The film opens with a woman driving through the Irish countryside in the rain, before stopping the car to shoot a donkey, which we view through swishing windscreen wipers. No explanation is given, yet we are soon to discover that this seemingly innocent donkey is not what it may appear.
Thus we enter a strange world, in which singles are considered social pariahs and to be consciously uncoupled is not an option. Not so strange, you might be thinking: ask any single person how they have been treated and the answers range from social leper to object of pity. Yet Bridget Jones this is not.
Lanthimos has created a society in which being single means you go to hotel for a last-ditch attempt to find a partner, shooting at the forest-dwelling loners to gain brownie points and extra time, after which you either pair up or choose which animal you’d like to be transformed into.
Colin Farrell is David, an architect who’s been dumped and summarily carted off to a hotel. At reception, we discover that his faithful sheepdog is actually his older brother, an unfortunate singleton. David is befriended by Ben Wishaw as Limping Man and John C. Reilly as Lisping Man, and we also meet Nosebleed Woman and Biscuit Woman (Jessica Barden and Ashley Jensen): a compatible mate in terms of physical traits and disabilities. Again, we see that this apparently nonsensical world is not so far from our own experiences: Limping Man fakes nosebleeds to get his girl, David feigns psychopathy to woo Heartless Woman and the hotel dance resembles nothing more than an excruciating school disco.
Alongside two of his regular actors, Ariane Labed and Angeliki Papoulia, Lanthimos has gathered together an impressive international cast, including the fabulous Olivia Colman as the hotel manager and Léa Seydoux as the leader of the loners. As Shortsighted Woman Rachel Weisz is vulnerable and Wishaw is stripped of his charming boyishness. After a litany of dud roles, Farrell excels as the podgy David, a very ordinary man who takes extraordinary measures to survive and to love.
Lanthimos provides numerous laugh-aloud moments: when the blonde girl doesn’t find a mate we see her transformed into a Shetland pony, its mane as golden and lush as the girl’s hair. The woods are full of incongruous creatures such as peacocks and camels. He also uses the stilted deadpan technique employed in his two previous features to create a distance and a lack of empathy with the characters. The film loses a little momentum in the second hour and some of the themes are overly repeated, yet this is a wonderfully bonkers and simultaneously not so very strange take on relationships and society that is worryingly all too familiar.