With his English-language debut The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos proves again to be an extremely original contributor to what’s been described as the Greek new wave. A new generation of willful Hellenic creatives, including among others Athina Rachel Tsangari and Panos H. Koutras, has been showing a particular fondness for weird premises and Lanthimos’ newest is no exception.
The Lobster gives us a wonderfully bizarre, only slightly dystopian universe in which coupledom is the reigning norm and singles have become social pariahs. People that lose their partner or get dumped, such as our hero David (a sheepish, moustachioed Colin Farrell), get shipped off to a resort with all of the other undesirables. Once a rather restricting questionnaire is over with (bisexuality is no longer an option since there have been application problems in the past), the dating and mating rituals may commence. If one fails to find a suitable partner by the end of 45 days, however, one will be turned into an animal of his or her own choosing. Not to worry though, for even as a part of the animal kingdom love and ultimate coupledom is still within reach. As long as one rule is adhered to: everyone sticks to their own kind. The hotel manager explains it as such: a wolf and a penguin, for example, couldn’t live together. “That would be absurd.” David quite fittingly chooses a lobster, an animal with surrealistic connotations up the wazoo (just think of Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone).
While the magical atmosphere of say a Resnais or Buñuel picture is definitely present, The Lobster never becomes alienating in its strangeness. The completely deadpan and earnest way Lanthimos has his actors deliver their lines eventually lifts the film above its own absurdity. By embracing odness as the standard for this alternate reality, these characters become more than awkward stick figures for us to grin at. As the film progresses we begin to look past the formal, often archaic ways David approaches possible girlfriends, or the exotic flamingos and camels – singletons who have failed to find their match – wandering through the woods in the background of the frame.
Though these satirical elements lend a light-heartedness to the film that’s typical of Lanthimos’ work, at times they give way to more jarring actions and effects. In order to earn extra days in the hotel to find their special someone, residents are sent out to the woods to hunt down so-called “loners”, a group of outlaws (led by an icy Léa Seydoux) who believe being single is better as fiercely as the hotel owners believe in the sanctity of the number two. In having this group be as rigid and ruthless in their convictions of what a love life should look like (non-existent), Lanthimos cleverly puts his finger on the conflicting morals of our Tinder-loving times: the search for an actual soul mate continues by flipping through an electronic leaflet and selecting a person based on a handful of simplistic defining characteristics. In The Lobsters relationship status– obsessed society, all romance and nuance fall by the wayside to make room for a stringent pragmatism.
Lanthimos moves beyond formalism and his intriguing conceptual premise by offering up an extremely stylized exaggeration, a sharp satire and a contemplation on compromise.