I feel safe in saying that The Lobster is the strangest film you will have the opportunity to see in a multiplex this year. For some, like me, it will also be one of the funniest and most enduring. For other moviegoers, perhaps, more of an endurance test. But no one is likely to forget it.
Never explained outright, the film's premise simply unfolds before us in a series of understated, ever-more-ridiculous scenes. After his wife leaves him for another man, dour professor David (Colin Farrell) makes a government-mandated move into a seaside hotel. He's accompanied by his brother, who is a border collie. Here David and a collection of similarly sad single people have 45 days to find true love. If they fail, government employees will surgically transform them into the animal of their choice and set them free to roam the wild.
What follows could be a live-action version of OKCupid as scripted by Bertolt Brecht. The singles must decide on their "defining characteristic," then seek out a person who also has, say, a limp, a nosebleed or sociopathic callousness. Interactions are stiff and programmatic, as if determined by algorithms; spontaneity has vanished from the love equation.
Clearly, there's a satire of dating in the digital age here, and of our cultural obsession with affinity-based monogamy. But Greek director-cowriter Yorgos Lanthimos seems to be running a broader thought experiment. Anyone who saw the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth (2009) knows that he's fascinated by social programming and its manipulation of reality. In that film, a couple raises their isolated children with a cruelly false view of the world — not for any stated philosophical reason, but just because they can.
Characters in The Lobster exhibit rigid, ritualized behavior similar to that of the teens in Dogtooth; everything they do is a test or a game. Their unprogrammed selves tend to emerge, if at all, only in wordless acts of sex and violence. When David encounters a group of rebels, as inevitably happens in dystopian fiction, they're every bit as humorlessly rule-bound as the society they're rebelling from.
Some viewers will find this robotic quality hard to take — especially in the film's second half, when the narrative's scope expands from the hotel into a sprawling woodland anti-idyll. Normally glamorous actors such as Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Léa Seydoux have muted their charisma to conform to Lanthimos' vision. His camera gazes unblinkingly on tragedy and violence, as mercilessly unsentimental as the world it depicts.
If you can embrace the film's deliberately alienating stiltedness, however, it's frequently hilarious. Take the scene in which David soberly explains why he'd prefer to be turned into a lobster if he can't make a love connection. A long-lived crustacean is "an excellent choice," the officious hotel manager (Olivia Colman) informs him, because "the world is full of dogs." Everyone wants to be man's best friend.
More than an attack on compulsory coupling, The Lobster is a study in the things people can use words to make other people do. When two characters finally experience an unforced mutual attraction, they must conceal their relationship using a private sign language. Love definitely doesn't conquer all in this film. (For an equally jaded take on the notion of soul mates, pair The Lobster with Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa, now on video.) And yet, in small, sly, generally unspoken ways, love and friendship do persist in Lanthimos' world.
This one-of-a-kind film — which won the Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival — might just be the perfect date movie for people who hate dating. If nothing else, they'll have plenty to talk about after its jarring final frame.
*Correction, June 8, 2016: An earlier version of this review mistakenly identified Olivia Colman as Sophie Colman.