Like the diabolical spawn of Franz Kafka and Michael Haneke, the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos sets unfortunate humans loose in mazes of arbitrary, absurd authority and films them with an indifference that borders on cruelty. But whereas Haneke shines his clinical light on the modern bourgeoisie, Lanthimos contrives wildly speculative social orders. He slowly reveals their baroque lineaments through keen slices of life, unencumbered by exposition. As a result, we encounter image after image of sublime strangeness, drifting like stray dreams until the context they adumbrate comes into focus. The sense is not of watching a drama, but of being plunged into in a familiar yet alien place, learning it as you go.
In Lanthimos’s Oscar-nominated prior film, Dogtooth, we wonder at scenes of people throwing food over a wall. Eventually, we gather that they believe they have a brother outside of the closed compound where they’ve been raised. The Lobster, Lanthimos’s much discussed new film — and his first in English, with Hollywood actors — is also concerned with power in isolation, and it begins with another seeming non sequitur. Someone drives to a field where two donkeys are standing and shoots one of them. The image comes back to mind with haunting new clarity after the context is colored in, perhaps more quickly than in Dogtooth. (Lanthimos’s work remains very weird, but this is a mainstream film, after all.) By adopting a clinical stance toward societies with bizarre rules, he throws our own society’s vagaries into relief. His scenarios work as pointed satires, but they also have their own verisimilitude, glittering with finely imagined details, searing images, and profound, relatable emotions.
Lanthimos’s vision is so garish that The Lobster’s inspirations might be most briefly described as Doctor Moreau and B.F. Skinner captaining the Love Boat through the mind of Orwell. The newly divorced David (Colin Farrell, clouded by quite a few extra pounds and a kind of dazed intelligence) shows up at a hotel, accompanied by a collie that, we soon learn, is his brother. Residents of the hotel have forty-five days to meet an apt mate, apparently by totalitarian fiat. Ridiculous rules are severely enforced; David gets his hand burned in a toaster for masturbating. Those who fail to pair off are transformed, somehow, into animals, though they can earn extra time by capturing rebels with tranquilizer darts in the surrounding woods.
Discovering all of this paints the opening scene, and many others, in a sinister light. Who were the two donkeys, and why did the woman shoot one of them? A love triangle? And what’s the story with David’s brother? We never learn. Time and again, seemingly errant details crack open new stories that the viewer is tasked with filling in. In one internal cliffhanger, two characters vanish from the film right after one fires a gun, which turns out to be empty, at the other. Lanthimos treats stories like the visible portions of infinite lines, which gives his otherwise airless premises valves through which the viewer’s imagination can embellish and expand.
The Lobster is a very strange film to find in multiplexes. It’s a mark of the persuasive power of Lanthimos’s idiosyncrasies that they survive the transition. The likeness to Dogtooth doesn’t end with the interrogation of authority and conformity. In both films, a perfectly deadpan tone sharpens the sadness while rendering it tolerable with lacerating humor. In English, as in Greek, the actors deliver plain, off-kilter lines with subtle flatness, heightening the impact of violent outbursts. A woman in Dogtooth smashed her tooth out, a desperate finessing of her father’s rules; a man in The Lobster smashes his face to fake a match with a woman who gets nosebleeds. The echoes go on — both films feature outlandish dance scenes, impersonal regulated sex, and fearless ambiguous endings that force you to fall back on your own convictions and capacities to resolve them.
The dystopian movie has become a reliable Hollywood staple, often with a starkly good rebellion toppling a starkly evil order. But the only difference between a utopia and a dystopia is the storyteller. The Lobster toys with the momentum of Hollywood archetypes in its second half, after David flees to woods, where he fights desperately with forces from the hotel and courts the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) with offerings of hunted rabbits, some of whom were surely people recently. Most obviously, the film burlesques society’s scorn for single people and the capriciousness of coupling: suitability in a mate is based on odd superficial qualities, such as a limp or a lisp. But Lanthimos complicates that one-sided view, painting the loners just as bleakly as the oppressors. Completely forfeiting mainstream life, they punish each other grotesquely for romantic intimacy, posing stiffly as couples to infiltrate the city for supplies.
None of the characters ever seem to question their state of being, and if this world contains a third faction where people can couple or not as they choose, Lanthimos doesn’t show it. His critique of polarization, whether of political parties and genders or relationship statuses, clearly applies to timely issues in the real world. But it also suits what seems to be his real motive, to illuminate human nature — its entwined essences of selfishness and loneliness, cruelty and desire — however fleetingly, on a binary lightning field where the only escape from the system is built into the system.
The Lobster’s enduring magic is in its inimitable blend of comedy, bitterness, and poignancy. Eerie, sublime, painterly scenes condense off of the rules and rites of this world, passing with ephemeral grace through the frame. We briefly meet a woman who is defined by her hair. Later, we glimpse a horse with a beautiful blonde mane. Behind the human pageant, the animals wandering silently through the forest grow increasingly exotic, first peacocks, then camels. The ominous chords of a Beethoven adagio keep breathing in, making droll remarks about the volatile substance of banality and suffering onscreen. The movement was inspired by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet — one of many hidden layers of tragicomic context in a film that unerringly pursues its own logical end and then goes further, in a leap of faith.