Future dystopias are all the rage at movies these days, each one a hellscape intended, in one form or another, to comment on our current climate. “The Lobster” is like this too, though its dystopia correlates less to economics and politics, as is usually the case, than the dating game. Director Yorgos Lanthimos chronicles some seemingly not-too-distant future where relationships are required by law, a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, suggesting at least some progress has been made. It’s as if those people who stand back from the singles table at weddings with their arms crossed and sigh smugly at the mingling loveless now rule the world. Anyone not in a relationship because, say, they have divorced or had their marital partner die is immediately forced to visit the Hotel, some sort of Orwellian Sandals Resort where attendees are encouraged (forced) to find mutual attraction within 45 days or get turned into an animal.
This is where David (Colin Farrell) ends up, promptly advising the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) that he would like to become a lobster should his attempts to fall in love fail. Farrell plays the part with an agonizing reticence, speaking in a mechanized cadence as if he was the husband of a Stepford Wife made to play the straight man in a stuffy British sitcom. And everyone surrounding him is inflicted by these same robotic tendencies, including the woman narrating the story (Rachel Weisz), and who will later turn up in the flesh. There is no grand passion in her voice. When she employs “fuck” as a verb, she strains it every last gram of its traditional lewdness; she could just as easily be saying “flour”. These speech patterns taken in tandem with the unrelenting preciseness of Lanthimos’s aesthetic, from its screeching orchestral score to its meticulous camera movements to its uber-constructed costume design, lend the whole film a machinelike feeling, as if everyone and everything is pre-programmed. Nothing here feels all that natural, an idea connected directly to its presented society’s concept of romance.
Used to be, romance involved a certain amount of chance, blind luck, as so many old world rom coms would tell us, and more often than not, in the end, it would be proven that opposites attract. The society of “The Lobster”, however, thinks it impossible for opposites to attract. This is why each character is deliberately drawn one-dimensionally, a single physical attribute purposely standing in for their name, whether it’s Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) or Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) or Weisz’s Short-Sighted Woman. These traits define them, and so long as their trait matches someone else’s trait, the Hotel views them as a perfect match, which is exactly why people are more than willing to lie about these traits; anything for love.
They also do this, of course, to prevent becoming animals. Those of whom who fail in their matchmaking quest dot the forest out back in their new bodily form, along with the human Loners, sort of the French Resistance of The Lobster’s dystopia, a wooded area where single people who have fled the Hotel gather, free from the oppressive lament of “You don’t want to be alone for the rest of your life, do you?" Of course, the resistance quickly reveals its own oppressive state, reflected in the Leader (Lea Seydoux), who sets down rules as insistent as the Hotel Owner’s. The Leader doesn’t want anyone to be in a relationship, as if the sight of all those happy couples holding hands has embittered her to the point of no return.
And as this, a scathing two-pronged attack against the ancient insistence on pairing off no matter what because that’s what you do and against the current computerized manner in which we go about pairing off, “The Lobster” works well, brutally unmasking how trying to so desperately force everyone into a relationship for the sake of the relationship itself yields a scarily unfeeling society. If these ideas have been dissected before, they have never been rendered with such a drab brutality. The problem, however, becomes as “The Lobster” progresses and attempts to give its characters free will over this repressive culture.
The film’s form is so rigid, and its actors so adherent to that rigidity, that as they gradually recognize their supposed passions, they feel as if they are still bound too tightly to the film’s aesthetic precision to truly act out. They are never allowed to feel; they are still just acting on orders. By the time the perfunctory conclusion arrives, and we are reminded for the umpteenth time that true love conquers all, it feels as insultingly laborious as all those couples who tell all those single people, “There really is someone out there for each of us.”