May 24 2016 05:11 PM

Greek enfant terriblé Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English-language debut with this dystopian black comedy

thelobster
The Lobster

On paper, The Lobster sounds a like a silly Twilight Zone episode: In the not-so-distant future, people who've failed at love are sent to a state-run "hotel" in the countryside where they are given the opportunity to find a mate. If unsuccessful after 45 days, these lonely hearts are turned into an animal of their choice and forced to fend for themselves in a different kind of kingdom. Talk about backhanded democracy.

But in the hands of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous oddities Dogtooth and Alps are both uncomfortable exercises in warped sexuality, the film's surreal setup acts as a bridge to explore darker themes of repression, rage and desire. Within such a grim construct, the eternal mysteries of compatibility are manipulated and contorted by life and death stakes. Which begs the question, can romance even exist under such pressures?

Colin Farrell stars as David, a near-sighted 40-something lump whose wife has recently left him for another man. As he gets processed into the hotel along with a new crop of sad-eyed denizens, the rigid standards and expectations of this ominous institution become clearer. There are no half-sizes for his standard attire (grey shirt and slacks). He's forced to make a finite choice when asked about his sexual orientation. One hand is cuffed behind his back to force an appreciation for having a partner. Masturbation is forbidden.

The only way to prolong your stay is by capturing the "loners" who've somehow managed to escape the hotel for a life of isolation in the woods. David and his colleagues are given tranquilizer darts to do so, partaking in hunting parties that favor the colder and more brutal participants. Lanthimos introduces the blood sport through a calculated slow-motion assault.

Staving off your inevitable transformation only seems to make things worse. A character credited as "Heartless Woman" (Angeliki Papoulia) comes to embody this reality, having perfected the art of cruelty during her extended stay. David experiences this tenacious brutality first hand during his misguided attempt to win her heart. Their demented courtship provides the film with its rotten center and most harrowing images.

Sad, delusional people populate much of The Lobster (look no further than Ashley Jenson's performance as "Biscuit Woman"), but so do countless animals that can be seen on the fringes of the frame. We instantly assume that many of these creatures are former people watching our folly quietly from the sidelines, further blurring the lines between perception and reality.

Lanthimos enjoys juxtaposing polar opposite perspectives for maximum discomfort. After spending its first half confined to the antiseptic grounds of the hotel, the film breaks free to romp where the wild things are. David's time with the loners offers a new set of challenges and rules that, in their own way, stifle his chance at love with a shortsighted woman (Rachel Weisz) who's been narrating all along. The societal limitations and institutional contradictions placed upon people are equally unflinching, even though they are surrounded by open terrain.

This proves that Lanthimos, while not a misanthrope, believes that humanity does its best to do its worst, no matter the environment. Forcing a homogenized version of happiness down society's throat is just as bad as withholding the option to participate in the first place. Both extremes feed off of fear and delusion to sustain the status quo, while feelings such as attraction, lust and love are simply dismissed as failed chemistry.

Despite its singular qualities and unnerving tenor, The Lobster, which opens Friday, May 27, fails to inspire critique beyond such surface level targets. In a world this muted and carefully subjugated, there's very little room for life's little mysteries to take root. Even the film's gruelingly stretched final scene, which contains multiple potential resolutions, feels numbingly pre-ordained. Stylistic cold-hearted rigor ends up denouncing any possibility for transcendence.

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