Back in the 1990s, an unmarried woman in Japan who was 25 or older might have been called a “Christmas cake.” The term equated them with the seasonal cakes that were sold for half price after Dec. 24, and it contained an explicit warning for women: Catch a man before you turn 25 because that’s your official sell-by date. It embodied Japan’s embarrassing tendency to discriminate against women. But a mere two decades later, it’s single Japanese men that are the target of this societal get-married-or-else pressure. And here’s a movie that delves into that very issue — a wry, dry, brutally cynical work called “The Lobster.”
This is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ (“Dogtooth,” “Alps”) first English-language film and he has assembled a superb cast for the occasion. The film is set in a near-future society where people are punished for being single, and it centers around David, a paunchy, hangdog middle-aged citizen played by Colin Farrell. David had a wife, but after she left him for someone else, the authorities came knocking on his door to take him away with other singles. Their destination is a resort hotel where they have 45 days to find a romantic partner or they will be turned into an animal and set loose in the surrounding the woods.
Most people who “don’t make it” choose to become dogs. But David asks to be turned into the titular crustacean, which is “an excellent choice” according to the terrifying hotel manager (Olivia Colman). As David explains, lobsters have an incredibly long life span and retain their reproductive abilities into their old age, so long as they don’t end up on a seafood platter.
At the hotel David encounters other desperate single people, including a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly), another with a limp (Ben Whishaw) and a woman with a bleeding nose (Jessica Barden). The limping man tries to get the attention of the woman with a bleeding nose by smashing his face into hard surfaces to get his own nose bleeding. He succeeds, the woman declares they are “compatible” and the pair then move into the couples’ section to try out their new relationship.
Their courtship — though it can hardly be described as such — sets the grim, ominous tone for what goes on at the hotel. There’s none of the forced goodwill and courtesy of a matchmaking party; there’s only the tremendous pressure to either mate or cease being a person. By way of encouragement, the manager presses children upon new couples. “It usually helps,” she says.
The hotel has nice cutlery and cloth napkins but otherwise, it’s not unlike a concentration camp. Sexual arousal is recommended, but masturbation is prohibited. And no one but David seems to have a name; David himself is too uncommunicative to ask anyone directly.
After bungling his courtship with a heartless woman (Aggeliki Papoulia), David escapes to the woods to join “the loners,” a band of single people who have their own strict rules against dating and relationships. Any intimacy among the loners is punished by physical torture, as decreed by their leader (Lea Seydoux). This is super-inconvenient for David after he finally finds someone he likes among them: a sweet, short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz).
“The Lobster” is an obvious jab at modern relationships and how institutionalized romance has become — after watching this, you might think twice before swiping through online dating profiles and flipping through self-help relationship books. You can’t help but feel that love isn’t really worth the trouble and that David and the others would actually be better off as animals — wait, did I just say that?
“The Lobster” is brilliant, but it’s bleak. Lanthimos’ pessimism has you staring into a black void where the only semblance of joy comes from laughing at how absurdly miserable everyone is. All that’s missing is a ranting, weeping Greek chorus.