Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos has gained a degree of renown for a kind of in-your-face absurdist style, manifested in films such as Dogtooth, about a father who has taught his family the wrong meanings for words in order to keep them under his control—that one was nominated for a foreign language Oscar—and Alps, about a group of people who impersonate the deceased in order to aid clients in their grieving process. As bizarre as these plot descriptions seem, they don’t do justice to Lanthimos’ skill at keeping the viewer off balance at all times, with distancing effects, gallows humor, and shock.
His new film, co-written with his regular collaborator Efthymis Fillipou, is called The Lobster. It’s his first in English, and it features an assortment of A-list film actors. So you might expect that this effort would be softer, more accessible to the mainstream, and so forth. You would be wrong. The Lobster is every bit as avant-garde as his other films, and I for one admire his commitment to making the kind of films that he wants to make.
We are plunged into The Lobster’s strange, dystopian world without much explanation. It would appear that in some future or alternate history, all single adults are required by law to be in a committed relationship. Each single person is sent to a special hotel in the country, along with a large group of other men and women. They all have forty-five days in which to hook up with a partner. If they fail to do so, they are changed, by some process the details of which we are not shown, into the animal of their choice.
In addition to having to view hilariously stupid demonstrations of why it is better to be part of a couple than to be alone, they are required to go on hunting expeditions where they capture “loners” using stun guns. “Loners” are single people who have refused to submit to the law, and have escaped to the woods. Each “loner” a hotel resident captures will extend his or her time by a certain number of days.
Colin Farrell plays David, furtive, socially awkward, and morose. His choice of animal gives the film its name. John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw are on hand as fellow residents. Olivia Colman is excellent as the frighteningly officious head of ceremonies. The film constructs an elaborate cult of relationships startling in its superficiality. Everything is based on appearances and specific traits, sometimes deficiencies, as when the Whishaw character tries to find someone who has a limp like he does. The jokes, if you can call them that, are the kind you often don’t laugh at until a few hours after seeing the film. Lanthimos’ view of society, and of the ways it expresses a distorted view of human nature, is dark indeed.
The film is narrated by Rachel Weisz, who, it turns out, plays one of the loners living in the woods. Naturally, we hope that the loners are a beacon of freedom in this horrifying world, but no. The cult of relationships is matched by an equal and opposite cult of being single—just as grim, just as inflexible.
The central theme in all of Lanthimos’s films is power—in this case it’s the psychological power held by groups over their members, which takes on a life of its own independent of the thoughts and emotions of the individuals. The deficiency of affect manifested by the people in this film has a funny exterior, you might say morbidly funny, like the grin of a death’s head. The Lobster evokes a strange death-in-life labyrinth. We are invited to find a way out.