guides us through the laws governing it, it gradually becomes apparent that while this society’s priorities are the same as ours—pairing up, marriage, children—its methods are a little different. Single people are rounded up and sent to The Hotel, a seaside resort at which they’re required to find a mate before a specified deadline. Anyone who fails to do so will be turned into an animal and released into the woods. The woods also contain roving bands of Loners, a group militantly opposed to romantic connection and hunted on a regular basis by Hotel-dwellers looking to earn extra time to find a significant other. In other words, this is a world in which you mate or die, and I don’t mean in the long-term, evolutionary sense.
Navigating this vaguely magical-realist labyrinth of societal pressures and conventions is milquetoast divorcee David, embodied to schlubby perfection by Colin Farrell, once again demonstrating that he can play a lot more than the terse alpha male roles he’s usually cast in. Starting off amongst the bourgeois inhabitants of the Hotel, circumstances soon bring him face to face with the Loners, launching him into a complicated relationship with a Loner played by Rachel Weisz. As David is pulled in different directions by various parties and their agendas, this initially bewildering premise coalesces into one of the most scathing allegories I’ve seen in any medium, skewering contemporary models of courtship, mired as they are in superficiality and the restrictive parameters of social convention. Little of what we take for granted in the world of romance and relationships is safe from deconstruction, whether it’s the algorithmic matchmaking of online dating or the universal social and cultural devaluation of forty-something singles. None of that criticism is direct. Lanthimos trusts his audience to derive meaning from his meticulously constructed structure of absurdist laws and their attendant ironies. For example, most of the characters aside from David are unnamed, referred to only by a single defining characteristic. There’s the man with the limp, the woman who gets nosebleeds, the man with the lisp…and, hilariously, pairings are made just on the basis of having that one characteristic in common with someone. One desperate man fakes nosebleeds to establish a connection with the woman thus afflicted, a development that comes off as ridiculous till you reflect upon the often arbitrary set of “things in common” we isolate to identify potential mates.
Lanthimos’ studied compositions and precise directorial approach only serves to make these subtextual goldmines pop. At first, his approach feels almost too chilly as the cast wander across the damp looking Irish locations with a vaguely somnambulant air, deadpanning all their dialogue. However, as the film progresses, these performative choices combine with Lanthimos’ deliberate framing and grey palette serve to draw out the humanity of these tragicomic figures while also evoking the restrictions they labor under. The film is often laugh-out-loud funny—indeed, it’s populated with Britcom stars like Olivia Colman (Peep Show), Ashley Jensen (Extras), Ewen MacIntosh (The Office)—but once the director’s vision starts to come together, driven home by the occasional burst of starkly drawn violence, it gives the sense of being more of a cautionary tale in the Grimm vein than a light-on-its-feet satire. Yet, Lanthimos never quite gives up on romance despite relegating it at every turn to the status of socially-imposed delusion. In that way, not really so different from most of us.