Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos explored restrictive social constructs with his darkly satirical movies “Dogtooth” and “Alps,” a fixation that comes into full bloom with his first English-language feature, “The Lobster.” As with his earlier works, Lanthimos builds a world that looks not unlike our own, but injects it with a bizarre rulebook that gives his topic a scathing edge. Though at times almost too peculiar for its own good, “The Lobster” brings Lanthimos’ distinct blend of morbid, deadpan humor and surrealism to a broader canvas without compromising his ability to deliver another thematically rich provocation.
It doesn’t take much to synopsize the fundamental weirdness of “The Lobster,” a movie set in a world where being single is a crime and subordinates get transformed into animals of their choosing. Perhaps understanding as much, Lanthimos gets that high concept premise out of the way upfront, establishing the plight of leading man David (Colin Farrell, mustachioed and pot-bellied, submerged in a wonderfully unglamorous turn), one of the unlucky bachelors in question. David is a hapless anti-hero less interested in rebelling against the system than unsure of what it wants from him — a brilliant encapsulation of the romantic loner, and the ideal agent for setting Lanthimos’ allegory in motion.
Forced to submit himself for 45 days at an isolated hotel, David must spend that time attempting to find a mate, or go with the animal option. It’s there that he befriends two other single contenders (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw), all entirely clueless about their needs from the opposite sex, who form a curious entourage as they roam the compound accompanied by David’s former brother, now transformed into a dog. Eventually, David does latch onto a woman, but the situation doesn’t exactly go as planned. Lanthimos uses this prolonged first act to establish a world that’s equally ridiculous and haunting, most significantly during a slo-mo montage in which the hotel inmates must hunt down rebellious single refugees in the nearby woods. Set to a lovely show tune, the sequence brings a more advanced scope of imagination than anything found in Lanthimos’ comparatively subdued works.
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Not content to simply to push the situation around in the same restrained environment, the director opens things up during the oddly galvanizing second half, when David leaves the compound to join the aforementioned rebels in the woods. It’s here that he answers to the call of a renegade leader (Lea Seydoux in femme fatale mode), learning to survive while ironically contending with a whole new set of rules opposite to the ones he escaped. Naturally, it’s here that David actually does find a worthwhile companion (Rachel Weisz), and their mutual attraction leads to yet another escape plan. Through David’s ongoing search for happiness, Lanthimos cleverly asserts that the problem lies with the goal itself.
There are times when the scale of the story, with its ensemble of idiosyncratic characters and outrageous circumstances, strains from too many ingredients. Though her character supplies voiceover narration, Weisz is a dispiritingly underutilized creation who mainly serves to complicate David’s priorities. The narration feels perfunctory as well, sometimes overstating some of the richer ideas in the narrative. Whereas “Dogtooth” slowly revealed the larger mystery while leaving much up for interpretation, “The Lobster” is loaded with explanations.
However, the inherent absurdity of the premise maintains its appeal thanks to an unlikely combination of depravity and deadpan comedy. Lanthimos is aided in that tricky balance by a terrific cast, led by the frumpy Farrell in his most original performance ever. The story also benefits from a host of appealing minor characters, from Whishaw as a man who forces himself to get nosebleeds to attract a woman with the same ailment to Lanthimos regular Arianne Labed as an all-purpose hotel maid.
Yet the real star of the show is Lanthimos’ willingness to shift his typical edginess away from the dreary claustrophobia of “Dogtooth” and “Alps” to more outwardly comedic terrain. The humor sets in early and fast, when David checks into his hotel (“Is there a bisexual option available?” he asks the concierge) and never slows down. Lanthimos’ script (co-written by Efthymis Filippou) has fun with the tendency to categorize the intangible aspects of human relationships. At one point, a character is asked at gunpoint to rank his love for his partner on a scale of one to 15, and replies, “14.”
The hint of a science fiction premise never entirely comes into play, though “The Lobster” uses it to flesh out the zany environment, such as during one scene in the forest when a camel casually lurches past in the background over the course of an unrelated conversation. Even then, however, the grander conceit remains in play — why did someone choose to transform into a camel? — as Lanthimos suggests that you can’t account for the whims of personal desire.
Overall, though, “The Lobster” is sustained by Lanthimos’ blatant disdain for any set of demands imposed by society on individual expectations for companionship. At the hotel, residents are forced to watch a hilariously dumb set of sketches designed to illustrate why men and women belong together. It’s a flimsy aid, which is exactly the point.
There’s so much rage against the system in “The Lobster” that it leaves the impression Lanthimos has finally expunged this particular dystopian premise from his system. With “Dogtooth,” which assails family dynamics, and “Alps,” a critique of organized religion, “The Lobster” completes a sensational trilogy of diatribes against powerful extremes. Notably, the new movie’s climactic moments rhythmically mirror those in “Dogtooth,” with an outrageous act of self-inflicted violence followed by a shot of utterly mundane circumstances. With the implication that destructive pressures lurk beneath seemingly ordinary moments, “The Lobster” transitions from a ridiculous world to the real one.
“The Lobster” premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.