Longevity and lifelong fertility are among the reasons why a human may wish to become the eponymous creature, explains Colin Farrell’s protagonist at the outset of “The Lobster.” The tasty crustacean’s rich associations with the Surrealist movement appear to have slipped his mind, but not that of Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose supremely singular fifth feature — his first in English — takes his ongoing fascination with artificially constructed community to its dizziest, most Bunuelian extreme to date. A wickedly funny protest against societal preference for nuclear coupledom that escalates, by its own sly logic, into a love story of profound tenderness and originality, this ingenious lo-fi fantasy will delight those who already thrilled to Lanthimos’ vision in “Alps” and the Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth,” while a starry international cast should draw as-yet-unconverted arthouse auds into his wondrously warped world.
As in Lanthimos’ other features, it’s only once the complex (yet firmly cemented) rules of his narrative universe become clear that his characters’ actions accrue practical and psychological reason; “The Lobster” is a film in which nearly every scene requires bookmarking, to be intuitively cross-referenced at a later point. The stark, arresting pre-credits opener sees an unidentified woman (Jacqueline Abrahams) drive agitatedly through a stretch of soggy countryside, stopping abruptly to shoot a donkey in a field before moving on. The act is never referred to in the ensuing two hours, yet it comes to encapsulate all the film’s roiling emotional stakes in miniature.
From this point, Lanthimos and regular co-writer, Efthimis Filippou, waste little time establishing the laws of a mundane dystopia that doesn’t look severely different from the world we live in now: one of low-level shopping malls and slightly chintzy resort hotels, in which marriage and procreation is still the prized objective of polite social activity. Yet the powers that be have taken a somewhat more regimented approach to the latter institution, by which single folk are actively punished for their failure to pair up. Restricted to the rural outskirts of a damp, unnamed city, they are literally hunted down by other unattached prisoners of the Hotel, an aggressively beige institution where inmates are given 45 days to find a mate within their ranks — or be turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild.
If that seems ridiculous, the Hotel — and, by extension, the film — nonetheless have strict standards of what constitutes rational and irrational occurrence. While no one bats an a eyelid at the transformation of humans into flamingos, the two-by-two mandate of Noah’s Ark still applies: A wolf and a penguin cannot live together, decrees the no-nonsense Hotel manager (the splendid Olivia Colman), “because that would be absurd.”
The recipient of this lecture is new captive David (Farrell), a mild-mannered divorcee who seems less desperate to secure a match than some of his fellow guests — including a young man with a limp (Ben Whishaw) and a middle-aged one with a lisp (John C. Reilly). Only Farrell’s character is named; others are billed solely by their chief disability, also the principal criterion by which compatibility is determined here. Lovers are not mutually drawn by their most attractive virtues, Lanthimos appears to argue, but by the shortcomings that they recognize in each other. If common myopia or vulnerability to nosebleeds seem tenuous bonds on which to build a relationship, are they any less so than shared enthusiasms for Mexican food or long walks on the beach?
Thus does Lanthimos’ confounding setup emerge as a brilliant allegory for the increasingly superficial systems of contemporary courtship, including the like-for-like algorithms of online dating sites and the hot-or-not snap judgments of Tinder. If the unreasonable pressure on single people — particularly those of a certain age — to find companionship has already driven humanity to such soulless means, perhaps the scenario outlined in “The Lobster” isn’t so outlandish after all. One thinks back to the worst-case nightmare of fiction’s most fretful singleton, Bridget Jones, whose fear of being found “fat and alone and half-eaten by Alsatians” may indeed be wittily (and quite literally) referenced here.
When David’s last-ditch attempt at forcing a union with a cold-hearted inmate (played with hilariously stony relish by Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia) comes to naught, he escapes the Hotel grounds only to found that society is no less forgiving on the other side of the conservative pro-couple barrier. In the forest, he falls in with a militant opposition group known as the Loners, led by Lea Seydoux’s unsmiling anarchist, whose rigid rules forbidding any form of romantic interaction prove no less oppressive than the ideals of the Hotel. It’d be unfair to further unpick Lanthimos and Filippou’s beautifully structured tangle of poetic ironies and reversals, except to say that the payoff is at once crueller and more rapturous than in the director’s previous, fiercely disciplined work. Via the character (and enigmatic narrating voice) of Rachel Weisz’s questioning Loner, “The Lobster” gradually sheds its chilly shell, building to a soft tumult of feeling.
Lanthimos’ films are such pristinely mannered directorial creations — unmistakably bound by their deader-than-deadpan humor, tweezer-set visual composition and stark stabs of violence — that it never seems his actors should be permitted to do much more than hit their regimented marks. Once more, however, his terrific ensemble surprises with the intricate human detailing they achieve under his seemingly distant steerage. Colman is first among equals in a bigscreen role that finally requires the knack for exquisitely oblivious comedy she has repeatedly demonstrated on British television, but no role of any size is wasted here: In particular, fellow Britcom graduate Ashley Jensen etches a haunting, fine-scale study of desolate singledom in a few brief scenes. Taking over from the initially cast Jason Clarke, Farrell once again proves that hangdog vulnerability, rather than rakish heroism, is his strongest suit as an actor; he’s the porous lead this potentially airtight construction needs.
Shooting largely on the wind-tousled, gray-flannel coastline of Ireland’s County Kerry, Lanthimos’ favored d.p. Thimios Bakatakis is once more an invaluable ally in establishing the spatial and social architecture of his director’s story world. His boxy, formal framing and bilious color palette reveal much about the restrictions applied to the people within them, as does the tidy, function-first bleakness of Abrahams’ production design.
As usual, Lanthimos eschews an original score in favor of existing classical and pop compositions, which aggressively punctuate an otherwise quietly thrumming soundscape with brute impact. Beethoven, Shostakovich and Stravinsky all put in prominent appearances, but the most evocative selection here may well be Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s morbid country-Gothic ballad “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” with its plaintive plea for unrestrained love: “Do you know where the wild roses grow, so sweet and scarlet and free?” Perversely romantic almost in spite of itself, “The Lobster” doesn’t offer the answer, but it suggests we keep looking.