After the cold, antiseptic stories writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos presented in his 2009 breakthrough Dogtooth and his follow up Alps, love seems like the last topic the shocking director should ever tackle. In Dogtooth, sexual relationships became mechanical and routine; they were a means to an end, a release where one was needed, a problem that needed solving. To that extent, his latest film The Lobster makes perfect sense for the director’s aesthetic, as we enter a world far more restrictive and a film grander in premise than anything Lanthomos has attempted before.
In The Lobster, Lanthomos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou take us to an alternate reality where single people must go to a hotel, where they must find a partner before 45 days or they will be surgically turned into the animal of their choosing. David (Colin Farrell) is one such man, whose wife has left him and comes to the hotel with his brother, who recently went through this same program, failed, and now lives as a dog.
At the hotel, we see the depths to which this forceful society drives people. A recent widower known simply as “Limping Man” (Ben Whishaw) slams himself in the face for nosebleeds in order to find something in common with a woman who gets frequent nosebleeds. Another guest known as “Lisping Man” (John C. Reilly) is forced to put his hand in a toaster as punishment for engaging in the outlawed activity of masturbation.
David seems relatively unfazed by his upcoming deadline, assured with his choice of turning himself into a lobster (they live for over a hundred years and remain fertile their whole lives). After a brilliant first act entirely in the hotel, David decides he needs to escape to the outside world.
Outside the hotel in the nearby woods are escapees who resist the options given to them and swing the opposite way, outlawing love of any kind. This group, led by Lea Seydoux, also just happens to have a woman David falls for (Rachel Weisz).
The Lobster biggest flaw doesn’t come from its strange presentation, but in how we only see one side of this equation. Through Farrell, Whishaw, and Reilly – all fantastic – we see desperation, resignation, and somewhere in between. Whereas on the female side, we mostly are shown cold characters without much depth. Seydoux’s main goal is to stop love at any costs, while one of Farrell’s potential matches, Lanthimos constant Angeliki Papoulia, is simply given the distinction of not having a heart. Even the love that we see in Weisz mostly comes from a narration explaining her emotions from a seemingly omniscient author’s point of view.
Whereas Dogtooth explored parents who were too protective of their children, and Alps showed the ways that we grieve after death, The Lobster is almost like Lanthimos decided to take on ideas of love in very literal ways. Popular axioms like “love is blind” or “love comes when you least expected” have their own clever, dark twists, as Lanthimos’ biggest statement seems to be that love can’t be predicted, forced or explained in any easy way.
Lanthimos’ greatest gift has been creating worlds that we’ve never seen before, imbued with just the slightest amount of humanity in environments based in structure, so they are terrifying in just how familiar and foreign they feel at the same time. As a storyteller, Lanthomos combines the absurdity of Luis Bunuel, an undercurrent of fear similar to Lars von Trier, and the haunted quests for love in strange places that reminds me of Charlie Kaufman. In his films, these worlds feel completely unique and entirely refreshing. But Lanthimos gets his audience to accept every aspect of what they’re seeing, revealing fascinating details to a point that his films feel like a combination of the darkest comedy, the most engaging drama and by the end, a surprisingly effective romance.
Like Dogtooth before it, The Lobster forces its viewers to confront so many questions that its bizarre plot almost seems irrelevant. Even if The Lobster does present more questions that it cares to answer, it ends up unimportant in the long run. In doing this, Lanthimos’ pseudo-fable becomes far more about emotion than all of his previous work combined. The lengths one will go for love – and what we look for in love – will resonate long after the movie’s ambiguous conclusion.