Those who constantly come to be unlucky in love may find themselves overcome with a sense of unease as they emerge from the bubbling waters of The Lobster. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Anglophobic debut is, without doubt, an impressively intelligent and highly amusing piece, the Greek director navigating away from his native language with the graceful precision of a ballet dancer pirouetting on a high-wire. It’s a film you wish to fall in love with, but unlikely to be one you’ll fall head over heels for.
The reason for unrest amongst the singletons in the audience is because that, despite being ultimately ridiculous, there’s something very real about the environment Lanthimos submerges us within. The setting is a near future where it is now a legal requirement to be in a loving relationship. Those who aren’t are sent away to The Hotel – think of it as a dystopic Butlins – run by a sinisterly straight-talking manager (Olivia Coleman). Here guests are obliged to find a romantic partner within 45 days, or face the fate of being turned into an animal of their choice and released into the woods.
When we first meet David (Colin Farrell), he’s a man paunchy and passive, but clearly broken hearted. He’s arrived at The Hotel because his wife has left him, and part of you initially suspects he may be happy to simply bypass the whole process and head straight out in to the wild. However, David instead suppresses his pain, decides on an animal – a lobster, chosen for its lengthy lifespan and sustained fertility – and sets out to explore his new accommodation.For 45-minutes or so, Lanthimos builds this bizarre world with a sardonically absurd wit that sits somewhere between Roy Andersson and Charlie Kaufman. Guests communicate through strange, stilted dialogue, delivered perfectly by the atypical performances of the ensemble, possibly in the hope that it will hide their imperfections. They ritualistically spend their days attempting to increase the length of their stay by hunting the woods for Loners (forest-dwelling fugitives led by Léa Seydoux’s chilly-eyed chief, who adhere to their own code of independence), while the evenings are spent scouring for potential mates at The Hotel’s disco club.
The Lobster may be a ludicrous vision of our future, but it’s one founded upon very genuine observations about our inherent desire for companionship, which Lanthimos skewers with sharp satire. Early on it becomes clear that couples are considered compatible if they share even the smallest similarity, prompting one resident (Ben Whishaw) to regularly break his nose in the hope it will convince a current conquest (Jessica Barden) that he, like her, has intermittent nose bleeds.
Lanthimos’ setup is almost note-perfect. He cuts through the bleak comedy with an air of acute apprehension and anxiety, augmented by the furiously foreboding blend of classical and contemporary compositions that punctuate the mostly diegetic soundscape. The visual complexion is anaemically sickly, suffusing The Hotel’s atmosphere with the suffering of its occupants.Given the wealth of opportunities which beg to be explored within this kingdom of compulsory cohabitation, it’s perhaps no surprise that the writer/director does soon become overwhelmed by the material. While the first half is full of flavour, the second is unappetisingly bland. A narrative twist that sees David flee into the woods and begin to fall in love with a rabbit-catching Loner (Rachel Weisz), comes too close to convention; an inevitable detour back to The Hotel feels forced. The heavy-handed inclusion of a stunted narration told from the perspective of Weisz’s character, meanwhile, suggests a lack confidence on Lanthimos’ part, as if he suddenly lost faith in the ideas he’d crafted.
As plot begins to play a larger role, the pace begins to deflate; stifling the film’s smarts and, more alarmingly, its humour. By the time we reach we reach the conclusion, Lanthimos’ direction has lost all steam. His Lobster may have a tough shell, but its claws aren’t quite sharp enough.