Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos burst onto the international scene with 2009’s Dogtooth, a jet-black satire about some overly protective parents who construct an elaborate fiction to keep their adult children from ever leaving the house. It’s a twisted drama, one in which you’re never sure if you should laugh or recoil at the many upsetting things it has to say about family domesticity and the lengths people will go to keep their kids from growing up. Dogtooth was so ingenuously conceived, though, that it created a challenge for Lanthimos going forward: How could he possibly top its conceptual cleverness?
In 2011, Lanthimos tried. He returned with Alps, a decent follow-up that envisioned a small company that hires out its employees to be surrogates for people who have lost loved ones. But his new film is a more worthy successor to Dogtooth’s audacity. It may even be better.
The Lobster opens with David (Colin Farrell) as he’s discovering his longtime lover is dumping him. That would be painful enough, but in the world of this film, which is set in the near future, the fact that he’s single means he has to report to a mysterious hotel out in the woods. Once there, he’s informed that he has 45 days to find a new mate within the hotel’s crop of fellow single people. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into an animal by the hotel staff, banished to live the rest of his days away from humanity.
It’s a funny, scary and slightly gonzo conceit, and one of the best things about it is that Lanthimos and cowriter Efthymis Filippou don’t take it all that seriously. To be sure, The Lobster has plenty of profound ideas, but they’re executed with a cheeky, sardonic lightness. Even when the movie gets dark and suspenseful—and it most certainly does—Lanthimos operates as if The Lobster is a tough-love satire. Dogtooth commented on the hell of family with an exaggerated, worst-case-scenario stylization. For The Lobster, he’s pulled off the same trick in an eviscerating dissection of the rituals around modern romance.
David soon befriends two other men—an unconfident, lisping man (John C. Reilly) and a limping man (Ben Whishaw)—and it’s telling that the characters don’t have names. In this future world that emphasizes being paired up above all else, individuals are reduced to their most distinguishing (and probably most negative) feature, their identity entirely based on obvious traits. The hotel’s ecosystem is fascinating … and best not ruined so that viewers can enjoy all the surprises The Lobster has to offer, all on their own. But what can be revealed: The film handles the process of finding a potential girlfriend or boyfriend as unromantically as possible. Nobody who runs the hotel cares about true love—it’s merely a question of finding someone with whom you share some trait. (One character, for instance, takes drastic steps to prove he’s compatible with a beautiful woman who suffers from nosebleeds.)
Roughly the first half of The Lobster is devoted to David’s seemingly hopeless quest to land a girlfriend so that he can be returned to society. (It’s not even that easy, though, with hotel management putting in later checkpoints to ensure that the happy couple is still together.) As played by Farrell, David is a man with a gut, a drab mustache and not much enthusiasm for anything. Yet he knows he has to do enough to lure someone of the opposite sex into liking him, and so David’s odd, humiliating rigmarole becomes a deadpan spoof of the dating world with its anxieties about compatibility, attractiveness and finding one’s soul mate.
With this setup, Lanthimos takes dead aim at societal conventions about commitment. The Lobster is an anti-romantic comedy that looks darkly at all the ways that modern culture encourages pairing-up as the norm, whether it’s the hoopla around weddings or the pressures to raise a family as a sign of adult success. (In one of the film’s most caustically funny moments, hotel management informs a newly formed couple that if they should have problems, don’t worry: An emergency child can be provided to save the relationship.)
The Lobster operates like a sarcastic riff on dystopian sci-fi, but the sleek blandness of the hotel, juxtaposed with the lush greens surrounding the property, breathes an air of menace and tongue-in-cheek humor. Lanthimos wants to have it both ways—simultaneously mocking genre conventions while making a thought-provoking variation on that type of movie—and, remarkably, he succeeds. But if The Lobster was simply about the quest for a mate, it might have run out of steam. Instead, what’s great about the film is that the director boldly switches gears halfway through. The locale changes—as does the satiric target.
Without giving too much away, David finally finds a way out of his ordeal, only to fall in with a different group: a collection of radical loners who rejects society’s legal mandate concerning coupling. Led by a wonderfully tart Léa Seydoux and a kindhearted Rachel Weisz, these loners bring David into their group, but they turn out to be just as militant in their own way as the hotel management, disdaining love as a sign of emotional weakness and viewing their singlehood as an act of proud defiance. This sneaky narrative flip-flop draws comparisons to another work of shrewd satire, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which also poked fun at both sides of an ideological divide, seriously debating which camp was more toxic.
Imaginatively designed but also intellectually bracing, The Lobster sometimes lets its ambitions outrun its execution. (At a little under two hours, it’s a bit long and repetitive in parts.) But the nervous unease that pulses throughout the film lends the story an endless tension and unpredictability: We never have any idea where Lanthimos is going as he constantly throws us fresh surprises about this future world and its code of conduct. But still, there’s a coherence to his vision, the narrative structured around our love-hate relationship with our and other people’s romantic lives. Even at the end of The Lobster, when it seems like Farrell has found true love, we’re not entirely convinced. The movie has systemically taught us to be cynical about the ways we try to win another person’s heart. And then again, we realize: Life has also done a pretty bang-up job on that front as well.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw
Release Date: Screening in Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.