The best part of sitting down to enjoy a new feature by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (‘Dogtooth‘, ‘Alps’) is knowing that there’s no point in having expectations. Lanthimos doesn’t make movies or tell stories quite like anyone else, and his first star-studded English language feature ‘The Lobster’ is just as delightfully insane, emotionally devastating, and intellectually playful as any of his previous creations.
Armed with an insightfully bleak worldview and a playful sweet tooth for absurdity, the director’s movies can be painfully funny and deeply unsettling, often within the same scene. He’s a filmmaker with a vision like no other and an artist as intelligent as he is wilfully silly. The structure of ‘The Lobster’ is a bit off, leading a second half that disappoints slightly compared to the first. However, such mild frustrations are easily forgivable when the final results are so breathlessly creative, hilarious and resonant. ‘The Lobster’ absolutely cannot be missed by anyone tickled by the strange and unusual.
The film takes place in a world where being single is outlawed. Those who are caught for the crime of having no romantic partner soon find themselves banished to a hotel with other lonely souls. In between excruciatingly awkward lessons about the importance of finding a mate, they must each couple off with another awkward companion based on a single trait to defines their lives. If they fail to find a love interest in 45 days, they’ll be surgically transformed into an animal and released into the wild.
Colin Farrell plays our painfully socially inept hero David, a near-sighted man who hopes to become a lobster if things go poorly. He makes stabs at friendship with John C. Reilly’s lisper and Ben Whishaw’s limping man. (He’s told of a woman with a limp, but is dismayed to learn it’s just a sprained ankle.) Eventually, David learns of a gang of single outlaws who live in the woods and offer an alternative life, provided that they forever abstain from sex and love. A cold Léa Seydoux leads the loners, happy to dole out punishment when needed. It seems like a reasonable enough way to live… until David meets a near-sighted woman played by Rachel Weisz.
As you may have gathered, ‘The Lobster’ is a deadpan satire of dating life. Or maybe it’s a horror movie about love that happens to be hilarious. Tough to say. Either way, the rigidly composed imagery and satirical cynicism that Lanthimos established in ‘Dogtooth’ defines this film as well. This time, the director leans more toward his comedic tendencies, even if the subject is no less pointed.
The first half set in the hotel dedicated to the painful nature of dating and society’s obsession with coupling is nightmarishly on-point. It’s no accident that Lanthimos sought out a mostly British cast. Coming from a nation known for finding humor in repression, the actors play their roles perfectly (and if you’re going to throw a token American into such a cast, John C. Reilly is your man). The tone is deadpan and the laughs flow liberally from it, yet the actors are able to sneak pained emotions beneath their blank faces. Lanthimos certainly never misses an opportunity to disturb and provoke beneath the chuckles. It’s some pretty brilliant and searing stuff.
Unfortunately, ‘The Lobster’ is very much a film of two halves, and the second can’t quite live up to the first. That’s not to say that Lanthimos’ nightmare vision of singlehood is a failure. It’s rather pointed, and the way he weaves a forbidden love story into the mix is surprisingly poignant without ever spoiling the cynically humorous tone he creates through syrupy sentiment. The problem is merely structural. After building toward a climax within the couples’ hotel narrative, Lanthimos promptly halts his story and world-builds again for a second almost disconnected narrative. It’s like watching a brilliant film and then its slightly underwhelming sequel. All of the individual pieces work rather well, butt together the movie feels a little lopsided and curiously lacking.
Thankfully, that’s not enough to ruin ‘The Lobster’. It’s merely the difference between this being an excellent English language debut for Yorgos Lanthimos or a straight-up masterpiece. Despite the wonky structure, the film is one of the most strikingly unique comedies to arrive in quite some time. Its tone and humor are unlike anything else, and the themes being explored are poignantly relevant. Generally speaking, movies are a medium obsessed with love and constantly preach the message that it’s the only possible means to happiness. To see a comedy tear down that message in such scathingly funny ways only to somehow loop back and present a deeply twisted and unconventional love story all its own is rather special.
If nothing else, Yorgos Lanthimos proves that his distinctly oddball filmmaking voice can easily survive in a subtitle-free and movie-star-focused setting. God willing, ‘The Lobster’ won’t be the last time he’s given such resources to get weird. We could certainly use more fearlessly bizarre filmmakers like him.