As movie fables go, “The Lobster” at least gets bonus points for novelty. It’s about a near-future society where to be single is a crime punishable in the most bizarre of ways. Mateless citizens are rounded up and sequestered in a hotel-like prison facility and given 45 days to find true love. Failing that, they are turned into animals.
The victims are allowed to choose what animal they wish to become. (This suggests an interesting parlor game: What animal would you choose to be?) The film’s main protagonist, David (Colin Farrell), newly arrived at the facility, lists a lobster as his appointed animal of choice (a crustacean, technically, but why nitpick?). He explains to the Nurse Ratched-like hotel manager (Olivia Colman) that lobsters live a long time and have blue blood. He neglects to mention that they also taste good.
It took me a while to get inside this film’s premise, and when I finally did, I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort. The Greek director and co-writer, Yorgos Lanthimos, in his first English-language film, has a cult reputation, and “The Lobster,” despite some top names in the cast, which also includes Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, and Léa Seydoux, is nothing if not a cult film. But its tone of deadpan absurdism never really develops into anything truly subversive or visionary. It’s a weirdo, sub-J.G. Ballard conceit: J.G. Ballard for Dummies.
The residents of the hotel, who know each other only by their room numbers, must observe strict laws. The place may look like a four-star establishment, but that’s a sham. Infractions are punishable by little mini-tortures, like forcing a transgressor’s hand inside a hot toaster, and ultimately, of course, there are those looming creature conversions to look forward to.
Understandably, the mateless residents desperately attempt to pair up with partners who may not, in fact, be compatible – another sham. “Limping Man” (Whishaw) feigns nosebleeds in order to align himself with a nosebleeding female resident (Jessica Barden). David hooks up with a woman (Angeliki Papoulia) renowned for her pathological lack of empathy by pretending to have an equal pathology.
It doesn’t pay to ask how these people are turned into animals; it’s just something we are asked to accept. But we are asked too much by this movie. When David escapes to the forest and joins a clan of “loners,” I thought the film might morph into something more daring or transgressive. (Seydoux, looking fiercely blank, like someone out of “The Hunger Games,” is the loners’ leader.) Instead, the obvious occurs: The loners, who are not allowed to even flirt with each other, are simply another species of prisoner.
There are a few tart sequences. David and another loner, played by Weisz, develop a forbidden romance that is touching and tender in its hesitancy. (Both are very nearsighted.) In one very funny and very sad scene, the loners are shown dancing by themselves in the dark woods, each dancer shimmying silently in his or her own touchless zone of privacy.
But Lanthimos doesn’t have the directorial energy to stir this thick allegorical stew. Lacking any of the conventional action-thriller movie skills, his deadpan style may be the only one available to him. The film’s ending, with its whispery air of ambiguity, comes across as a massive cop-out. I’m not sure David wouldn’t be better off as a lobster. At least he could try out for the Avengers. Grade: C+ (Rated R for sexual content, including dialogue, and some violence.)