The Lobster imagines a bizarre and disturbing dystopia in which being single is a crime, punishable by being turned into an animal. Its black comedy satirises society’s insistence that everyone ‘couple-up’, with Colin Farrell and a mostly British cast keeping admirably straight faces throughout.
With echoes of Orwell’s 1984 the world of The Lobster is a washed-out, joyless, rule-bound one, punctuated by violent punishment for its transgressors. Instead of the Thought Police, it has the Marriage Police, swooping on suspected single people and demanding to see their marriage certificates. The recently bereaved, like David (Colin Farrell) are sent to The Hotel to find a mate with whom they share a defining characteristic. He is assigned to Room 101.
Guests are given 45 days to find love, but they can extend this period by hunting and shooting dissident ‘loners’ in the nearby woods using tranquiliser guns. After attempting a disastrous courtship with The Heartless Woman, David escapes to join the loners, but does not find freedom. In ‘loner land’ sexual intimacy or dancing with others are both strictly prohibited, though masturbation — a crime punishable by having your fingers toasted at The Hotel — is allowed.
David falls in love with another loner (Rachel Weisz) who is short-sighted like himself, and they try to find a way to be ‘a couple’, despite the many obstacles in their way.
The film’s title refers to the animal that David chooses to be turned into, should he fail to find a mate. Lobsters live for 100 years, stay fertile and have blue blood, he reasons. Most people choose dogs, the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) tells him, and that is ‘why there are so many dogs in the world’ and why other more unusual species are endangered. There is an ‘Animal Transformation’ room in the Hotel, but we do not see what goes on inside. Animal lovers beware, though, as the film contains scenes you might find upsetting.
Winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, The Lobster features a terrific ensemble cast. It’s always a pleasure to see the lived-in face of John C. Reilly (Lisping Man) and rising British talents Ben Wishaw (The Limping Man) and Jessica Barden (Nosebleed Woman), so good in Tamara Drewe and Hanna. Filmed on locations in Dublin and County Kerry the film effectively uses a grey/green palate and a score full of classical pieces with discordant strings to reinforce its peculiar atmosphere and unsettle the audience.
Enjoyably daft scenes in The Hotel hammer the satirical point home. Staff act out scenes on stage to illustrate why two is better than one: a man eating on his own chokes on his imaginary food. Without anyone to help him, he dies. But when the same man is part of a couple, his wife is able to save his life by performing the Heimlich manoeuvre.
Greek director/writer Yorgos Lanthimos successfully sustains this bizarre world, one in which his actors consistently deliver their lines deadpan. This monotone can be very funny, as when The Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen) discloses her sexual specialities to David as if reading a shopping list; or when he comments on her suicide attempt: ‘there’s blood and biscuits everywhere.’ But this lack of verbal variety can also be, well, a bit monotonous. At two hours The Lobster is a little overlong and by the end I found myself longing for some human warmth. The only smile in the film comes from The Lady with the Beautiful Smile.