Has any contemporary filmmaker approached the themes of dating and relationships with such delicious cynicism as Yorgos Lanthimos? In his English-language debut, the Oscar-nominated Greek director (Dogtooth) puts a darkly comedic spin on modern mating rituals and society’s emphasis on finding a permanent partner. The resulting feature is surreal and absurd but thoroughly enjoyable.
At the start of The Lobster, Colin Farrell’s bespectacled and slightly portly character David voluntarily checks into a hotel of sorts after being dumped. He is questioned about his sexual orientation and dietary requirements and then reminded that he has 45 days in which to match with someone or else he will be transformed into a creature of his choosing. David requests a lobster since he is fond of the sea and the crustacean boasts a long life span. Funnily enough this response is met with approval by the stern manageress (Olivia Colman on top form), as she explains how most people want to return as dogs, hence the abundance of them (ironically David’s pet dog is in fact his brother). He dispenses with his clothes, moves into a comfortable room with a wardrobe consisting of drab suits and is coldly informed of the rules.
The hotel itself is reminiscent of a bland coastal resort during an off-peak season. There is a swimming pool, grounds for strolls and large dining area, but all of these spaces merely serve as backdrops to facilitate the all-important search. Romance seems to be of negligible concern; everything is very calculated and logical. Rather than converse about their hobbies and dreams, the hopefuls bond over their flaws. One man walks with a limp (a memorable Ben Whishaw), another lisps (John C. Reilly), while a young woman suffers frequent nosebleeds (Jessica Barden).
David continues his stay apparently resigned to his future sea-dwelling fate and passes his time idly. However, for many their approaching deadline invokes a sense of panic and their desperation even encourages them to fake inadequacies in order to avoid the shame of being an unsuccessful singleton. For example, Whishaw’s eager bachelor bangs his head against hard surfaces to simulate nose bleeds and is quickly paired off with the aforementioned female. In a hilarious scene, Colman’s Hotel Manager congratulates them and advises that, should the arrangement falter, children can be supplied to the couple to keep them together.
Meanwhile for the rest of the guests, the only way to extend their human existences is by hunting ‘loners’ in the woods at night. These renegade single folk are shot with tranquiliser guns and the marksmen/women are rewarded with extra days. Although David is obviously not keen on the predatory activity, the experience will later factor into his escape from the hotel. When events take a turn for the worse, he flees and seeks the help of the ‘loners’, a group headed by a militant leader (Lea Seydoux) and includes a potential love interest (Rachel Weisz, hitherto heard as a narrator).
Co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, The Lobster is an uncanny work of satire. At times it appears the story is a clever dig at online dating profiles, which have the knack of reducing personalities to brief bullet points or categories. Flirtation and small talk are redundant, relationships are akin to business transactions. Similarly soulmates are seen to be reliant on deception to maintain the illusion of a deeper connection.
The film’s ensemble, international cast is especially brilliant. The actors strike the right tone and deliver their lines with deadpan seriousness – remember the weird scenario is perfectly normal for the inhabitants of Lanthimos’s dystopian world, so they are unperturbed by their circumstances.
Given the highly conceptual nature of The Lobster, the narrative is allowed to slip every now and then. The film does indeed lose its thread in the final act where Lanthimos struggles to keep the momentum going. Nonetheless he deserves plenty of accolades for this original and idiosyncratic piece of cinema which dares to question the construct of romantic partnerships.
The Lobster opens in UK cinemas on Friday 16 October.