Despite a premise that sounds, on paper, like a rejected script for an unusually kinky Twilight Zone episode, The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s Cannes competition entry, which premiered on Friday, is surprisingly moving and entertaining.
Lanthimos, a Greek provocateur best known for Dogtooth (which won the top prize in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2009), a bleakly comic parable about an authoritarian family preoccupied with sadomasochistic contests, specializes in satirizing contemporary rituals of social control. The Lobster, with its wacky premise of a society that penalizes single men and women by transforming them into animals of their choice if they fail to find a mate within 45 days, implicitly skewers everything that contemporary singletons resort to while escaping loneliness—and pairing off despite occasionally insurmountable odds. Relentlessly unsappy, while frequently hilarious, The Lobster might be deemed a counterweight to the emotional uplift provided, or at least promised, by Bridget Jones’s Diary and eHarmony ads.
As the film opens, David (Colin Farrell), a morose divorced architect, has been summoned to a hotel where inductees are destined to either find their soul mates or proceed to the “Transformation Room” for beastly conversions. David arrives with a frisky dog, his brother in canine form, and proceeds to live the strenuous life of a potential “Loner” compelled to find a partner by any means necessary. Protocol at this way station that reinvents the notion of a heartbreak hotel is enforced by the manager, a by-the book bureaucrat whose chirpy condescension is driven home by British television star Olivia Colman’s impeccable comic timing. Masturbation, the ultimate solitary pleasure, is strictly forbidden and a character known as “ Lisping Man” (played by a gloriously whiny John C. Reilly) gets his hand roasted in a toaster when his weakness for self-pleasuring is discovered.
In fact, except for David, all of the characters are known primarily for unflattering or unwanted traits that detract from what sociologists term their “sexual capital”—or allure. Finding the compatible man or woman of your dreams is contingent on seeking out a mate whose flaws match your own. In a desperate attempt to curry favor with “Nosebleed Woman” (Jessica Barden), “Limping Man” (Ben Whishaw) fakes nosebleeds in order to escape the oblivion of life in the wild as a feral creature.
The deadpan social events that encourage the desperate hotel guests to mingle resemble a weird cross between corporate management training sessions and speed dating. Lanthimos appears to be slyly mocking consumer society’s propensity to turn love into a combination of spectator sport and shaming ritual. The conformist aspects of the modern dating regimen are literalized, in a twist that evokes old sci-fi films such as The 10th Victim and Logan’s Run, by forcing the wannabe couples to hunt down Loners with tranquilizer guns. The repressed David, who contemplates a future existence as a lobster, an animal able to survive for as much as a century in the icy ocean, glumly joins in the macabre fun.
Ending up in a disastrously short-lived partnership with “Heartless Woman” (Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia), the empathetic David is forced to flee the hotel after his predatory mate, quite predictably, heartlessly betrays him. In certain respects, the film’s second half, in which David joins an insurrectionary group of Loners led by head rebel Léa Seydoux, ventures into more conventional dystopian terrain. The taboos of mainstream society are inverted—love and sexual coupling are banned and David is once more doomed after falling in love with “Short Sighted Woman” (Rachel Weisz), a spirited nonconformist who channels the zeal of feminist heroines from Joan of Arc to Katniss Everdeen. Yet, if Lanthimos’s comic resourcefulness runs out of steam near the end of the film, he manages to find room for a few lyrical epiphanies.
The Lobster, most of all, is a triumph of inspired casting. Colin Farrell, who can often seem stiff in big budget extravaganzas like Oliver Stone’s Alexander, is effectively self-effacing as a character meant to be a bit of a stiff. The well-known international actors work brilliantly in concert with familiar faces from Lanthimos’s Greek films.
Although it’s foolish to try to read the Cannes competition jury’s mind, it’s not unlikely that this year’s presidents, Joel and Ethan Coen, will have a soft spot for a film whose predilections mirror some of their own dark comedies.