Perhaps the oddest—or more accurately inappropriate—date movie ever made, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language film is a darkly absurdist comedy with a surprising strain of tenderness beneath its edgy surface. On the most basic level it’s a deadpan satire of the contemporary obsession with finding ways to bring couples together—dating sites and the like—and especially of their insistence in identifying commonalities between prospective partners that will somehow insure their compatibility. But in a broader sense it’s a critique of the presumption that such couplings should be encouraged—or, in the extreme case concocted by Lanthimos, mandated—as a prerequisite for social acceptance, and of any system that would employ coercion as a means of achieving them.
After a brief prologue in which a woman simply drives up to a pasture, walks onto the grass and shoots a donkey grazing there, the movie shifts to David (Colin Farrell, looking uncommonly pudgy and glum), a bespectacled sad sack who’s just been dumped by his wife. Now unattached, he’s quickly taken to the Hotel, whose manager (Olivia Coleman) presides over a system in which each involuntary guest must find a mate from among the other residents within forty-five days—or be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David, accompanied by Bob, a dog that happens to be his once-human brother, informs his officious host that if he fails to locate a new wife, he’ll want to become the titular crustacean, a choice the manager commends though later others will criticize it. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the lobster image has surrealist connotations that are entirely in tune with Lanthimos’ vision—witness Dali’s Lobster Telephone.)
David then begins his highly regimented month-and-a-half stay—masturbation, for example, is absolutely forbidden—and makes common cause at mealtime with two of the other guests, a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and another with a limp (Ben Whishaw). Each is anxious to attract one of the females that they meet on the dance floor, and the limping man grows so desperate to do so that when he encounters a woman who suffers from nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), he pummels his face in the wall to convince her that he does too, creating a common condition that he uses to romance her. (The ruse actually works.) Meanwhile David will eventually focus on the nastiest female of them all (Angeliki Papoulia), an imperious type who enjoys toying with suitors—and chooses an especially cruel way of dealing with David.
She can do that without fear because she’s such an expert sharpshooter, a skill she employs in the hunts the hotel guests must undertake in the nearby forests where the Loners—a militant group of singles—are treated as prey. She gets extra days of human existence for each kill, while more inept marksmen like David and the lisping man can barely find their way through the brush. Those forays, however, give David an alternative when his forty-five days approach their end: with the help of a maid serving as agent of the Loners (Ariane Labed), he escapes into the forest, where he joins the dissidents—and before long finds among them his true soul mate (Rachel Weisz), who like him is severely nearsighted.
Unfortunately, the dictates of the Loner leader (Lea Seydoux) are as dogmatic as those at the Hotel, but in reverse: there is to be no romantic fraternization among her followers, and those who get too close are severely punished. The only time David and his love are permitted a show of affection is when they venture into the city, posing as a married couple, to purchase essentials and visit the leader’s parents, a musically-minded duo who serenade their visitors. At one point, the longing pair put on a show of attachment that earns them a rebuke from their leader back in the forest. (It’s a sly joke that the tune their hosts are playing on their guitars during their exhibitionist moment is the theme from Rene Clement’s “Jeux interdits.”) The lengths to which the Loner leader will go to destroy her enemies in the Hotel, and to maintain order in her own ranks, demonstrate that adherence to maniacal principle is no less rigid on one side of the tree line than it is on the other.
The extraordinary thing about “The Lobster” is how quickly a viewer buys into its outrageous premise, due not only to the blissfully matter-of-fact fashion in which Lanthimos and co-writer Efthimos Fliippou present it but to totally committed performances by Farrell, Weisz, Seydoux, and the rest of the cast, with Whishaw and Papaoulia bringing a particularly crazed intensity to their roles. Production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop give the film a look that allows only slight divergences from the familiar, while cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis uses strikingly formal compositions to transform the Irish locations into a hermetically closed environment. The smoothness of Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ editing is contrasted with the jarring dissonances of the score cobbled together from snatches of ferocious classical string music by Amy Ashworth, though a few pop tunes are introduced to comment ironically on the plot twists.
It’s probably sheer serendipity that “The Lobster” should be appearing shortly after the publication of Moira Weigel’s book “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.” Both show that it’s not easy finding a suitable mate, and that shortcuts that have been (or might be) devised to simplify the process might instead poison it. As peculiar as it is, Lanthimos’ film succeeds so well because it follows the cardinal rule of the best satire, pushing actual practice only a modest distance into the realm of the absurd and retaining a straight-faced attitude while observing the result. That makes what it reveals about our times all the more horrifyingly funny.