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The Lobster is a rom-com where those who can't find love are transformed into literal animals

It's your basic boy-meets-girl, girl-rejects-boy, boy-considers-becoming-lobster story.

The Lobster
David hangs out by the pool, where he might soon live, in The Lobster.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I already know how you're going to reply if I say, "You should see The Lobster." You'll surely rattle off the premise and complain about its familiarity.

You’ll probably say something like, “But, Emily! I’ve already seen so many movies where single people check in to a mysterious hotel, no matter how recently their partner broke up with them or died! And most of those movies have also featured a plot where those single people are transformed into animals of their choosing if they don’t find love within 45 days. What more could The Lobster possibly offer?”

And, I know. The story The Lobster is telling is the oldest one in the book. But there's something real and true to the way that director Yorgos Lanthimos (who also co-wrote the script with Efthymis Filippou) approaches this story with a touch of the bittersweet. The film boasts a beautiful melancholy.

This movie is completely ridiculous, but the weirdness masks deeper truths

The Lobster
David (Colin Farrell) dances with a potential match (Jessica Barden).

Yes, trying to explain the plot of The Lobster might make you sound totally nuts — even if you acknowledge that its central idea is ridiculous.

But ridiculous is Lanthimos's strong suit. The Greek director had his international breakout with 2009's Dogtooth, a film about children whose parents locked them away from the world and the surreal fairy tale their lives became as a result. His follow-up, 2011's Alps, took a similarly off-kilter approach to a high-concept premise. (In that film, several people formed a company, which they would use to impersonate the recently deceased, to help those mourning them move on.)

The Lobster is both Lanthimos's English-language debut and his weirdest project yet. At first blush, the idea of single people having a limited time to find love before human society literally discards them by turning them into beasts might sound too strange to have any emotional resonance whatsoever. But The Lobster finds a surprising romantic depth in its metaphor. The movie is full of insights on how society treats single people versus how it treats couples.

I should also say here that The Lobster is full of lots and lots of weird elements that are barely or never explained. When the protagonist announces his dog used to be his brother in the early going, you'll probably either choose to go on this crazy ride or reject the strangeness.

Though the characters have proper first names, The Lobster's female narrator — who is expressing the innermost thoughts of protagonist David (Colin Farrell) — identifies all of the characters primarily by some descriptive phrase, at least until David really gets to know them. It's a nifty little nod toward the way we tend to reduce others to their most obvious traits when dating.

Take, for instance, Ben Whishaw as the Limping Man, who eventually becomes one of David's better friends. He gets at one of the film's other key insights into human romantic behavior, which is that most of us will do anything to suggest we have something in common with someone we're interested in. In the Limping Man's case, the woman he fixates on gets nosebleeds frequently — so he decides to join her in that malady by continually bashing his head against things to make his nose bleed.

But when the Limping Man asks David what's worse, a little pain in the moment or being alone and cast out of society forever, David has to admit that the Limping Man has a point. And eventually, the Limping Man is happy, sort of. Isn't the pain worth it for that?

The film primarily follows David, who eventually leaves the hotel, rather than serve out his animal sentence, but it checks in with the Limping Man (who eventually acquires a child, in a joke that's best left for you to discover) often enough to make its point.

The movie isn't just about how society's expectations weigh heavily on the single; it's about how society's expectations weigh heavily on everyone. We're all playing parts, and the second we stop, we risk being cast out.

The Lobster shows how dating turns us all into supporting players in others' stories

The Lobster
Rachel Weisz stars as a woman David meets in the woods.

Most of Lanthimos's directorial tics serve him well in The Lobster. In particular, there's an early scene where the characters attend what's essentially a junior-high dance, complete with singing from the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) and her husband, and Lanthimos shoots everything with an uneasy detachment.

The duo's song is filmed from a wide angle, in long, unblinking shots, and when they begin a coordinated dance routine, it evokes the slightly feverish feel of a weird nightmare.

Meanwhile, the camera closes in on David, whose fidgeting drives home how uncomfortable he is, while the women he's interested in are regarded from a distance like African safari animals. It's almost as if he's spying on them, even though everybody is in the same, open room.

The implication of the film, I think, is that the process of trying to find love inevitably turns us all into objects in somebody else's story. You go from being a human being, with hopes and desires and interests, to "the love interest," at least in the stories of romance we tell ourselves most often. Real, lasting love is one of the most important things humans can find, but we have lousy methods for discovering it.

Fortunately, The Lobster touches on that idea, too. Once David escapes his imprisonment in the hotel, he lands in the woods with a group of banished criminals who choose to be single — and punish anyone who ends up coupling.

Naturally, it's here that David finds love (with a character played by Rachel Weisz), because, as the story goes, you find love when you stop looking for it and when it's least convenient. But when you do, it's like being hit by a bolt of happy lightning.

Lanthimos's story gets unwieldy at times, and he's become a little too enamored of ambiguous endings, after Dogtooth's capper was so brilliant. But if this review suggests anything, it should be that The Lobster finds a way to tell a very familiar story — about how hard it can be to find love, until you do, and then it seems so easy — in a wildly original way.

It's still boy-meets-girl. There are just punishments doled out via animal transformations throughout. And who can't relate to that?

The Lobster is playing in select theaters.

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