The Lobster review

Note: With The Lobster in limited release this weekend, we’re re-running our review from the New York Film Festival.

Audiences have come to expect the bizarre from director Yorgos Lanthimos, who broke out in 2009 with the wonderful and unsettling Dogtooth, and The Lobster definitely doesn’t disappoint on that front. It’s set in a dystopia where single people are transformed into animals; the title refers to the animal that Colin Farrell‘s David has chosen to become if he can’t find a mate.

If weird were all The Lobster had going for it, though, it’d be little more than an experimental curiosity. What makes The Lobster must-see viewing is the film’s pitch-black sense of humor, its uncomfortably keen insights into real-life relationships, and even, in spite of everything else, its aching romanticism. 

The Lobster is set in a city where singlehood is highly illegal, to the point that even standing alone in a shopping mall is grounds for suspicion. Those caught unattached are sent to a countryside hotel, where they must find a “well-suited” mate in 45 days or else be turned into an animal of their choosing. David arrives at the hotel after his wife has left him, bringing along a dog that used to be his brother — a constant reminder of what’s at stake if he can’t find a mate.

The hotel guests fill their days with group meetings, singles mixers, various leisure activities, and daily hunts for rogue singletons. It’s never explained why coupledom is so important to this society. Everyone simply takes for granted that it is. Everyone except, that is, a group of radicals who reside in the forest, led by a very chilly Léa Seydoux. Among them, sex and romantic love are verboten and independence is the guiding principle. Of course, it’s here David meets and falls for a beautiful woman, played by Rachel Weisz, who also narrates the film.

As David, Farrell proves yet again how engaging he can be at his most vulnerable, and as his love interest, Weisz appears both appealingly ethereal and game for anything. Special attention must also be paid to Olivia Colman as the hotel proprietress, smug and menacing and a little pathetic. A musical duet with her husband (played by Garry Mountaine) is one of the bizarre comedic highlights of the film.

The world of The Lobster feels more or less like our own, only more generic and — aside from the human-to-animal transformation process, which we never actually see — slightly less technologically advanced. The characters’ hotel-issued outfits could be from 1950, or 2000, or 2050, while the gray concrete blocks of the city makes it look simultaneously like no other city on Earth and like every other city on Earth. The language is blunt and deadpan, often comically so. The impression we’re left with is that we’re looking at our own world, stripped down to its essence.

Which is basically what The Lobster is. The decision to mate, or not, is supposed to be a personal choice in our world, but it never totally is. Just ask any single person who’s spent a holiday turning down relatives’ offers to set them up, or any attached person who’s watched with envy as their unattached friends swipe right and left. And so we settle down with someone just because it’s better than being lonely, or pretend to be in love for the sake of our parents, or sabotage a good relationship in pursuit of an unattainable ideal.

The Lobster is, at times, heartbreaking. Both the hotel guests and the loners in the forest are driven by fear and desperation, rather than the pursuit of happiness, and the characters define themselves by superficially undesirable qualities — a limp, a lisp, a tendency toward frequent nosebleeds. As the film goes on, we see people go to greater and greater lengths to avoid loneliness. It’s an unhappy way to live, made all the more poignant because it feels so familiar.

The film is also deeply, bleakly funny. One of the hotel’s mandated activities is hunting down rogue singletons with tranquilizer darts, so that they may be properly punished. Gazing down at the unconscious bodies lined up on the wet pavement, David thinks to himself that it’s a good thing they’re all wearing waterproof ponchos. His observation is both completely relatable and hilariously, depressingly inadequate. There are bigger, more pointed jokes, too. One about the role of children in a marriage landed an especially big laugh at my screening.

As I write this, it’s been several days since I saw The Lobster and though it took me a while to process, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. The Lobster looks at first like a spiky satire of modern courtship, and it is a pretty great one at that. But like its hangdog hero, it eventually reveals itself as something altogether more tender, more hopeful, and more original.

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