'The Lobster': You Mate Or You Suffer The Surreal Consequences

The dark comedy about singles who are transformed into animals is one of the year's best films

The Lobster is a cynical sci-fi comedy about life's most clichéd script: pair off or perish. That's been the formula since the first primeval fish, and every living thing since has been a sequel. Inside of each of us, the genes of all of our ancestors, from your mother back to the missing link, command you to continue their bloodline. Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes that pressure real. In this near future, single people have 45 days to find a mate. Or else. Fail, and you'll be turned into an animal as though you've forfeited the right to represent the human race. At least you can choose; "Most people pick dogs," says a bureaucrat (Olivia Coleman, a brilliant British comedian). "That's why there's so many."

There's zero pity. Even the newly divorced and widowed are ordered to a surreal singles resort where the counselors try to convince the men and women to mingle. Some are desperate. Some, like the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), are unpopular. And our hero of sorts, David (Colin Farrell, his good looks padded over with extra pounds and a droopy mustache), simply can't be bothered. So what if he is surgically transformed into a lobster? After all, as he rationalizes, lobsters are blue-blooded like aristocrats.

This movie is an unusual beast, and if you can't invest in its wild premise and starchy manners, stay home. See it, however, and you'll not only see one of the best movies of the year — you'll see one of the most brutally honest takes on the knots people twist themselves into so they don't have to be alone. Here, people fall in "love" over absurdities: One couple is thrilled they both have frequent nosebleeds. Except that the guy is faking it; when no one is looking, he smashes his face into tables -- a dead-on metaphor for the pain people can self-inflict to pretend they're happy.

Other singletons are exposed as too picky (like the blonde who would rather become a pony than date someone bald) or too much of a pushover (like the woman who wheedles David with cookies and any kind of sex he wants). Naturally, David prefers the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), a literal manhunter who helps capture escapees who've formed their own screwed-up society in the surrounding forest. The Heartless Woman is a terrifying creation, a combination of your worst psychotic ex and the independent Greek goddess Artemis, and it's heartbreaking to watch David numb himself to tolerate her cruelty. But Farrell smartly doesn't play David like a victim — being with the gorgeous killer is his own superficial choice, and he's fine breaking nicer women's hearts. Explains David, "It's more difficult to pretend you have feelings when you don't instead of pretending we don't have feelings when we do."

Meanwhile, the established couples who run the camp put on their own show of contentment. They stage plays about the joys of relationships: You're less likely to get mugged on the street! You've got someone to give you the Heimlich maneuver if you choke! And they use their power to visit small indignities upon the single: no tennis, no volleyball, and no, um, self-pleasure.

The film has a bleak, deadpan beauty that matches its emotions. Scenes look washed over with a watery gray; the city is mechanical and drab; the woods never see the sun. Then, suddenly, as the camera pans across the trees, we glimpse a rogue flamingo and think, Who was that and what other future did they dream?

Most movies make a mockery of love. An action hero spots a passive babe, rescues her from the bad guy, and they live happily ever after. Even romantic comedies are nonsense. They argue that opposites attract, with endless stiletto-heeled uptight girls falling for slackers and changing their whole personality after a powerful kiss. (I'd pay to see the sequels in which, just three months later, the unhappy couple suffers through another aggravating breakfast.)

Yet The Lobster, as bizarre as it is, hits on something true. Here, movie love is mandatory, not magical, and Lanthimos shows us the arbitrary reasons people convince themselves they belong together, and the tiny compromises that come next. Instead of a happy ending, we're left with a question I haven't stopped thinking about since: What would we give up for someone else — and is it worth it?