It's always impressive how Lanthimos is able to so organically reveal the rules of the world, and The Lobster is no exception. Our main character, David (Colin Farrell), already knows the rules, as he is followed around by his brother, now a dog. Upon David's arrival at the resort, the staff, led by Olivia Colman's Manager, give him the basics, and allow the viewer to observe all the strange lectures and rituals as they come up. The no-masturbation rule is enforced with a toaster, much to the Lisping Man's (John C. Reilly) displeasure. One of the Maid's (Ariane Labed) daily duties is to grind herself on her male guests, just enough to get them excited. Behind every door is another weird encounter waiting to be had, and Lanthimos walks the viewer through as many as possible.
All the odd incident has to come from the minds of those inhabiting this world, and those minds have been turned askew by the requirements of their society. Despite the emphasis on coupledom, there is minimal romance in the world, perhaps because the consequences are so exaggerated that waiting for something as fickle and reliable as love is a sure way to be turned into a cat. Mates are found by sharing some physical imperfection, and in between the draconian punishments and cockblockery, those on their last legs are desperate to find someone that shares their specific deformity. David wears glasses, but alas, no one else does. The Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), has, uh, nosebleeds that occur randomly, but for The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), smashing his face into surfaces and thus faking that he has her condition as well is better than life as a donkey. Even something like general sociopathy works. The Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) presents this as a possibility for David, as long as he can fake a callous disregard for everyone around him. The clinical nature of finding a partner means everyone's a little like ol' Heartless, but she takes it to another level. Seeing these people rigidly glance off each other, each interaction revealing some strange new facet of the world, is never less than a delight.
The resort is only half of the world of The Lobster, and the film takes a turn when the narrator, voiced brilliantly by Rachel Weisz, becomes a character herself. Playing the Nearsighted Woman (aww, shit, David), she is one of the loners out in the woods, a society living in rejection of the mainstream but not without its own strict rules. Behind Lea Seydoux's Loner Leader, the consequences are flipped, such that being alone is brutally enforced. In this less populated section of the film, Lanthimos potentially slows the joy of discovery, but the stakes, already high, get raised and become more real, making the third act an exercise in dread. The Lobster builds to an intellectually grand finale, leaving its characters with a single choice that pits the emotional against the physical and self-preservation against hope. Films like The Lobster love some ambiguity, but there have been few endings as thought-provoking, skin crawling, and tortuously tense as this one.
The aforementioned flatness and enforced rationality of the characters could lend itself to boring performances, but within those constraints, the actors manage to make the tiny moments of emotion or levity resonate all the more. Farrell gets in dull barbs, Weisz whips out a subtle and wry smile, and Reilly's sad-sack routine always amuses. Seydoux, in all her well-cast severity, is continuously fearsome, but even she finds a spot of vulnerability in her impenetrable exterior. Lanthimos regular Papoulia can plainly handle anything he throws at her, likely making her one of the best stone-faces in the industry. As the Heartless Woman, she gets more of the outre moments of the film, and she is always believable as someone capable of doing those acts. There are no false notes, from Colman's corporate pleasantries to Whishaw's matter-of-fact commitment to self-harm.
By turns hilarious, poignant, operatic, perceptive, and thrilling, The Lobster is not only Lanthimos' crowning achievement, it's the best film to come out in years. When a movie has the viewer leaning forward in his seat, mouth agape, in wonder at the unique mind that could conjure all this and in awe of the technical and artistic quality onscreen, those are the kinds of experiences worth going to the theater for. If presented with the choice between never getting to watch The Lobster and being turned into an animal of your choosing, it's time to say goodbye to one's tenure in the family of Hominids. A+