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“I’m really sorry,” a woman, off-screen, tells a man. The man is David—he is the only character in the film who will bear an actual name—and he’s played, with slouched shoulders and a forlorn moustache, by Colin Farrell. The woman, his wife, is leaving him for another man, and as he sits unhappily on a sofa, he has only one question for her: “Does he wear glasses or contact lenses?”

Thus opens The Lobster, the stunning English-language debut of the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. A black comedy laced with moments of shocking cruelty, the film is a dystopian allegory about the human need to find a mate—a brilliant, if morbid, meditation on relationships in the age of the dating app.

Cast aside by his wife, David is sent to a special hotel, where he’s given precisely 45 days to fall in love with another guest. If he fails to do so within the time allotted, he will be transformed into the animal of his choosing. Indeed, the loyal dog that accompanies him to the hotel was once his brother, who had failed to meet his own 45-day deadline two years earlier. As the manager of the hotel explains, “Most people choose dogs, which is why the world is full of dogs. Few people choose more unusual species, which is why they’re endangered.” For his part, David declares that he would like to become a lobster, because they live 100 years, remain fertile throughout, and have blue blood “like aristocrats.”

Life at the hotel is strictly regimented. Guests are awakened by intercom, with a reminder of the number of days they have remaining. All are provided with identical sets of drab clothing as well as a tranquilizer gun and 20 darts. The latter are for the guests’ regular forays into the adjacent woods, during which they hunt down “loners”—that is, unattached singles who’ve fled from society’s marital mandate. The hotel staff also pantomime skits extolling the virtues of couplehood: A man eating alone might choke on his food, but one with a wife will be saved; a woman walking alone might be raped, but one with a husband will be protected.

There are dances, at which the guests mingle as awkwardly as during eternity’s worst-ever junior prom. And each hotel resident is eventually forced to stand and recount the story of how he or she arrived there. One, played by Ben Whishaw, explains that when his father left his mother, she was turned into a wolf. Visiting her at the zoo one day, he was bitten on the leg and has since suffered a limp. His recently deceased wife, he reveals, also had a limp.

It gradually emerges that in this imagined world life-mates are always defined by their common flaws or tics. A man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) desperately hopes that a fellow lisper will arrive at the hotel to become his prospective spouse. Whishaw’s character surreptitiously smashes his nose bloody in order to court a woman who suffers from uncontrollable nosebleeds. And David’s early question about “glasses or contact lenses” finally comes into focus: He, like his wife and the man for whom she left him, is nearsighted.

The movie is clearly intended as a commentary on the current moment, in which romantic compatibility is increasingly subject to computer algorithms juggling selected variables: likes and dislikes, pluses and minuses—a digital yenta. But more unsettlingly, it echoes our deep-seated search for commonality, the desire to see a reflection of ourselves in a loved one. It’s a theme that only becomes more dire when David sets his romantic sights on a hotel guest whose defining characteristic is a complete indifference to the suffering of others.

From these disorienting premises, Lanthimos’s film (which he co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou) shifts onto unexpected vectors. The hotel itself is revealed as a kind of purgatorial zone, a buffer between the city (where coupledom is enforced by law) and the forested wilderness of roving singles. In the latter space, David will eventually meet a nearsighted love interest (Rachel Weisz)—only to discover that society’s uncompromising rules have not been lifted, but merely inverted. In the woods, intimacy is forbidden, and the punishments (meted out by a “loner leader” played by Lea Seydoux) tend toward the grotesque.

The Lobster is a fascinating work of art, by turns quite funny and deeply disturbing. (In one of its more wicked touches, couples who have trouble getting along are “assigned” children to get them over it.) As he did in his breakthrough 2009 feature, Dogtooth, Lanthimos has constructed a world at once fantastical and mundane, in which ideas such as love and sex are drained of their conventional meanings and imbued with new ones. With a few important exceptions, the assessment of human nature on display here is pitiless, almost clinical. So much so, in fact, that when David suffers the enigmatic threat of being transformed into “the animal no one wants to be,” it’s hard to shake the intuition that, perhaps, that’s exactly what he already is.

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