Science fiction can reveal deep truths while setting off enough explosions to keep us from looking at our phones. But just this once (okay, thrice), I implore you to watch a movie that technically isn't sci-fi (though it is plenty dystopian). Instead, I'm suggesting a love story.
The English-language debut of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (who also impressed audiences in 2018 with the surreal period comedy The Favourite), 2015's The Lobster is an absurdist satire on love, authority, and the strange ways the two overreach. The movie stars Colin Ferrell as David, a schlubby everyman with a pot-belly who is painfully lonely. Soon to be unrecognizable as the Penguin in 2021's The Batman, Farrell's role in The Lobster is effectively the first phase of that physical metamorphosis from "Sexiest Man Alive" to, well, not.
After a breakup, David (with his dog) checks into a hotel where he's fielded wildly personal questions from a cold receptionist. ("I'm afraid you have to decide right now if you want to be registered as a homosexual or a heterosexual.") It's not hard from there to learn the rules of Lanthimos' weird universe. In this "singles resort," residents have 45 days to find a romantic partner, or else turn into an animal of their choosing. Too many become dogs, we learn. David is unique. He wants to turn into a lobster because they live for a hundred years, and he wants to live in the sea.
The movie only gets weirder (and better) from there.
While David's first try at love in the resort goes south, he finds it among the "Loners," led by Leader (Léa Seydoux). An outsider group of survivalists in ponchos, the Loners are ex-guests who managed to escape their expiration dates. It is there where David ironically finds his perfect mate (Rachel Weisz, whose "Short Sighted Girl" is also the movie's deadpan narrator). Unfortunately, the Loners have even harsher, more abstinent restrictions than the hotel.
The Lobster is, at its core, a love story. It's about David doing all he can to find someone he knows he belongs with. And when he does, it takes everything to live a happy life with them. The problem is that David couldn't find them on terms agreeable with the world, one that bends over backwards to force companionship. In the few times the movie jaunts into normal society — known simply as "the city" — single people are heavily policed and deemed suspicious.
It's in this world and this story that Lanthimos creates a panacea for single people. Perhaps recognizing that movies have for too long leaned "pro-relationship," Lanthimos lampoons the medium's propaganda by illustrating the suffocating ways audiences have convinced themselves into finding "the one." It's what Valentine's Day and Hallmark movies are all about. It's why and how they made 200-plus episodes of How I Met Your Mother. The search for "the one" isn't just a universal pursuit, it's a lucrative one.
There's no big evil in The Lobster, however. The rules and systems are in place just because, seemingly through a vacuum. There is no hint of human extinction (animals, however, seem to be), so it can't be for procreation that coupling is enforced. Whatever the case, Lanthimos is more effective at getting across a simple message: If you're lovesick, you can't force any of it to happen.
Meanwhile, The Lobster is one of the funniest movies in the A24 library. It's darkly comical, replete with deadpan delivery, humor out of benign juxtaposition, and terrific performances from the likes of Farrell, Weisz, Seydoux, and naturally, Olivia Colman as the hotel's headmistress. A highlight: When David first joins the Loners, he is warned by Leader that sex and romance is not permitted. When David asks about casual conversation, he is told that is allowed.
"So long as there is no flirting or anything," Léa Seydoux's Leader tells him, her natural French accent whisper quiet. "That applies to dance nights as well." (They only play electronic music.)
The Lobster isn't just a great movie, it's an insightful one. It's a smart, sharp middle finger not to the machinations that profit from myths about romance (even though it all gets roasted) but to schlubs like myself who maybe have it all wrong. Before the pandemic, I wandered New York City single. Despite my presence on "the apps," I had a tendency to overthink the idea of attraction and companionship when, truthfully, I ought to have just been a regular at a SoHo watering hole. As the weeks became months, I felt a yearning for the messy, sweaty noise of a crowded Thursday happy hour. It's in places like that a meet-cute isn't forced to happen, it just does.
The Lobster is streaming on Netflix until December 1.