In the dystopian near future of writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster
, the acquisition of romantic partners occurs at an asylum-ish ‘hotel.’ There, the recently bereaved, chronically unloved and otherwise single people are corralled, processed, and given 45 days to fall in love (or at least in step) with another symmetrically bereaved or impaired sad sack. If a person fails to find love, he is turned into an animal.
It’s a dreary outlook indeed for David, a lately widowed man portrayed by a stoic, paunchy, mustachioed Colin Farrell. He arrives at the hotel with his brother, a zippy Australian Shepherd, in tow and doesn’t see much hope in the field of potential romantic prospects. One new buddy (John C. Reilly) feels the same way, and eagerly awaits his transformation. He says he’d like to be a parrot. David has advised the hotel manager (Broadchurch’s
Olivia Colman) that he’d like to be a lobster — he’s always loved the sea. But another new friend (Ben Whishaw), who limps, is so intent on finding a compatible partner that he ingratiates himself with a chronic nosebleeder by bashing his face against hard surfaces when she’s not looking to simulate them.
“What’s worse?” He asks David one evening. “Getting turned into an animal and being eaten by a larger animal, or being in pain from time to time?”
David responds as most of us would. Getting turned into an animal and being eaten does sound much worse.
The mood and setting of this peculiar film are not only extremely somber, they’re also frequently disturbing and often downright macabre. David employs his limping buddy’s tactic and sidles up to a heartless woman by rolling his eyes at a horrific failed suicide attempt, hoping heartlessness might be their mutual thing. It doesn’t take.
The hotel feels like a genetically modified hybrid between a nursing home and a concentration camp. And though The Lobster
enjoys the distinction of being a dystopian film not based on a YA-bestseller — it's exclusively adult in its themes and subject matter — but it lacks a certain angle. Is there an operative metaphor afoot, one wonders? Is the whole premise an analogy for online dating or something, where the quest for compatible traits is taken to an (il)logical extreme? Hard to say.
But wait: the hotel’s loveless denizens aren’t the only residents of this future. On its outskirts, “loners” drift and dance to house music in solo sessions. In fact, the hotel folks hunt the loners with tranquilizer guns on nightly field trips to accrue longer stays.
When David escapes the hotel and joins the loners partway through the film, he meets a cruel and ferociously independent captain (Lea Seydoux) and a short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) for whom he discovers he has feelings. But the loners turn out to represent the hotel’s equal and opposite authoritarian disaster. Among these woodlings, love and even flirtatious conversations are strictly outlawed, punishable by mutilations and sadistic surgeries.
The film is quite nice to look at, make no mistake. The serene hotel setting and its uniform props and costumes are the fruits of a thoughtful and precise team of production designers. The performances are accomplished, if somewhat stylized. You get the sense that all the actors have been instructed to perform at a kind of emotional remove, and so these characters, downtrodden anyway, all feel a little stiff, a little surreal.
It’s a testament to Greek director Lanthimos’s vision to say that the film would have made a compelling piece of short fiction. But it’s a fact of the American cinematic appetite that very few people will seek out a minor-key film that’s meant to be thought about and reckoned with as opposed to simply enjoyed.