The coastal establishment that David (Colin Farrell) checks in to at the start of The Lobster could be any cheesy hotel that time forgot. From the grandmotherly decor to the graveyard hush in the breakfast room and the out-of-tune house band with its ponytailed drummer, it’s like a theme park re-creating the mid-20th-century British and Irish holiday experience for those born too late to have sampled it. (The film was shot mainly in County Kerry.) But that doesn’t explain why the staff force a man to insert his hand into a toaster. Or why some long-term residents are being hunted at night in the surrounding forests. Perhaps the management just takes a hard line on the theft of its little shampoos and its teeny-weeny soaps.
In the world presented by the film, anyone without a life partner will end up at this hotel. David was deserted by his girlfriend, some guests were widowed – but, whatever the reason, each single person must become part of a couple within 45 days of checking in. If they don’t meet the deadline, they will be taken to the Transformation Room and turned into an animal. It’s like Bridget Jones has found herself in a Logan’s Run remake scripted by Ovid.
A film set in an alternate reality must take time to establish the rules of its particular fiction, and most of the joys of The Lobster arise from these early scenes. The enrolment process involves registering, in advance, a sexual orientation, as well as a choice of animal to be turned into should one’s stay not prove fruitful. The system is delightful in its plainness, and not unlike the pen-pushing, jobsworth view of the afterlife seen in A Matter of Life and Death.
Occasionally, the film overcomplicates its vision – the rituals involving newcomers being allowed to use only one hand, or chambermaids grinding against the crotches of single men as routinely as they replace the complementary shortbread in the rooms, feel unworkable. Questions also arise in the second half of the film when David escapes from the hotel grounds: we begin to wonder how the invisible dictatorship can possibly be sustained. The further the movie strays from the hotel, the more unstable its fantasy becomes. That’s why films such as Groundhog Day or Never Let Me Go confine themselves to a relatively limited area. Let off the leash, fantasy can become impossible to police. That is the mistake of later scenes in The Lobster, even if they do have the advantage of introducing the film’s warmest element: David’s prospective lover, played by Rachel Weisz, who has been narrating all along even those parts of the story in which she wasn’t present.
The picture would always have been a seductive allegory for the tyranny of social norms – the way we are raised to believe our choices are to pair off or die unhappy. But played utterly straight by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, it becomes grimly funny as well as clever. His earlier films (including Dogtooth and Alps) were also set in recognisable worlds that differed in only a few significant respects from our own. His trademark is to regard warped or brutal behaviour with a credulous eye. He retains this in The Lobster and successfully coaches new performers in his impassive house style of acting. Farrell makes understatement and drabness obscurely joyful; it helps that his spectacles and slightly oversized moustache have the look of a joke-shop disguise. As the hotel manager, Olivia Colman is straightforward to the point of helpfulness in her severity. Ben Whishaw is splendidly winsome as a forlorn guest. He is excited at the arrival of a possible match who appears to have a limp like his own; when it turns out to be a twisted ankle, his disappointment is both touching and pathetic.
One need not expend any effort trying to fathom how the unforgiving world of The Lobster corresponds to our own. (It might be argued that there is nothing in the Transformation Room as frightening as Tinder.) The atmosphere throughout resembles that last, desperate, twilight hour at any nightclub – even if, coming home empty-handed from a night on the pull, one has rarely had cause to worry that one might wake up the next morning as an elk.
The Lobster (15), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is out 16 October
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy