Think of a future that plays like arranging a date on Match.com — only this time it's a matter of life or death. That will give you some idea of what's going on in the terrifically twisted satire that is The Lobster, the first English-language feature by the daring Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps).
Lanthimos is a madman, and I mean that as a compliment. Absurd and surreal seem like puny words to describe what transpires in The Lobster. So here's the deal: In the new world, citizens can't be single. There's a law against it. Security will hassle you and demand to see your license of coupledom. If you don't have it, you're off to a tacky resort hotel, where singles have 45 days to search around for a suitable bachelor or bachelorette. Failing that, you have the option of being transformed into the animal of your choice and begin a fresh search for a mate.
But one of the rules is that you must stay within the same species. That means a man transformed into lobster had better stick to another crustacean. Wait, what?! You heard me. David, the single played by the usually movie-starish Colin Farrell like a stooped-over loser who's let his belly go to fat, hears it too. He's recently been dumped by his wife and finds solace only with a Border collie who used to be his brother.
Go ahead, laugh. I did, helplessly, mostly because all this transfiguration stuff is treated like the most ordinary of events. The hotel manager, played with hilarious banality by Olivia Coleman, even organizes social get-togethers for her guests. Everyone must admit to a personal flaw. John (Ben Whishaw) limps. Robert (John C. Reilly) speaks with a lisp. And sometimes people lie about their shortcomings to attract another person with the same defect. Oh, your nose bleeds? Mine, too. You can almost smell the desperation in the air.
Lanthimos slowly lets the consequences seep in. Try running away and other hotel guests will come hunting for you with tranquilizer guns. The singles are all over the woods. They're proudly independent. Hooking up could save their human lives, but they won't do it. It's not long after David runs for the hills that he meets a woman (then splendid Rachel Weisz). Their attraction is palpable. But the loners, led by a stern Lea Seydoux, have rules, too. No touching, kissing or anything else. Do it, and you — well, I won't enter spoiler territory.
I will say that this bracing allegory hits home about the rules society — and by extension, us — impose on relationships. The symbolism is humanized by a top-flight cast and an ending that manages to be brutal and rapturously romantic at the same time. As ever, Lanthimos takes us places most films fear to tread. He asks, with skepticism and regret, is true love a fantasy or a felony or something in between? The Lobster, with a score that samples everyone from Beethoven to Nick Cave, comes at you with images that burn and laughs that stick in the throat. Take the challenge of this movie — it'll keep you up nights.