Experiencing chronic singlehood? There are apps for that, but in the near future, there will be a cure. Or, more accurately, a punishment.
Such is the premise of the new movie "The Lobster," which opens Friday, one year after winning the prestigious jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's the latest from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous two films proved his penchant for fables about people living in fabricated systems. 2009's "Dogtooth" chronicles three adult siblings whose parents taught them elaborate lies about a world they've never experienced. "Dogtooth" is about escaping a scheme, while 2011's "Alps" is about entering one. The movie depicts a business where employees impersonate clients' recently departed loved ones.
"The Lobster" is more complicated. This particular alternative society exists within what looks like a dreary version of our contemporary world. But unlike "Dogtooth" and "Alps," there are no entrances or exits.
The movie presents a dystopian future where single people are granted 45 days to find a partner before they are transformed into the animal of their choosing. The search occurs at a resort hotel where the uncoupled are tightly regulated. Among the rules: They are not allowed to masturbate, they can only play "individual" sports like golf and squash, they eat breakfast alone, and they attend etiquette lessons and prom-like dances for their hopeful relationships. Daily countdowns announce how much time is left before their transition occurs. Oh, and a big one: They must find a mate who mirrors their defining qualities, because animals of differing species cannot live together, of course. The "opposites attract" mantra does not exist. The process of finding love has become clinical and institutionalized. If irreconcilable differences arise, couples are assigned children as diversions.
"The familiarity was an important element of it," Lanthimos said of his and co-writer Efthymis Filippou's choice to set the courting process inside a common hotel. The uncanniness of this distorted romantic ecosystem makes "The Lobster" a satire. Why do we put such a premium on partnerships anyway, the movie asks. "It wasn’t a real concentration camp or prison where you put single people, but it had the appearance of something very positive and civil and nice. I think most of the choices were toward that kind of feel, so that it wouldn’t feel on the first level violent and repressive. It would be revealed as that the more you entered into it."
Colin Farrell gained 40 pounds to play the movie's central character, a newly divorced architect named David whose animal of choice is a lobster. (Lobsters enjoy long, fertile lives and have blue blood “like aristocrats.” Plus he "like[s] the sea very much.") David arrives at the hotel with a dog that was once his brother. Desperate to avoid becoming a crustacean, David feigns mercilessness in hopes of appealing to a potential partner known as the Heartless Woman (a delightfully stony Angeliki Papoulia). The gambit backfires, and David flees the hotel. He sets up camp in a nearby forest with a group of romance anarchists called the Loners.
The oppressiveness of both the hotel and the forest is obvious, but their savage undercurrents are subtle. The fact that everyone assumes a dry affect makes "The Lobster" something of a comedy, as though all the complicated feelings and pressures associated with love have conditioned the world to no longer feel anything at all. Nobody who enters the hotel questions the rules they are handed, even though the spouseless are constantly degraded.
"There’s a pretense of freedom and good intention, which is much more dangerous a thing, and much more creepy," Lanthimos said.
The 42-year-old director usually works with predominantly Greek casts, but he enlisted a handful of Hollywood heavyweights for "The Lobster," his first English-language film. To complete the roster, he simply recruited actors he "liked." In addition to Farrell, that included Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Léa Seydoux and Ashley Jensen.
"None of us did this because we’re reaching for box-office glory," Farrell said. (Indeed, trendy indie studio A24 will roll out the movie slowly, first in New York and Los Angeles. It will expand to additional cities throughout May.) "We were all there because we loved Yorgos’ work. We’d all seen 'Dogtooth' and 'Alps.' There was never a moment where we sat around and said, 'OK, today we’re going to read our lines as flatly as we possibly can.' That wasn’t a directive from Yorgos either. Just from observing and experiencing Yorgos’ previous work, I felt some kind of a pervasive internal experience when venturing into this world. Everyone just seemed locked into a very specific tonality that was inspired by the script."
Outside the actors' decisions, much of the tone sprung from the process of filming and editing "The Lobster." Lanthimos opts for sparse character descriptions in his scripts. In a pivotal scene where David befriends two men (Reilly and Whishaw) dining at the hotel, Lanthimos decided while setting up the shot to have all the single occupants face in the direction of the couples eating on the other side of the room. It's meant to motivate them. That physical distance emphasizes their inferiority, yet it simultaneously mocks their envy for the mechanical exchanges they are witnessing. After all, each of those pairs has been taught how to interact.
In our world, we put up walls that collapse as others get to know us. In this world, couples must maintain the qualities they present as commonalities. Walls can't be bulldozed.
Through sardonic visual cues, Lanthimos creates a well-rounded landscape that requires few answers. We don't know quite how widely this shape-shifting phenomenon has seized society, or when it took hold. To those involved with the film, such questions don't matter, though Lanthimos did say, half-jokingly, that he imagines the movie taking place as soon as 2017. "The Lobster" is meant to deconstruct our fixed notions of relationships -- and human interactions, in general.
"It’s a world where the majority of characters really are unaware of the amount of power or choice that they have in their own lives, like so many of us are in this contemporary world," Farrell said. "I think every person has six months in their relationship of being the version of themselves that others wish they were, or that they think the other person wants them to be. And then inevitability, a truer, more essential version of themselves becomes the predominant self, and either the relationship falls apart or you go, 'Oh, shit, I didn’t know that’s really you,' and then maybe they’ll even love you more. With this, there’s a nullficiation of that because nobody’s living in a truth. For David, there’s no internal dialogue. There’s no emotional or intellectual understanding of himself. He’s just someone who emotionally is like a child -- who’s just doing as he’s told and towing the line and following the societal rules that have been held above him. So it was an exercise for me in not following the conventions of what you normally do in regards to searching for backstory and trying to find a character history. We could shoot the shit on his character history, but it was kind of irrelevant. Every character was literally born on the first page."
"The Lobster" is now in limited release. It will open nationwide on May 27. You can take a quiz to see which animal you should be turned into here.