Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw

After his relationship collapses, David (a paunchy, mustached Colin Farrell) is taken from his home in The City to The Hotel, a remote resort where he, along with the other unfortunate singles on site, has 45 days to find a new life partner. Anyone who is still flying solo at the end of the period is turned into the animal of their choice, forsaking their humanity forever.

Carefully navigating the stringent rules of conduct enforced by the hotel’s manager (Olivia Colman), David struggles to find a match, but does from tenuous friendships with two other hapless singles, one who lisps (John C. Reilly) and one who limps (Ben Whishaw). Still, as romance eludes him and the clock marches on, David begins to think he would prefer the company of the renegade Loners who live in The Woods, and who live by their own strict rules that forbid intimacy of any kind.

Saying that The Lobster* is an allegory is like saying that it’s shot in colour: it’s plainly obvious from the get-go. It’s an extremely mannered and oblique film, and your enjoyment of the proceedings depends largely on whether you’re on board with this kind of openly artificial story construction or not.

Certainly, if you’re familiar with the previous works of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, you have an idea of what to expect. His best known prior works, Dogtooth and Attenberg, offered no easy paths of ingress for the viewer, and The Lobster is much the same. It offers up its secrets reluctantly, leaving us to fumble our way through its bizarre world and learn its laws.

And what laws they are. The hotel operates under a tyrannical set of regulations – clothing, interactions and activities are all micromanaged into the ground, with horrible consequences for transgressors – witness what happens to Reilly’s character when he’s caught out masturbating in his room. Lanthimos works to make the hidden conventions and superficialities of the social world overt: everyone is defined by their one, most notable characteristic; everyone is trying to find wiggle room within the constraints of the norms and yet terrified of the consequences; everyone is tired, everyone is beaten down by putting on a brave face.

Thus the world of the loners – militant celibates who conduct a low intensity guerrilla war against The Hotel and The City – seems like a saner choice. Yet they too are bound by their own ideological taboos, enforced by their unsmiling leader (Lea Seydoux) and her 2IC (Michael Smiley, and it’s always a pleasure to see him crop up). Here David finally finds love with Rachel Weisz’s narrator – in defiance of the Loners’ raison d’etre.

And it’s here that The Lobster‘s core concern reveals itself. It’s a love story, yes, and a blacker than black comedy, for sure, but at the end of the day the kernel of the story is the old freedom vs control tango – the freedom to love or to not love, to be alone or to be together, to be intimate or to be aloof, to jerk it in a hotel room without being publicly shamed, to seek love at your own pace, to act upon it when you find it.  The Hotel people and the Loners are set up as binary opposites, but in reality they’re remarkably similar, stamping down on perceived deviance with ruthless brutality. The illusion of choice is no choice at all, and the ability to actually make our own decisions, however fleeting, however small, is the only thing of real value – a truth that makes the film’s closing moments so affecting and powerful. The Lobster is an extraordinary work, one that transcends the distance of artifice to land with an almost physical punch.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

*That’s his animal of choice, by the way.

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