Yorgos Lanthimos’s films live and die by their concepts—or gimmicks, depending on your outlook. But while the conceptual framework of his fourth feature, The Lobster, shows little sign of innovation, the size of the canvas most certainly does. Working outside Greece for the first time, and with the potential pitfalls of a larger budget and a star-studded cast, Lanthimos navigates the tricky task of upsizing with aplomb, even if the felicitous expansion can’t quite mask the whiff of over-familiarity.
A wonderfully deadpan Colin Farrell leads the viewer into the high-concept arena step by step so that the proliferation of puckish parameters doesn’t get out of hand. His paunchy sad-sack David has just been left by his wife of 12 years, with little time being wasted before he’s rounded up and taken to the Hotel. Once there, he and the other singleton guests must meet and fall in love with someone new within the first 45 days or face being transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the unforgiving Woods outside. The stately, exclusive, yet still oddly dowdy Hotel exudes much the same feeling of quiet despair and bygone glory as its hapless inhabitants, though beneath the brown furnishings and fussy decor lies steel. Rules pervade every waking moment, proselytizing seminars extol the virtues of coupledom, and infractions of any kind can and will be punished. Aside from finding the “one,” the only hope of prolonging this hushed agony is to perform well in the nightly hunts in the Woods, where knocking out one of the Loners, an equally regimented group committed to total chastity, will gain you one extra day of freedom.
Conversations here revolve around simple exchanges of information rather than, God forbid, communication, with every line of the mordant, often laugh-out-loud dialogue delivered in the same expressionless monotone. This conveniently allows the international cast to speak as one, all regional twangs and foreign accents subsumed into a droll universe of blankness. Whether Hollywood stars (John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz), Lanthimos veterans (Ariane Labed, Aggeliki Papoulia), British sitcom familiars (Ashley Jensen, Olivia Colman), or French breakouts (Léa Seydoux), the actors are uniformly excellent, with each member of the ensemble making a striking impression, regardless of the size of their role. Equally notable are the hilariously disturbing set pieces with which Lathimos peppers the slow march to transformation: a woman pretending to choke on an olive in order to scope out a potential suitor, a slow-motion hunt sequence set to a French chanson, a bloody suicide leavened by screams of inconvenient distress. The sudden lurches into violence accentuate the underlying depravity to the proceedings, perfectly complemented by the stabbing strings that tear through the otherwise ceremonious orchestral soundtrack.
The idea that love has withered into discrete, tradable variables is an entirely apt one in this age of Internet dating and Tindr, even as the film concedes, if only in passing, that a new language of passion can still always be discovered. Although it’s hard to argue with presenting love as a set of ritualized actions you can’t help but cling to, this insight pales somewhat once you remember that Lanthimos has already performed much of the same operation on both family (Dogtooth) and death (Alps). Despite The Lobster’s innovations in terms of scale and breadth, there’s something oddly conservative about how Lanthimos continues to plug away at the same old structure: the progressive introduction of a tightly governed, deliberately dystopian group dynamic which becomes duly dismantled. While this time two different groups are subjected to disassembly, it’s telling that the film loses focus once the dismantling is complete. For all the charm that Weisz and Farrell manage to muster, their last-act wanderings still lack the bite of what’s come before. Formally, too, Lanthimos is oddly afraid to move out of his comfort zone, his dogged adherence to static and, by now, somewhat wearingly cropped framings also registering as timid rather than expansive.
Given the compromised, commercially minded nature of much of this year’s competition thus far, it’s hard to criticize Lanthimos for sticking to his guns so effectively. But with three of the biggest possible themes already having been pressed into the same old chassis, next time round you hope that this pony will have learnt some new tricks.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13—24.