It’s a dog-eat-dog world, so they say—a veritable jungle out there. And dating often stokes the “thrill of the chase,” or, in other words, the hunt. We may be at the top of the food chain, but that doesn’t mean we’re not animals, a notion filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos playfully employs in his absurdist romantic comedy The Lobster. Die-hard cineastes may know Lanthimos already, from his Greek-language stunner Dogtooth (or perhaps even his follow-up Alps), but this time, Lanthimos has international movie stars for his English-language debut. The Lobster’s publicity materials describe the setting as a “dystopian near-future,” but I’m not sure Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou would say the same. After all, no noticeable difference in fashion or technology tips the story to a future setting. It’s more of an absurdist alternate universe allegorizing how we live now, without any need for futuristic trappings.
At any rate, in this world, single people get shipped to an unsettlingly placid resort hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate (talk about your speed dating). If they fail, they get turned into the animals of their choice. For schlumpy David (Colin Farrell, wearing a few extra pounds), that’d be a lobster, for reasons he’s given considerable thought. The early scenes establish a pitiless process: “guests” must register as heterosexual or homosexual, get literally stripped of their dignity, and are issued a tranquilizer gun and darts for daily “Most Dangerous Game”-style hunts of “Loner” refugees living in The Woods.
Those who think they’ve found their match, or at least insist they have, get a honeymoon on a yacht before relocation to The City. If they encounter relationship troubles, they are “assigned children…to get past the fighting and arguing.” As you might imagine, there are some flaws in this world’s logic, but regular propaganda sessions (contrasting playlets “Man Eats Alone” and “Man Eats With Woman,” for example) reinforce the mating-game parameters and how to win at life. Through it all, Lanthimos applies an amusing indirect sarcasm to his implicit critique of the real-world societal pressure on single people to pair up on the clock.
With suspense-film scoring and a skin-crawlingly deliberate pace, Lanthimos wrings every bit of dull horror from his allegory, pitting his pathologically numb sad souls—with their prevailingly autistic, if not robotic, manners—against each other more often than not. David nominally befriends same-boat characters played by John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw (both as terrific as we’ve come to expect), but the relationships inevitably sour under the circumstances, and David eventually finds an apparent soulmate (Rachel Weisz, who also provides the acidic, novelistic narration). With deadpan modern-art precision, The Lobster investigates the nature of our need for a partner (who else will apply that pain-relief cream to the small of your back?), how we cling to superficial similarities to justify our matches, and our denial, at our peril, of our animal nature.