In a bleak rocky landscape – moors and dark seas – David (Colin Farrell) is single. Sent to the strange, austere Hotel (run by Olivia Colman’s aptly named ‘Hotel Manager’) he has forty-five days to find an appropriate mate. By appropriate, the two partners must have a matching attribute – nosebleeds, a lisp, short-sightedness, the usual. To earn more days, these short-term residents are called for regular hunts in the nearby woods, where the loners reside, their bodies shot with tranquilizer and dragged back to the hotel for an early fast-track to the residents potential fate: to be turned into an animal of their choice.
After a catastrophic series of hours with his first potential partner, David flees the Hotel, becoming a member of the loners in the woods (led by a brilliantly rancorous Lea Seydoux) who follow an equally binding set of rules. While the city requires every citizen to be in a relationship, the loners are forbidden from intimate contact. Conversations, yes, but no partnerships. They must dig their own graves.
But David sees something in Rachel Weisz’s Short-Sighted Woman that he cannot simply push to the back of his mind. Their matching attributes for a start (he wears glasses) suggest some kind of connection. And as his loyalty to her grows, so does their risk of being caught.
Despite sounding like the plot of an annoying offbeat Channel 4 series (disclaimer: not all Channel 4 series are annoying or offbeat), the film has undeniable charm. It cannot really be pigeon-holed into one genre; it crosses the borders of (exceptionally) dark comedy and dystopian science-fiction with director Yorgos Lanthimos’ elegant flourishes and unbelievably dry script. Farrell’s David is in fact the only character to be named, our protagonist amidst a disjointed world of followers and runaways. The Hotel’s occupants are strangely calm – all except the understandably panicked but rather irritating Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen) – sunbathing, swimming and playing golf while their morning countdown alarm awakens them to another day of soul-matching monotony. And it’s not just their days that are monotonous; each voice has an obvious flatness, words spoken with almost no emotion, this world they have been born into a leech for passion and feeling.
That’s not to say the film isn’t incredibly funny. Because it is. That knife-edge black humour plays out memorably in an early scene in which Colman’s Manager and her husband sing a lumbering duet for their dancing guests, many desperately trying to use the evening as a change to find a partner, a light choreographed sway assumed to the beat of the track. With the notion of the guests looming fate in mind, on a scale of awkwardness, the scene registers somewhere around the David Brent mark. Other on-stage hotel scenes leave a disturbing taste, spiced with laughter, rather alarmingly involving the hotel staff performing strange demonstrations of life with and without a partner. You can imagine the wonderful ludicrousness.
Lanthimos has always emphasised his wish to leave the audience to discuss the questions his films spark; in his directorial debut, Dogooth, it was the re-imagining of the middle class family, the parents entrapping their now adult children in the secluded family home where trips to the outside world were not permitted. The Lobster is expectedly no different. Ending suddenly on a gruesome shot of David staring in the mirror, the two titular words silently plunge the audience down varying paths of David’s face. Lanthimos states it is about noticing what kind of person you are: an optimist or pessimist. The same could be said of which camp one may choose: to follow the rules of society or branch off to follow the rules of a random leader. In our world, the pressure for single people to be in a relationship still exists and the Farrell-dubbed “narcissistic” approach to dating through online platforms doesn’t exactly help. Neither basing love solely on shared hobbies nor lying about your attributes (as Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man elucidates, striking his head violently on tables to make his nose bleed, just like his ‘match’ – think dating profiles with pictures thirty years out of date) is not always the basis for a lasting love affair. Surprisingly.
For a film so swamped in the bizarre, the love story between David and Short-Sighted Woman is oddly real – oddly romantic. Perhaps it is their mutual break from both norms (the wider society and their inner loner society) that makes their love the most true, of the film’s world at least. But with too many images of idealistic relationships peppering our everyday lives – adverts are a killer – Lanthimos’ exploration of environment and regulations is something that will not be forgotten any time soon.