Imagine living in a world where the pursuit of love provided only two choices. You can find a spouse and live happily ever after in coupledom, or you can earn the scorn of others for failing to pair up. In this scenario, society champions the intertwined and persecutes the single. Does it feel familiar? It should. That such a situation doesn’t seem too far from reality is the point of The Lobster, despite the clear exaggerations if gleefully plays with.
In an unnamed time, those like the mournful David (Colin Farrell) who prove unlucky when it comes to affection — even through the death of their spouse or via infidelity — are shipped away to a matchmaking-focused hotel as a last resort, literally. If they don’t connect with another person in 45 days, they’ll be transformed into the animal of their choice. Their only other option is to run away and live in the nearby woods with a group of loners, who shun relationships, dig their own graves in a mournful bit of forward thinking, and seek solace by dancing alone to electronic music.
If that sounds cynical as well as comedic in an absurdist, deadpan manner, that’s because it is — and writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is certainly known for raising his eyebrows and donning a wry smile in the face of many of the behaviours and preferences that define our lives and interactions. In his first English-language film after the equally heightened Dogtooth and Alps, he does the same with modern romance, skewering and dissecting the fact that finding monogamy and matrimony are championed by most as the be all and end all of human existence, no questions asked.
That's not all he does, though, as he follows David's interactions with others looking for their similar other halves, such as Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen). Nor is scepticism his only attitude when David meets Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) and Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), finding a kindred spirit in the latter, even if he's not supposed to.
Mixing suspicion with sweetness — not of the sappy rom-com kind, but bursting from a genuine appreciation of the joy that can result when two people really do find something special in each other beyond having superficial things in common, and are willing to sacrifice to keep it — is the key to The Lobster's brilliance. Lanthimos finds the overwhelming beauty that can lurk in the stark reality he depicts, perhaps surprisingly so given how stylised and precise everything else proves: the dialogue, setting, recurrent use of music and tightly shot visuals, for example. The impact is as astounding as it is intriguing.
Consequently, prepare for a smart, sensitive and surreal movie that both looks on in horror and inspires hope as far as matters of the heart are concerned. And prepare to pay attention too, because the details mean everything. When the excellent international cast all speak in their native accents, aptly mirroring the film's conflict of structure and chaos in the process, or the soothing tones of Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue's ballad 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' contrasts with the overt tones heard otherwise, that's when The Lobster's wondrous, winning, witty take on love and life starts to truly shine.