A dystopian comedy that has single people sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or be turned into the animal of their choice.

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Being single is criminal in black comedy.

Being single can often leave you feeling like you’ve been cut off from a large swathe of humanity. But literally turned into another animal? That’s the fate of the gloomy singletons in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos' (Dogtooth, Alps) English-language debut, The Lobster.

Set in a holiday resort-turned-detention centre where single people are taken to be taught the error of their solitary ways, we follow David (Colin Farrell) through the surreal rules of his new home. (Bisexuality isn’t on the menu here, you have to pick and stick.)

It’s clear that, having just been dumped, he’s in no fit state to find anyone. But whatever David’s mental state, the clock is ticking. The rules are that if he hasn’t fallen in love with someone new at the resort in 45 days, he will be surgically transformed into an animal of his choosing (which the title gives away).

In this visually restrained, often bitterly savage look at a society that rigorously demands emotional servitude from its citizens, compatible physical defects is the surest path to love: having a limp dooms one man (Ben Whishaw) until he figures out a way (it’s not pretty) to suffer from the same repeated blood noses as his romantic target (Jessica Barden).

'The comedy here hits hardest in the little detail'

For those less willing or able to force matters, like one of the men David half-heartedly befriends (John C Reilly), there is a way to push back the deadline: every day they head into the nearby woods to hunt the rebels who’ve fled the resort to live forever alone. For each rebel they catch they gain an extra day, with one particularly cold-hearted and ruthless resident (Angeliki Papoulia) now having months of extra time up her sleeve.

David eventually decides he finds her chilly demeanour and lethal nature attractive, which is perhaps not the wisest long-term plan.

Yorgos’ satire becomes a bit of a shaggy dog tale once the focus shifts to the rebels, most notably their leader (Léa Seydoux) and one of her literally short-sighted followers (Rachel Weisz); their mirror-image of mainstream society, where being alone is mandatory and the “red kiss” is the punishment for people who get too close, lacks the impact of the earlier scenes.

The comedy here hits hardest in the little details, like Olivia Colman’s hotel manager wryly informing guests that if their budding relationship turns rocky “children will be provided”. But the performances provide the real power in this meandering film.

While David initially seems merely a sad sack alongside the more comedic Whishaw and Reilly, Farrell (who’s piled on the pounds for a physically uncharismatic role that makes the most of his vulnerability) gradually brings to the fore the raw naked need at his centre, while Weisz’ low-key sadness likewise says something far deeper about our yearning for connection than this chilly and formulaic comedy initially suggests.

The Lobster is a story about love that slowly and achingly becomes a love story; it’s the subtle power of that journey that is its finest achievement.

Watch 'The Lobster'

SBS VICELAND, 9.30pm Wednesday 11 April 
Available after broadcast at SBS On Demand