Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language feature, The Lobster, has a startling premise: the government rounds up single adults and confines them in a seaside hotel, where they’re given 45 days to fall in love. Those who don’t meet the deadline are changed into animals and released into the wild, or into their families’ care. This is the stuff of traditional fairy tales: magical transformations, arbitrary rules, broad allegory, and the redemptive power of true love. But Lanthimos subverts the entire idea by turning love into a petty, complicated construct, and magic into a grotesque practicality. Onscreen fables usually have at least a hint of whimsy and wonder. Lanthimos presents his as oppressive, deadly serious business.
But the stiff faces and flat delivery don’t limit the film’s mesmerizing impact. They just give it a removed, formal language that’s becoming a signature in Lanthimos’ work. His international breakout, Dogtooth (which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film), and his follow-up, Alps, both operate in the same calmly intense, beautifully composed mode, like Wes Anderson films with all the quirk and pastel color burned off. In The Lobster, he once again uses stately, measured editing and blunt dialogue and deliveries to make a surreal premise seem as mundane as possible.
Colin Farrell stars as David, a middle-aged architect whose wife has left him for another man. The authorities quickly whisk him to The Hotel, where the nameless manager (Olivia Colman) asks him what animal he wants to be if he "doesn't make it." His choice — a lobster, because they're long-lived and permanently fertile, and he loves the sea — gives the film its title, and helps establish its strange inner logic. David doesn't question The Hotel's right to confine and control him. He doesn't seem alarmed at the possibility of losing his humanity. He's more concerned with preserving his crustacean sex life than protesting how The Hotel turns human expression into a discomfiting checklist. David is told he needs to fall in love, but no one is testing him for feelings. It's enough that Hotel residents conform with the equivalent of Facebook relationship-status messages, confirming that they've entered relationships with each other, and are therefore deliriously happy.
David's meek obedience through this dumbshow makes him seem passive and not always relatable, which seems entirely deliberate. Farrell, who's been brisk but soulful in a series of carefully chosen roles in the second half of his career, comes across as defeated and impotent here, with no sign of his usual charisma. Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou (his script partner on Dogtooth and Alps) go out of their way to keep viewers from engaging with their repressed, sheepish characters. If viewers saw the protagonists' awkward, artificial coupling-up as romantic or touching, The Hotel might suddenly seem like a positive force in their lives.
Instead, it warps their romantic expectations. Hotel inhabitants define themselves with one characteristic apiece, then look for suitors who share it. A man with a permanent limp (Ben Whishaw) and a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) each look for women with the same problems; a woman with beautiful hair dismisses David because he might be bald someday. David himself is obsessive about his nearsightedness, and when his wife announces she's leaving, he only asks whether the other guy wears glasses. Even the credits reduce people to essentials: characters addressed by name onscreen are identified only as "Limping Man" or "Nosebleed Woman."
At first, that obsession with matching characteristics seems like a satire of the questionnaire-based compatibility algorithms on dating sites like OKCupid. When characters start faking infirmities to connect with each other, including David feigning sociopathy to impress Heartless Woman (Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia), The Lobster becomes even more of an indictment of people who re-create themselves to impress significant others. But what starts as wryly funny symbolism gradually expands to take over the film. The Lobster starts with an illogical premise, then draws out each idea at length, to their most attenuated, grotesque extremes.
And The Lobster does get grotesque. Elements of Hotel life closely recall Margaret Atwood's similarly ruthless allegorical novel The Handmaid's Tale: masturbation is prohibited, with a hideous punishment for disobedience. The Hotel's staff is nakedly patronizing. Hotel stays are punctuated by demeaning exercises and awkward, mandatory presentations praising coupledom. Lanthimos has said the film was inspired by his thoughts on the ways society sees romantic pairings as a default state, and regards single people as suspect, even inherently damaged. Like Atwood, he extends his discomfort into a dystopia where current social mores are enforced at terrible costs to individual freedom and feeling. But Atwood's book, and the film adaptation that followed, are expressly about the fury and despair bubbling under the surface of a country that exalts rape and forced surrogacy. The dissent in The Lobster is subtler, and more deeply sublimated. Hope isn't part of the landscape.
But rebellion is. Just as in Dogtooth and Alps, The Lobster's protagonist eventually attempts to escape the violent, perverse authority that's suffocating him. But in this world, the avenues of rebellion are just as regimented. The free single people of The Lobster operate under their own rigid rules, under the tyrannical leadership of Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux). Among her group, David encounters Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). The story's rigid logic dictates they'll end up together — maybe not happily ever after, but at least not alone anymore. But Lanthimos and Filippou keep the audience guessing about their ultimate ends right up to the final shot, and beyond.
Like Dogtooth and Alps, The Lobster deals with extremes of human emotion by factoring most of the emotion out of the equation. All three films progress as though Lanthimos wants to isolate human behavior from the feelings that drive it, the better to analyze people's choices. He creates unnatural situations to question what's natural — about families in Dogtooth, mourning in Alps, and romance and relationships in The Lobster. His aggressively flat performances and spell-it-all-out scripts are distancing, but he operates as though the only way to see a situation's absurdity is from a distance.
Not every analytical impulse works here: Weisz's narration is meant to be naïve and intellectualized, but it too frequently tells the audience things that are patently clear onscreen, or even directly echoes the characters' dialogue. It's intrusive and distracting. So are the odd asides Lanthimos spells out to no clear purpose, like David choosing not to eat on a day when he's hungry. There are so many extraneous small details, it's hard not to throw them on the analytical pile, as if The Lobster could be decoded line by line.
And that's particularly tempting, given how often The Lobster emphasizes a world free of ambiguity. As David learns during his intake process, The Hotel doesn't have a bisexual option on its census, or half-sizes in the shoes it issues to residents. This isn't a society of nuance or compromise. Everything is meant to be black and white: the characters are in a relationship or they're miserable, they're compliant or brutalized. It's no surprise that David finds the world is more complicated and ambiguous than that, and that he has trouble navigating the subtle shades of real connection.
For a love story, The Lobster is consciously cold and artificial, as if it's daring viewers to be moved, or invested in the outcome. It's unclear in the end whether the characters have learned anything, and whether connections made under duress have become real or calcified into habit. It's a cynical look not just at society and its structures and strictures, but at love itself. But it's still mesmerizing in its oddity, and it's exceptionally daring. Audiences know what to expect from love stories and fairy tales alike. This story isn't willing to settle for anything as simple as a happily-ever-after ending.