Few films are as disturbing or funny as writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos's latest. That it manages to be both at once is an even rarer feat. As the leading light of what some critics call a "weird wave" of Greek cinema, Lanthimos is benefiting from international financing and Hollywood stars for the first time in The Lobster. Yet he and screenwriting collaborator Efthymis Filippou haven't compromised the dark, often bizarre view of human relations they developed in Dogtooth and Alps.
Where those films focused on isolated communities, The Lobster expands Lanthimos's theater of the absurd to encompass all of society. In a dystopian world that's more funhouse mirror than science fiction, single people are rounded up and taken to a hotel where they have forty-five days to find a suitable mate. If they fail, they're transformed into the animal of their choice. Call it the totalitarianism of the couple.
Left by his wife, David (Colin Farrell) goes to the hotel with his brother, who is now a border collie. When asked what animal he would like to be should he not "make it," he chooses a lobster because they have long lives, maintaining virility into old age. "And I like the sea, very much," he adds.
"A lobster is an excellent choice," the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) replies. "The first thing most people think of is a dog, which is why the world is full of dogs." The film's weird, stilted dialogue reflects an infantile and traumatized social psychology. It's a testament to Lanthimos and his incredible cast that their performances carry real pathos.
The lonely-hearts' attempts to connect are as forced as their speech. Though never explicitly defined, the rule of coupledom demands a "suitable match" based on some arbitrary personal characteristic: a limp, nearsightedness, a taste for berries. Dishonesty runs rampant. John (Ben Whishaw), one of David's friends and competitors, slams his face into furniture in order to woo a young woman who has chronic nosebleeds (Jessica Barden). Everyone glumly accepts this as the way of the world, with increasingly horrifying consequences for David. Meanwhile, the Loners, a community of single rebels, lead ascetic lives in the woods outside the hotel, terrorizing mainstream society and punishing one another for any more physical intimacy than an awkward hug.
As a satire of modern romance, The Lobster is pretty obvious: we worship the idea of romantic love, but do everything in our power to make sure it never happens. When David finally meets the love of his life (Rachel Weisz), however, the narrative ascends from farce to tragedy. It's a degree of emotional directness that Lanthimos has avoided until now; that he achieves it so beautifully suggests even greater things in his future.
Editor's note: The Lobster's release was delayed until June 3 as this issue went to press.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Pair of Ragged Claws."