How far would you go for love? Who would you be willing to become? On one level, “The Lobster” is a wild, fun, occasionally mean-spirited satire of the rituals and humiliations of modern dating. But dig deeper, and it asks uncomfortable questions of us, about who we’ve been in relationships and who we’re prepared to be. It’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.
In the world that writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) creates, Big Brother is watching you, and your relationship status. Marriage is required by law, and police can stop you on the street to verify that you have a spouse. When David (Colin Farrell) is dumped by his wife after 12 years of marriage, the government sends a van around to pick him and his dog up. (Dystopia or no, this would actually be kind of a useful service, and our governments should look into funding it.)
The van takes David to a bland hotel out in the country, a waystation for widowers, divorcees and other people recently made single. They check into rooms, are issued uniform clothing, and are given 45 days to find a soulmate among the guests. If they don’t, they get turned into the animal of their choice. (That dog with David? Used to be his brother.)
It’s an insane idea, of course. But Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Fillipou have everyone in the film react as if it’s the most normal, boring thing in the world. The silliness of the concept plays off against the polite banality of the environment, the bored efficiency of the hotel staff, the endless list of rituals, rules and punishments that guests have to abide by. The line readings are deliberately flat, as if the dialogue was built out of phrases from a “Learn English as a Second Language” instructional tape.
David and his fellow suitors (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) go to mixers and attempt awkward small talk with the opposite sex, hoping to find something in common. Whishaw’s character has a limp, so is really hoping to find a woman with a limp. But he’s willing to fake getting nosebleeds to seem more appealing to the woman who gets nosebleeds. Any Match.com user who has tried to play up trivial commonalities into deep connections ("You're into rock climbing too?") will nod in recognition.
While the idea may sound whimsical and fluffy, be warned that Yathimos’ films have always had a streak of cruelty to go with their oddness. This is a film that makes you chuckle and then, without warning, flashes its claws and draws blood.
Later in the film, it's revealed that there’s a whole community of people, called Loners, who have rejected the rituals of government-mandated romance and live in the woods. Hotel guests are given tranquilizer guns and sent to hunt these Loners down, earning themselves an extra day at the hotel beyond the original 45 for every Loner they bag.
“The Lobster” never runs out of energy or inventiveness as it delves deeper into the comic and tragic possibilities of this world. Farrell subsumes his usual charms beneath a massive gut and cheesy mustache, playing a blank Everyman eager to pretend to be something he’s not for the sake of love (or at least not being turned into a lobster).
Reilly and Whishaw make the most of small, sadly comic parts, and Lea Seydoux brings a feline menace when she appears late in the film as the leader of the Loners. Rachel Weisz narrates the film with the detachment of a television news reporter, but her character doesn’t appear until midway through.
Lanthimos reminds me of Stanley Kubrick, both in the austere formality of his shots (the hotel is reminiscent of the one in "The Shining") and in the way he looks unsparingly at the flaws and foibles of human beings. But while Kubrick stood at a chilly distance, Lanthimos seems to find these flaws to be funny as well as awful, and offers up the hope of happiness despite the odds.
After seeing “The Lobster,” I walked around just staring at the couples I saw together on the street, laughing and talking. Through what byzantine mix of rituals, strategy and blind luck did they manage to find each other? How could they possibly make it last? Any film that makes you look at the world and the people in it in a different way is something special, and “The Lobster” unquestionably does.