Even by the standards of Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster's premise is a doozy: Colin Farrell plays a recently single schlub forced to report to the Hotel, where he has 45 days to form a romantic relationship lest he be turned into an animal of his choosing. This is the plight of all singletons in The Lobster’s world, as David's dog, once his brother, would tell you if he were still capable of speech.
“Lobsters can live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats and stay fertile all their lives” is David's answer when asked why he's opted for the crustacean in question. He's commended for his decision by the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) — most people pick dogs, she explains, which is why there are so many; endangered species are at risk because so few choose them. Like everyone, she speaks in a disinterested deadpan, as though reading encyclopedia entries to a small child.
The Lobster is Lanthimos' first English-language film — Kinetta, Dogtooth and Alps were all in his native Greek — but no aspect of his sensibility has been lost in translation. Rather, everything that made his prior works so distinctive and alarmingly entertaining is even more fully realized here: This isn't a sterile dystopia à la The Giver but the clearest expression yet of the ascendant filmmaker's outré worldview.
Everyone David encounters at the Hotel is so concerned with not ending up as a parrot that they miss a larger point only he seems to glean: Ending up alone would be just as bad. He eventually makes it to a nearby forest controlled by a survivalist group whose rules are the opposite of the Hotel's: no sex, no romance, no flirting. “We all dance by ourselves,” the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) explains to him. “That's why we only play electronic music.” This is a world of extremes, so of course Lanthimos’ lead would prefer to reside somewhere in the middle.
The writer-director is in world-building mode throughout. The Lobster is consistent enough with its own twisted logic that it suggests the kind of three-dimensional fictional world most franchises fail to develop, even as some of its larger questions — What governing body makes these byzantine rules? Why is it only Farrell's character who has a first name? — go unanswered. That's by design: Lanthimos gives us enough to make it all feel vibrant and alive but not so much as to distract from the actual story.
As in Dogtooth, much of this is shot from severe angles that subtly add to the tension — in the same way that fast-food restaurants’ uncomfortable seating and noxious color schemes are designed to make you want to leave as soon as you finish your fries. But there are no empty calories in The Lobster, just the sort of longing that leaves your stomach in a different kind of knot.
Lanthimos’ consistently hilarious, borderline anti-humor slowly gives way to a romantic streak of surprising warmth. In her most transfixing performance since The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz serves as both dispassionate narrator and eventual love interest, her quiet voice-over accompanied by a lachrymose string section that lends the film its most overt emotional cues.
More Sissy Spacek in Badlands than Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, Weisz's Short-Sighted Woman (as the script names her) comments directly on the action but occasionally drifts off into digressions. Describing the two most terrible fates that can befall one in her unnamed society — having “red intercourse” forced upon you in the woods, or being turned into the worst animal imaginable (we're never told which) at the Hotel — she briefly tells us what's really on her mind: “Oh God,” she says in utter monotone after mentioning the former punishment, “I am so afraid of it.”
That line is like a mini-revelation, a sudden injection of heartbroken pathos into a world where everyone's been trained to fall in line. By holding so much back, Lanthimos and his characters make us want to know everything about them — not least of which is what their spirit animal might be.