David (Colin Farrell) lives in the near future where society’s rules have changed, or shall we say evolved. Now it is illegal to be single and unattached to a romantic partner, which has been fine for him for the past eleven years and one month, but now his life has hit a snag as his wife has met someone else and left him. This means he is in the difficult position of having to find a new wife or he will be eradicated from the human world by transformation into an animal – it may be a creature of his own choice, but he would prefer to avoid it and stay a person, so dutifully goes along to a hotel where he and the other illegal singletons have to meet up and try to find someone new. The trouble is, there’s nothing less attractive than one of this socially hopeless lot…
Director Yorgos Lanthimos garnered a surprising amount of publicity for his first feature in the English language (as opposed to the Greek language), probably because his previous films had won him a degree of acclaim in all the right places and managed to secure a clutch of international stars to fill out his cast. This led to a wider audience for what was essentially a niche entertainment, and as often when something out of the mainstream is nudged into that arena, the reaction was mixed, so no matter how many reviews said it was something special and a really offbeat, surreal comedy, there were always going to be those who wondered what the hell they were on about, and how could anyone find this funny?
Especially when there were elements where Lanthimos went all out for horror, not in a fantastical, ostensibly science fictional manner that you might have expected, but in ways that would genuinely disturb. He was notorious for his reluctance to discuss his themes, but they were plain to see here: the tyranny of both having to find a romantic partner as ordered by the tenets of society, and the terrible things you had to put up with as part of a relationship to keep it going in the face of an increasing climate of cynicism. Which was pretty rich coming from a film that was contributing to that dark pessimism, as it had quite some cheek to look at the issues from both sides when it was drawing the same conclusion from each, that love was a losing game.
It didn’t matter which way you were approaching it from, be it emerging from being a couple and losing your bearings or entering a union and finding the compromises twist you all out of shape, The Lobster was deeply unimpressed with any of it, as if a space alien had penned a thesis on what love entailed on Planet Earth and how ridiculous it was. And then, as it warmed to its subject, now nightmarish the pressures it put the participants under were, not much better for those who tried to opt out of it as well since they were forever being pushed into romance even if it did not suit them, be that at this moment in time or for all time. Yet while in the real world you could have sympathy for those who didn’t find love, and those who did only for it to turn sour and be split away from it, this film wasn’t about to entertain that compassion.
So The Lobster, named after the animal David wants to become if the business at the hotel doesn’t work out, really wasn’t funny at all when you boiled it down, the only laughs it generated resting in the social awkwardness that Lanthimos apparently wanted us to find in anything from the absurdity of a dance where everyone knows what everyone else is after but aren’t sure how to provide it, to horrific scenes where a dog is kicked to death to prove a point or the deliberate, surgical blinding of one character in a grim mirror image of the authorities’ love punishments. It was a film of two halves, the first where David fumbles and fails in his attempts to hook up at the hotel, and the second where he escapes to join a group of rebels in the forest, the same rebels the singletons are forced to hunt with tranquiliser darts for mysterious, official reasons. Neither offered a pleasant alternative to the other, though everyone behaved in the same, deliberately stilted manner that made the suffocating dread of its situations a shade more palatable, with a worrying Rachel Weisz closest to genuine, recognisable emotion. But make no mistake, this was an oppressive experience.