Jokes about whether or not you can crack it will inevitably follow ‘The Lobster’ into cinemas – where audiences will have to decide whether the film’s deadpan weirdness and high-concept ruminations on love and life are for them or not. This is the first English-language film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (‘Dogtooth’) and it’s shot in Ireland, although we’re never told that explicitly. It has an eye-grabbing ensemble cast – Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Ben Whishaw included – and for about an hour of its near-two-hour running time it’s deliciously engaging and sharp, mixing awkward chuckles with sinister chills. But it’s tough to maintain the sort of conceit on which ‘The Lobster’ rides, and the film feels spent long before the credits roll.
It’s set now, in and around an edge-of-town hotel, noteworthy only for its lack of noteworthiness. But look beyond the bland carpets and you’ll find that there’s a strange system at play: it’s compulsory for singles to check in here to find a partner, under the eye of tyrannical staff – footsoldiers for a tyranny of coupledom. If you’re not in a relationship, you’re in purgatory: straights are fine, so are gays, but bisexuals are outlawed just like half shoe sizes. If you don’t find a partner within 45 days, you’ll turn into an animal (Farrell, our main focus, has already decided he’ll be a lobster). If you escape, your fellow captives will hunt you down with tranquiliser darts: for each ‘kill’, you gain a day.
Yes, ‘The Lobster’ is arch: this is cinema in quotemarks, tongue-in-cheek storytelling that uses absurdity to hold a mirror to how we live and love. At its best, it has incisive things to say about how we shape ourselves and others just to banish the fear of being alone, unloved and friendless. Is it a cynical film, scoffing at romance and relationships? Or perhaps the most idealistic movie ever, arguing for truth and honesty on the path to love and happiness? Perhaps it’s both. If only it were able to maintain the best of its scabrous, surreal, inquiring writing all the way through instead of releasing it in short sharp bursts.