Decidedly twisted yet also curiously romantic, “The Lobster” takes place in a world in which singletons aren’t just seen as anomalies, but as less than human. As David, a middle-aged man whose wife has just left him, Colin Farrell does some of his best work. According to societal rules, the newly single David must move into a high-security hotel, where he will be given 45 days to find another unattached guest and fall in love. If he fails, he will be transformed into an animal of his choosing.
“Have you thought of what animal you’d like to be if you end up alone?” asks the dictatorial hotel manager (played by an impeccable Olivia Colman). In fact, he has: Given that David likes to swim, he’s planning on going the crustacean route. “A lobster is an excellent choice,” she affirms, before deriding all the unimaginative rubes who have chosen dogs. (Meanwhile, David’s brother, now a border collie, sits forlornly in a corner.)
Deadpan humor abounds in this dark comedy by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, whose equally bizarre but visually stunning movie “Dogtooth” — about parents who take the idea of sheltering their kids to extremes — was nominated for a foreign-language Academy Award in 2011.
“The Lobster” unfolds as two distinct acts, both of which take place under perpetually dismal gray skies. In the first, we become acquainted with the hotel, where guests mingle, swim and dance, when they aren’t being berated by staff. “There’s a reason the targets are shaped like single people,” an employee explains, as David and his new friends practice sharpshooting. The skill will come in handy later: When a person’s deadline arrives, he or she is released into a nearby forest, where guests with tranquilizer guns have incentives to shoot them. Hits mean additional days as a human.
All this is highly amusing, especially when you consider that this oddly sadistic society isn’t so very different from ours. Single people may not be so explicitly devalued in our world, but as any unattached woman in her 40s will tell you, the message is the same: If you’re not paired up, there must be something wrong with you.
The movie’s second half takes place in the wilderness beyond the hotel, where a group of escapees have created their own society of loners. But their freedom comes with strings attached: Members must stay single or face imaginatively grotesque punishments, meted out by the terrifyingly emotionless leader (Léa Seydoux).
It’s best to avoid too much detail, but here in the forest — where peacocks and potbellied pigs wander by, reminding us of the fate that awaits so many — we finally meet the movie’s unnamed narrator, played with charming earnestness by Rachel Weisz. It’s there, where love is forbidden, that it blooms.
Unfortunately, the movie’s second act tends to drag, getting bogged down by uninspired twists, while the first flies by with witty dialogue and a steady stream of novel details. “The Lobster” feels longer than its almost two-hour run time, especially for squeamish viewers, who will recoil at the film’s implicit and explicit brutality.
Still, the movie is worthwhile, thanks to a marriage of peculiar humor and thought-provoking content. The supporting cast is memorable, featuring turns by John C. Reilly as a man with a lisp who wants to become a parrot, and Ben Whishaw, whose character will do just about anything to avoid becoming an animal, even smashing his face against a table to prove that he and a woman with a perpetual nose bleed are meant for each other.
It’s strange and difficult to watch, but it also rings true: He certainly isn’t the first person to take a few liberties with the truth to avoid being alone.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence and sexual content, including dialogue. 118 minutes.