Award-winning Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015), entering the hotly contested race for this year’s coveted Palme d’Or, is an absurdist comedy set in a world in which being single is forbidden. Colin Farrell plays David, an architect who – on separating from his partner – is taken to a hotel where, along with other singles, he must find a partner or be transformed into an animal of his choosing. He chooses the titular lobster. The singles spend their time at the hotel undergoing almost punitive social mixing, uncomfortable small talk and watching staff-led vignettes on the benefits of being a couple (the Heimlich maneuver being a particularly strong argument). They also go hunting for loners.
However, it’s during the latter half of the film – when David tries a bid for freedom in the woods – that The Lobster becomes bolder and even more ambitious. Here David meets a short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) who inspires him with the possibility of love, but the loners with whom he meets up with have their own set of rules which are just as violent and ridiculous as those from which he was escaping. The woods and wilds are beautifully rendered, with out of place animals wandering through the foreground. The film is packed with ideas, recalling Kafka, Beckett and Orwell – both Animal Farm and 1984 – and demands an almost immediate rewatch. From the oddness of its initial high concept, the Greek director and his cast never blink. Lanthimos regulars Ariane Labed and Angeliki Papoulia join more familiar stars (Léa Seydoux and Olivia Williams also get prominent roles) in an international cast. They’re all utterly convincing, committed to the strange underwater emotional universe. All the characters have the naïve simplicity and cruelty of children playing a Lord of the Flies-style zero sum game. Or perhaps like people who are asleep and know they are only dreaming.
Everything is framed meticulously and a voiceover further distances us from the characters as it redundantly repeats a conversation we’ve already heard, or lets us in on a character’s banal thought. And yet, when all is said and done, The Lobster is about the power of love to outlive the most repressive strictures of relationships as defined by culture and ideology. Lanthimos’ films often show a group of individuals make their own alternate reality based on a strict set of rules that veer between game play and oppressive cruelty. In Dogtooth (2009) it was the toxic nuclear family, led by an abusive patriarch; in Alps (2011) a group of committed amateurs replacing the dead with their own awkwardly conceived play acting. The claustrophobia of these airless worlds has been at times amusing but often stifling. However, with The Lobster Lanthimos has broadened his scope and has created a marvellously bleak, bizarre comedy.