Technology has made finding relationships easier than before, yet also far more difficult to sustain. Less than a day before writing this review, my boyfriend broke up with me. It took eight months to realise that we are completely different people with different interests, with the realisation of our incompatibility unwelcome but inevitable. If I hadn’t seen The Lobster, the English language debut of Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos, just days before this occurred I would very likely have been an emotional wreck.
Instead, The Lobster is the kind of movie that can cure anybody going through a period of messy emotional distress, due to how sharply it satirises the ritualistic natures of relationships and single-life, taking its parody to levels of science-fiction extremity.
The dark horror behind online dating
For a generation gleamed on either online dating, where compatibility on mutual interests is the sole judge of a relationship, or Tinder, where the ideal partner could be just a swipe to the right away, The Lobster is the definitive portrayal of the current generational pressure from society to find the perfect match – a pressure that has been amplified through the proliferation of technology. Only by taking these pressures to their most ridiculous extremes are we able to understand how unhealthy they are and how we will always be doomed to romantic disappointment if we judge prospective partners solely on surface levels.
The Lobster is a movie that would be utterly depressing if it weren’t so hysterical, with the adoption of Lanthimos’ trademark deadpan humour only highlighting that, although this is hilarious for the viewer, for the characters this is a depressing reality that only seems funny to us because of how alien it all seems. It may be set in an a seemingly alien landscape, but as with all great science fiction, this is definitively a parody of modern society hidden under the pretension of a distant future.
After his partner of 12 years breaks up with him, sad-sack David (Colin Farrell) is sent to a hotel on the outskirts of his city where he is given 45 days to find an ideal partner. If he fails, he will get “transformed” into an animal of his choice and sent to live in the woods surrounding the hotel, although he can negotiate a longer stay by killing any of the rogue singletons living in the woods nearby.
The rules for finding a partner in the hotel are simple: they both need to share a character trait, which in the case of David is shortsightedness, then have the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) determine whether or not they are a suitable match. If they gain approval, the couple get to move to a different part of the hotel for 30 days, are assigned children to resolve any arguments (“children always help”) and then finally sent back to the city to live happily ever after.
A work of superior science fiction hidden beneath the laughs
This conceit is ingenious on its own, but what helps elevate it past the realms of high-concept comedy are the little details Lanthimos crafts into the bizarre operative rules of this society. These range from the gruesomely hilarious – masturbation is outlawed and anybody caught doing it will have their hands forced into a toaster in front of everybody, to throwaway details that give you plenty of information into the lack of societal functionality, such as the hotel only providing separate straight and gay options, with a bisexual option outlawed due to previous problems with their dating system.
Frequently, the movie is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “earlier, funny ones”, sharing Sleeper’s societal parody and jokes of a dystopian future eerily reminiscent to the mundanities of the present. The movie is more obviously a nod towards George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four; David is staying in hotel room 101, whilst the latter half of the film concerns him trying to find the ideal partner in a devout singleton (Rachel Weisz), somebody he hasn’t been officially matched with and who society refuses to let him be with. The fact that single hotel visitors are subjected to propaganda performance art about the benefits of developing a love life only furthers the surreal extensions of this Orwellian society.
The Lobster is a rare case of a director moving into a different language for the first time and delivering their definitive work to date, definitively proving that he has a distinctive directorial sensibility. Lanthimos is obsessed with the nature of human interaction, with his two international breakthrough films, Dogtooth and Alps, taking the themes of family relationships and bereavement in order to push them towards their natural dissolution point. He maintains an oddball sense of humour throughout his movies, because there is no natural way to react to any of the heightened situations he presents. He doesn’t hold a mirror up to society so much as he breaks it into shards of glass and warns us that the warped reflection is what we threaten to become.
The deadpan humour that has become Lanthimos’s trademark is so dry that it is entirely possible new viewers could mistake any of his movies to be something other than comedy. During The Lobster’s most shocking sequences, including an ending that made the entire audience at my screening cringe louder than any audience I’ve heard before, he maintains an element of ironic detachment that seems more akin to David Cronenberg.
Yet, even though Lanthimos gives his characters mannered speech patterns and surrealistic dialogue, I remained emotionally involved with the story, something which has not happened with any of his other works I have seen, despite their clear merits. Ironic detachment doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about these characters; here it is employed merely to soften the harsh blow of their reality, which by extension is a parody of our very own.
The film is elevated past his previous work due to an astonishing cast list who commit fully to the madness. Farrell delivers his best performance since In Bruges, playing David as the audience surrogate, the everyman as bewildered by how his world functions as we are. Elsewhere we have supporting roles from Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly and Lea Sedoux, all of whom adapt brilliantly to this bizarre comedic sensibility, delivering laughs by playing characters unaware of the inherent ridiculousness of their living circumstances. For me, Olivia Colman quietly stole the show as the hotel manager; a career in British comedy has ensured that she is the best attuned to deadpan, yet it is a marvel as to how she still manages to keep a straight face when given some of the most brilliantly silly dialogue of the year.
So as the age of technology continues, movies dealing with love in an online world are becoming too much of a cliché. Not only has Yorgos Lanthimos found a brilliant new way to communicate the deep emotional unrest in society, but he has done it in a way that is both hilarious and quietly profound.
What are the best break-up movies? What are the funniest sci-fi movies?
The Lobster is out now in the UK. All international release dates are here.
(top image source: Picturehouse Entertainment)
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema - get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.
Alistair is a 25 year old writer based in Cambridge. He has been writing about film since the start of 2014, and in addition to Film Inquiry, regularly contributes to Gay Essential and The Digital Fix, with additional bylines in Film Stories, the BFI and Vague Visages. Because of his work for Film Inquiry, he is a recognised member of GALECA, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics' Association.