The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos likes to unsettle. His films often throw his audience into the middle of surreal alternate realities, and his first English-language feature, “The Lobster”, is no exception. It comes after “Dogtooth” (2009), which follows a father’s psychotic captivity of his family, and “Alps” (2011), about a group of actors who help the bereaved by impersonating their deceased loved ones. His latest film, which won the Jury prize at Cannes, eclipses them both.
“The Lobster” is exultingly weird. It follows the inhabitants of a hotel in which single people are given 45 days to find a partner among the other guests, or they will be turned into an animal of their choice. The title refers to the animal chosen by David (Colin Farrell, pictured, left, paunchy and moustachioed almost beyond recognition). Lobsters, he reasons, live for over 100 years and are “blue-blooded, like aristocrats”. In order to buy more time to find a match, the guests are sent on daily hunts to track and tranquilise escaped singles, known as Loners, living in the surrounding forests. One captured Loner equals one more day at the hotel.
It’s an inventive satire on the cachet we ascribe to being in a relationship and the lengths to which we’ll go to avoid loneliness. In the world of “The Lobster”, partner compatibility is based on the most superficial similarities: maths proficiency, for instance, or having a nice singing voice. In one excellent scene the hotel manager, played brilliantly by Olivia Colman, sings “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” to her husband with all the warmth of a morgue drawer.
However, after the first hour, when David escapes and joins the gaggle of Loners, the film takes a disappointing turn. In the hotel, Lanthimos has taken care to create order in his peculiar world. The hotel’s staff establish its rules and reasons for being – and the premise of the drama – in their orientation speeches to incoming guests. But in the forest, things stop making sense. We don’t understand why the Loners’ villainous leader (Léa Seydoux) insists that her followers remain romantically unattached, nor why they stay with her after she punishes those who fall for each other. What’s even more strange is that the Loners frequently sneak into the City – the happy metropolis where couples live freely – in the guise of lovers in order to get supplies. Why, we’re left to ask, don’t Farrell and Weisz simply up sticks and move there, away from Seydoux’s clutches? As the premise unravels the plot loses momentum, and the film’s weirdness starts to feel contrived.
This lopsidedness is a failing found in two other higher-profile releases in the last year: Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”. Like “The Lobster”, they are slick, good-looking sci-fi films driven by a “what if” conceit: what if travel through wormholes enabled a search for a new Earth? What if aliens put human beings on the planet? What if you had 45 days to find a partner or be turned into an animal? Yet the last hour of “Interstellar” left many viewers flummoxed as the film ventured beyond the laws of Einsteinian physics that got it going. And, for every question “Prometheus” answered, two more took its place, like a tedious plot-hole Hydra. Lanthimos doesn’t let things slide quite so spectacularly, but the pitfall is the same: these are movies that begin with a bold and convincing idea, but whose poor final acts mean that the drama is all but sapped dry by the time the credits roll.
The weak second half of “The Lobster” is an avoidable hazard: by allowing the film to open out and encompass the forest and the City beyond it, Lanthimos stops playing by his own rules. It’s a shame, because it begins as an extraordinary, unusual, write-home-about film. Indeed, on the strength of its first hour “The Lobster” is worth a visit to the cinema. But perhaps not on a first date.
The Lobster is out now