If The Lobster, the first English language film from director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) had a Hollywood elevator pitch, it would have to be "The Bachelor reimagined as art house cinema." As it is, The Lobster is a very non-Hollywood film about society's obsession with relationships, set in an alternate reality identical to ours, barring a crucial adjustment. Single adults — be they single by choice or by circumstance: solitary, divorced, or widowed — are shipped to a hotel where they must find a suitable mate within 45 days, or be turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the forest.
David (Colin Farrell), recently dumped by his wife of 11 years, is the newest guest of heartbreak hotel. He's emotionally fragile, a little pragmatic, and, much like a reality contestant, more interested in winning this game than finding true love. And if he shouldn't win, he has chosen life as a lobster, because they live a very long time and remain fertile late into life.
Rarely have romantic stakes been higher than the threat of being transformed into a crustacean that is often boiled alive before its brain gets sucked out by greasy human lips. The film raises so many questions about this process: How does it work? How did it come to be? Why? But that mystery never aspires to be more than a brooding bit of set decoration. The more animals roam through its background, the less interested the film is in its top-level premise. Mostly for the better, sometimes for the worse, this is a movie that loses interests in its own ideas faster than a child with a toy box full of distractions. One scene will play like a light parody, another will be a violent thriller, and the next will be a goofy physical comedy. The only continuity is its dry as sandpaper tone.
Singles are shipped to a hotel where they must find a mate
The hotel is operated by a collection of men and women who enforce its rules, and chaperone an endless parade of mixers, dances, and dinners with the romantic staleness of a 1990s cruise liner that's fallen on hard times. Afternoons are spent studying little plays about how relationships save us from being sexually assaulted by strangers or left to choke on our food. At night, the management take the residents to the woods, where they have the opportunity to hunt (with tranquilizer rifles) the community of escaped single people who have fled their animal fates. Bagging a body gets contestants an extra day for a chance at love.
Characters say precisely what they think, and what they want. This isn't a movie about real people, but bodies that represent different ideas and beliefs. Relationships, the film says repeatedly, are required to be built upon shared, benign interests and similarities. And because each person represents an idea, no two people are a match. Subtle The Lobster is not.
In the middle of the film, The Lobster focuses on David's relationship with his brother, now a dog. It's the most humane, sincere relationship in the movie. It exists in contrast with the high -takes contest, as if to ask: what's worse being a dog, or living within the impossible expectations of others. But the film moves forward, raising more questions and thoughts, leaving behind whatever it last asked.
The most human relationship is between a man and his dog
David befriends and ultimately competes with the men of the hotel (Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly) for the attention of the women. As on The Bachelor, the guests speak with the rigidity and specificity of performers, seeking the approval of both potential mates and the producers of the charade. Newly minted couples — the validity of coupledom is adjudicated by the management — are expected to complete tests. First, they must last two weeks together in a shared bedroom, and then, survive the most treacherous measure of a relationship: two weeks of vacationing alone. Couples that struggle to resolve their issues are often assigned a child to help them fix their problems; the tweak is so twisted and hilarious, I can't believe ABC hasn't tested it in the real world.
Inside the hotel, The Lobster benefits from a gradual unveiling of its rules and internal logic, a structure the film lacks in the second half when its scope expands to the singles society in the woods. The film works best as a darkly funny takedown of a social urge to apply labels and guidelines to the private and complex relationships of others, and the titular threat just butters bread. But by its final third, the film seems disinterested in what made the concept so compelling to begin with, hitching its wagon to a gruesome and motivationally befuddling will they or won't they. A film of ideas becomes a melodramatic romance, muddying its social commentary in the process.
As with The Bachelor, The Lobster is a smarter, sicker, and more calculating than it leads on. And like The Bachelor, it has my passionate recommendation even though it left me feeling yucky and unsatisfied.
The Lobster was screened in Austin, Texas at this year's Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the US. The film is scheduled for release in the US in 2016.