Six years ago, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos arrived with a bang into international cinema with "Dogtooth," a pitch-black drama that won acclaim around the world and the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes. 2011's follow up "Alps" was more divisive (though we loved it), but Lanthimos is one of most original talents to have emerged in cinema in recent years —his English-language debut "The Lobster" bolsters his status.
There is a vein of dark humour running through Lanthimos' earlier films, but "The Lobster" embraces it wholeheartedly: the film's a blend of the works of Charlie Kaufman and Luis Buñuel, an uproarious yet deadpan satire concerning societal constructs, dating mores and power structures that also manages to be a surprisingly moving, gloriously weird love story.
Overseen by a stern Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman), he soon befriends Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and Lisping Man (John C Reilly), and scouts out the possibilities —the young Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), the desperate Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), and the chilly Heartless Woman (Aggeliki Papoulia, star of "Dogtooth" and "Alps"). The "guests" can also buy extra time on a hunt: for every Loner —guests who've left the hotel and rejected the system— that they bag in the woods with a tranquilizer dart, they receive a reprieve of one day.
It's an absurd premise, but one that Lanthimos and his game cast commit to with gusto: this strange not-quite-dystopia is surreal, but there's a rigorous internal logic at work, and the script painstakingly builds a world that stretches far beyond the frame of what we're seeing on screen. In part, it's thanks to the formal, straight-ahead language that every character uses: this is a world without much in the way of subtext or uncertainty (when checking in, Farrell is told that being bisexual isn't an option and that he can't have half shoe sizes), where the most passionate statements are made with coded gestures rather than words, and it does much to complete the film's milieu.
The early sections of the film set in the hotel sees Lanthimos mercilessly skewering modern relationship culture. For all the film's absurdity, it depicts a society that insists that you're not complete if you're not in a couple, where you fixate on surface similarities in the hope of a connection, and where you play pretend and try to change yourself in the hope of proving more compatible. That's not exactly a world that's going to be unfamiliar to audiences, now, is it? It helps that the film is very, very funny, and not in an uneasy-laugh or mild-chuckle kind of way: though there's darkness and even violence here, it's first and foremost a comedy, and the script is packed with excellent jokes, from wry throwaway observations (the final test for a couple at the hotel is to be sent on a vacation together, and if arguments ensue they can be "assigned" children) to broader physical bits —John C. Reilly's background with Adam McKay and Tim & Eric proves particularly useful here, even among a perfectly deadpan cast.
But this isn't all that "The Lobster" has to offer. It's a film of two halves, shifting gears and locations abruptly in the second half and introducing a second society of the woods-dwelling Loners (which includes Lea Seydoux, Michael Smiley and Rachel Weisz, also the film's narrator), who shun relationships and plot their revenge on the couples.
It's here that Lanthimos makes clear that the film's talking about bigger things than modern relationships. The Loners have their own strict rules and brutal punishments for those that break them, and as the movie mutates into a surprisingly affecting and complex romance, one realizes that the director is setting his sights more than anything on societal structure, the ways that those in power cling to it, and even fundamentalism (the latter making it an unlikely companion piece to the other early Cannes highlight "Mad Max: Fury Road").
I's impeccably crafted —from its Bernard Hermann-ish score to the carefully composed but never airless imagery. The cast don't have a weak link among them either —Farrell, as a dadbod-sporting Everyman with a dark side, delivers his best performance yet, while a quietly sleazy Whishaw, the gloriously schoolmarmish Colman, and the tragic Jensen are among the particular highlights.
In the end, all the strangeness adds up towards something genuinely significant: an atypically rich and substantial comedy that's stuffed with great scenes and performances even before you start to chew on its bigger questions. It's Lanthimos' most accessible and purely enjoyable film yet, and the first great relationship movie of the Tinder and match.com age. At one point, a character is asked what she wants to do on the night before she turns into an animal, and responds that she'd like to watch the movie "Stand By Me." If "The Lobster" was the last film put before us before we were transformed into a pony, we wouldn't complain. [A]