Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster may be the filmmaker’s English-language debut, but no matter the tongue, his obsession with deconstructing and reconstructing codes of physical and verbal communication remains the same—as does his penchant for high-concept premises, hermetically sealed environments, and deadpan humor. In Dogtooth, Lanthimos’s formal precision followed function as it focused on a family that was itself living in a carefully constructed, hermetically sealed world, complete with its own customs and idioms; much of the film’s perverse thrill lay in seeing Lanthimos try to top himself, sick joke atop brilliantly executed sick joke.
Alps suggested the limitations of his approach as he applied the same icily detached style to material—about people impersonating the dead so as to help loved ones through the grieving process—that demanded a broader emotional palette than he allowed. Now, in The Lobster, he takes on what may be his most emotionally fraught dramatic material yet: romantic relationships and the societal pressures of the dating game. The result leaves one wondering if the filmmaker, perhaps, needs a vacation from his own vision.
As Lanthimos’s high concepts usually are, this one is as sui generis as they come. The title derives from main character David’s (Colin Farrell) choice of animal when asked what he’d like to turn into if, after 45 days at a particular hotel, he fails to find a mate. From that nutty premise, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou, for a while at least, hit upon some genuinely provocative truths. These characters take the need for human companionship as a given, and some of them go to desperate lengths to find their match—like a limping man (Ben Whishaw) who fakes a nosebleed problem simply to make it with a particular woman with a similar “defining characteristic.” This focus on merely superficial similarities to try to force a romantic connection especially resonates in our digital age, with the increased emphasis on creating online personas and making instant impressions.
Even more than that, The Lobster fundamentally questions the need for nuclear coupledom in the first place—a challenging notion that’s brought into sharper focus in the film’s second half, after David escapes from the hotel and joins a group of “loners” in a nearby forest, all of whom are made targets of hotel residents in periodic hunts. The group’s ice-cold leader (Léa Seydoux), however, militantly frowns upon romantic connections of any sort—which is bad news for David, as he meets an unnamed woman (Rachel Weisz) who immediately takes a liking to him.
Essentially, The Lobster becomes a more conventional tale of forbidden love, but one given the demented Lanthimos touch—evident not only in the extremely deadpan manner in which these people address each other, but in the whole new system of gestures the two lovers are forced to create in order to communicate with each other (at least until the Loner Leader tries to have her way with them). In its own skewed way, this also feels accurate to human nature, with the courtship process often dependent as much on reading subtextual clues as on making outright public declarations.
And yet, as intelligent, often hilarious, and occasionally insightful as it is, The Lobster also shows a filmmaker’s style—the unnervingly distanced compositions, the deliberately flattened line deliveries, the shocking bursts of violence—hardening into shtick. The near-surgical precision with which Lanthimos approaches the most surreal of conceits turns out to be a double-edged sword, toeing the line between examining closed systems and being itself too much of a closed system. As entertaining as it can be to watch Lanthimos spin countless gags out of his high concepts, his films also exude the predetermined feel of a filmmaker who has already reached conclusions about human nature before allegorizing them on the screen.
The Lobster may be about characters yearning to move beyond ideological extremes into uncharted emotional and physical terrain, but beyond a few unexpected sparks of life thrown out by the actors, the film itself remains remarkably pinched, both emotionally and intellectually. Any correspondence to the real world is strictly of the viewer’s own inference, because the ultra-controlling Lanthimos isn’t about to lay his cards on the table in at least even a sliver of an attempt to directly confront his audience with his supposedly oracular human insights. Perhaps, in the end, it isn’t only the characters in The Lobster who refuse to look beyond their own preconceived notions.