The peculiar, disturbing sensibility of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his provocative films Dogtooth and Alps, left me very curious to see how his work would translate into English. I found out in The Lobster (2015), another deeply weird thought experiment that is inventive, amusing, dark, and possibly one of the most cynical movies ever made.
Falsely advertised as near-future science fiction, The Lobster presents a bleak dystopian metaphor in which the world is ruled by the fascistic enforcement of compulsory monogamy. Lose your partner for any reason, and you’re sent to the Hotel, where you have 45 days to find a new match and fall in love…or you’re literally turned into an animal. After losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is sent to the Hotel to begin his term, hoping to stave off transformation into a lobster. It’s a desperate situation, so much so that David soon goes to extreme lengths to ensure he finds a new partner — but it’s only when his plans backfire that he finds the love of his life (Rachel Weisz).
Surprisingly, Lanthimos’ uniquely stylized film-making makes a seamless jump into a new language. Particularly in its early stages, The Lobster is a riveting puzzle, presenting a world with intensely strange rules that need learning before the proceedings start to make a certain kind of sense. Ultimately it does becomes clear, though, that the story is a scathing, cynical critique of cliched modern romantic narratives. Lanthimos likes to examine societal norms and turn them on their ears, and by literalizing the metaphorical pressures of socially acceptable monogamous pair-bonding, he does that again here. It’s an extended, brutal commentary on the unrealistic expectations society places on people to find partners, and while Lanthimos’ verdict is unforgiving, his tactics are ingenious.
An exemplary international cast contributes to the success of the experiment by replicating Lanthimos’ preferred mode of dialogue: an affected, no-nonsense deadpan that manages to normalize even the most outrageous of lines. Farrell is particularly good at it, and there’s a terrific supporting cast around him that includes Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw, and Lanthimos veterans Ariane Labed and Angeliki Papoulia. It’s not the most uplifting of messages, but it’s finely crafted, extremely interesting, and, as usual for Lanthimos, jaw-droppingly different.