Globalization pervades just about everything today, but when it reaches the absurdist black comedies of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, you know the world has changed. Known primarily for small, surreal satires like the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, Lanthimos expands his cinematic circle with The Lobster. He shot the film in Ireland with a star-studded international cast, and organizations from five countries, including the U.S., funded what became the director’s first English-language film.
Additional resources have scarcely affected Lanthimos’ off-kilter visions of modern society. Winner of two European Film Awards and the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Lobster presents an alternate reality in which it is illegal to remain single. Those who find themselves without a spouse or partner are rounded up, taken to the “Hotel” with others in the same predicament and given 45 days to find one. Those who fail to find a partner in the allotted time are transformed into the animal of their choice and released into the Woods.
The premise may sound like science fiction, but Lanthimos is completely uninterested in the trappings of the genre. Details on how human-to-animal transformation takes place, for example, are nowhere in sight, along with a hundred other bits of information that would support a typical sci-fi universe. The Lobster is a fable built for scathing, consistently hilarious satire on shared social conventions — our obsession with couplehood, in particular — that evolves into an unlikely, sometimes poignant meditation on love and relationships.
Colin Farrell stars as David, whose wife just left him for another man. He finds himself at the Hotel, where other hapless singles Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) befriend him. Along with female residents like Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), the men seem oddly disconnected from themselves and others. People seek to match up based on a single identifying characteristic, like Tinder without smart phones.
Anyone remaining single can extend their Hotel stay by successfully hunting Loners — who have escaped from the Hotel and live in the nearby Woods — with tranquilizer guns. Halfway through the film, the story shifts to the Woods and Loners such as Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz, who also narrates the film’s first hour) and Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color), who abide strict rules of behavior no better than those at the Hotel. Romantic encounters are punishable by horrific violence.
Straight-faced yet effective performances from Farrell and Weisz keep the film from going off the rails even as the oddness of Lanthimos’ artificial world and its merciless, deadpan humor rage around them. This is more difficult than it sounds given a screenplay — co-written by Lanthimos and longtime collaborator Efthymis Filippou — intentionally filled with dry, impersonal dialogue meant to underline all the characters’ needless conformity.
The Lobster has difficulty maintaining the internal logic of its narrative and falls far short of a satisfying conclusion. But those flaws seem a fair trade for such a brash and ambitious work. Lanthimos’ film skewers all manner of worthy targets from dating rituals to parenthood to the militia movement, all while remaining open to viewer interpretation. Executed with proper abandon, satire is its own reward.
The Lobster opens next Friday, May 27, at the Elmwood Palace theater.