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It's only once you've seen "The Lobster," and tried to explain it to someone else, that you realize: Yes, the world was so ready for a romantic comedy imagined as a dystopian sci-fi. Greek director/writer Yorgos Lanthimos' tone translates immediately from its European roots (the movie, in English, possesses the same droll humor you've noticed in the occasional Northern European condom ad that makes the rounds online). He directs his cast with the overt stiffness you find in victims of a surveillance state, which, in effect, they are. But it finds a dark, hilarious overtone when you recognize their pained mannerisms as your own. Everyone, it seems, is acting like the sort of idiot robot you become when you're on a stiff first date, or perhaps when you finally meet the parents for the first time.
Colin Farrell, still possessed of the mustache that got him through "True Detective," plays David, who willingly checks into a countryside resort hotel for singles looking to mingle. Yet this one comes with a couple of off-ramps that ratchet up the stakes. If, after 45 days at the hotel, you fail to match with another guest, you're obliged to be turned into an animal — of your choosing, it happens. David signs up in advance for a lobster; he has always liked the sea, he explains, and lobsters live a very long time. He checks in with his brother, who by now has been turned into a dog — the most popular animal that guests choose, apparently, because it's the first animal they think of.
Courtship at the hotel is dreary, and tends to fall along the lines of the sort of superficialities that appear, at first glance, to be absurd: People who share a tendency toward nosebleeds pair off, for instance, even as one of them has to surreptitiously break capillaries to keep up the facade. Hotel staff enforces rules meant to prod guests into courtship with a strictness — David fails to match, so a maid begins starting his day by flipping up the back of her skirt and grinding on his lap. His amiable wallflower friend John C. Reilly is discovered to have masturbated, and his punishment underscores the stakes of the retreat.
The one way to earn more days at the hotel is to excel at a routine pursuit: Guests load up a bus to tote rifles with tranquilizer darts into the forest. There they hunt down people who huddle like gypsy refugees in the woods, fiercely single, living by a code of self-abnegation that makes middle school dance rules look permissive by contrast. To roam freely in town, the feral loners need to appear matched, as cops ask for papers. When one of their ranks (Rachel Weisz) catches David's eye, they both find trouble with the band's militant leader, Léa Seydoux.
The singletons' lot is the anti-hotel life, in which love is seen not as an obligation to be foisted onto everyone under penalty of transmogrification, but a crime that must lead to excommunication. So, yes, basically every authority figure in "The Lobster" is darkly, deeply warped, perfect for an allegorical treatment of dating at large. But this is allegory without the preaching, and full of the sort of twists and visual treats (dispossessed animals wandering into the frame) that will either have you pulling away from your date or snuggling up closer. There's nothing so reassuring as feeling deeply unsettled together.