How often do you see a movie so original, audacious and philosophic that it defies comparison? Do you even want pictures like that? (Most Americans don’t.) I may overrate them, because I see so few: To a thirsty man in a desert, all water tastes refreshing.
So I was caught up almost immediately in “The Lobster,” a movie as prickly and difficult to approach as the title character. If you hate it – and I’d say readers will divide 50-50, especially as it feels a little long – please don’t complain. I am warning you and encouraging you to try it at the same time.
I missed “Dogtooth,” an Oscar-nominated 2009 drama by writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos. (Like “Lobster,” he wrote it with Efthymis Filippou.) It’s about parents who won’t let their kids leave their house and yard, and it has been interpreted as a political allegory about their native Greece.
They make their English-language debut with “Lobster,” set in and around The City in an undefined future. Society requires everyone to live in pairs: The recently divorced or widowed get taken to The Hotel, a comfortable resort where they have 45 days to find a suitable mate before they are turned into animals and set loose in the nearby woods.
David (Colin Farrell) doesn’t seem troubled by the potential transformation. He has opted to become a lobster if he doesn’t pair up, and he’s halfway there emotionally: He’s solitary, slow-moving, placid, impersonal. Only after he bolts from the hotel under the pressure of severe punishment to join The Loners in the forest does he connect with another person, whom we know as Short-Sighted Woman. (Most characters are named for traits, which reduces their humanity: Lisping Man, Limping Man, etc.)
Lanthimos and Filippou have thoroughly imagined their world. Security guards politely stop single people in malls to ask for proof that they’re part of a couple, and the Loners’ leader (Léa Seydoux) can mooch from her tolerant parents only by pretending to have a lover. Employees at The Hotel enact rituals that show how much better we are together: a choking incident resolved by a Heimlich maneuver, a rape averted by the presence of a companion.
Yet even the Loners, who prize independence, adhere to fanatical codes: They all have to dance at the same time, listening to their earbuds and never touching, while kissing incurs a savage penalty. In response to social tyranny, they construct a tyranny of their own. This, too, could be political allegory – perhaps a general warning never to follow one leader too far.
Even more troubling is the absence of love in these couplings, at least until David gets to know Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Nobody speaks of love, merely of mating. And people define themselves by quirks and shortcomings, which they are expected to share: A man who wants to pair off with Nosebleed Woman bangs his face against a night stand until his nose, too, oozes blood.
The ending leaves us completely in suspense about David’s fate. He hesitates between the dictates of his long-dormant but finally awakened heart and anxiety about a sacrifice he’s expected to make. He can remain in his protective shell or shed it and trust he’ll survive, and neither choice assures happiness in this bizarre universe.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou.
Length: 118 minutes.
Rating: R (sexual content including dialogue, and some violence).