Does anything break through the glum satire and unremitting deadpan that cover "The Lobster" like the gray Irish skies that hover over it?
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' first English-language film begins with a distraught woman driving through the rain. She gets out on a remote plain, walks up to a donkey and shoots it right in the face. It's a brutal announcement of the absurdity to come. This is a film for neither lovers nor animal lovers.
In "The Lobster," a "Saturday Night Live" sketch carried out with the severity of Antonioni, singlehood is outlawed. The lonely and divorced are rounded up in white vans and brought to a country resort where they have 45 days to meet a mate or they will then be turned into an animal of their choosing.
The questions at check-in go like this: "Have you ever been on your own before? Are you allergic to any foods?" Rules include that volleyball and tennis courts are reserved for couples only, and that crossbreeding species — a wolf and a penguin, a camel and a hippo — isn't allowed. "That would be absurd," says the hotel manager (Olivia Colman).
The style here is at once gleefully bonkers and grimly banal. Though "The Lobster" has been called a dystopia, there are no fantastical elements besides its extreme conceit, a savage parody of our coupling obsession.
At the hotel, people pair off based on only the most superficial commonalities like robotic Tinder users. John C. Reilly is identified only as the Lisping Man; Ben Whishaw as the Limping Man. They seek others with the same characteristic. When the Limping Man meets a woman who suffers from nosebleeds, he takes to smacking his head against tables.
Successful couples speak of vacations together — the ultimate prize for a "happy" couple — with awe-inspiring pride. In between awkward courtships and punitive tactics (masturbation is punished by putting the perpetrator's hand in a toaster) are hunting excursions into the woods to shoot "loners."
David (Colin Farrell) is brought to the hotel after his wife leaves him. Lanthimos has drained away almost all of Farrell's charisma (he's here a little heavier, with glasses and a mustache) leaving just his fragility. Should he fail, he chooses a lobster, he explains, because they will live over 100 years, are blue-blooded "like aristocrats" and stay fertile all their lives. "I also like the sea very much," he says.
If all of this didn't yet sound strange enough, there's also an arch, literary narration (Rachel Weisz, who turns up later) and heavy jabs of Beethoven and Shostakovich throughout. When David finds a band of rebel loners hiding out in the woods, they turn out to be no less militaristic.
In "The Lobster," Lanthimos brings his unique blend of macabre and satire to love and marriage, just as he did to family in the Oscar-nominated "Dogtooth" and to death in "Alps." In the latter, a business's employees impersonate the dead to aid mourners in their grief.
His commitment to his high-concept tragicomedies is extraordinary. A large part of the entertainment of "The Lobster" comes from marveling at a director having the audacity to stretch such absurdity so far until, well, there's Colin Farrell kicking a child. The ideas are built into the impersonal filmmaking, too; the characters are intentionally detached and speak monotonously — automatons in a rigid system of courtship.
There is, though, a feeling of a thesis being laid out, a joke (albeit an astute and meaningful one) stretched too long, with no deeper level to be found, just a series of heavy-handed shocks. The final scene scratches at something — that these characters are capable of love but they're too trapped in its social conventions to find it.
Still, perhaps Chris Rock said it better and more succinctly: "You can be married and bored or single and lonely. Ain't no happiness nowhere."
What: "The Lobster." Directed by Yirgos Lanthimos. An A24 release
With: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw
Star rating (out of four): •
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "sexual content including dialogue, and some violence"
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes
Playing at: Images Cinema (Williamstown)