‘Love and Friendship’ and ‘The Lobster’: What’s Love—or Lobster—Got to Do With It?

Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship,” based on “Lady Susan,” Jane Austen’s unpublished epistolary novella, unfolds in class-bound 1794. Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” based on an original screenplay by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, is set in a totalitarian future. In mocking mating rites, both the giddily enjoyable adaptation and the seriously funny horror-comedy provide alternative definitions of love for those tangled in the webs of Tinder and Match.com.

While satirizing the Georgian pragmatism that a hardy romance should take root in the loam of good finance, “Love and Friendship” bluntly asks, “What’s love got to do with it?” In taking aim at the tyranny of coupledom, “The Lobster” answers, “Marriage cannot be engineered by some compatibility algorithm.”

Skirts billowing, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), the recently widowed beauty who rules “Love and Friendship,” is ever in full sail, leaving the wreckage of country squires in her taffeta wake. It is an outsize performance for such a modest film, but that makes her all the more hilarious. Who knew a drama queen could be so dizzily entertaining?

Ceremoniously booted from the Manwaring estate, whose lord she has apparently seduced, Susan looks for cover. When her friend Mrs. Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) cannot host her because Mr. Johnson believes Lady Susan is morally unsuitable, Our Heroine scolds. “What a mistake you made in marrying Mr. Johnson. He is too old to be governable, too young to die.”

Little matter, for Lady Susan opportunistically (and optimistically) believes that in one’s plight lies one’s prospects. Having already sent her “dull” grown daughter away to boarding school, Lady Susan descends on the household of her late husband’s brother, using it as a base of operations to deploy herself and her daughter into more advantageous situations.

Like Austen, Stillman delights in the considerable distance between what people believe and how they behave. Some might call this hypocrisy. But not Lady Susan, ever three moves ahead on the social chessboard. How could such a creature be satisfied by the ardor of just one man when she could be adored—and underwritten—by so many pawns?

“The Lobster” is likewise about those who defy social convention, in this case David (Colin Farrell), a bespectacled depressive. Early in this surrealistic fable, David’s unseen wife tells him she is leaving him.

There is no place in his city-state for the unattached. Reluctantly, David goes to the Hotel—a three-star Singles Mingle where the unmarried have 45 days to pair off or be turned into an animal of choice. David isn’t alone, exactly. He arrives accompanied by his dog that, in a prior iteration, was his brother. When asked which animal he wants to be should he fail to couple, David chooses the lobster, for its high fertility and long life.

At the Hotel, arousal is permitted, but masturbation and sex are strictly verboten—all the better to encourage “guests” to make a speedy commitment. The Hotel Manager (dryly funny Olivia Colman) dissuades her guests from regarding available partners in terms of their entire selves. They should instead reduce themselves and others to a single obvious trait. Thus a nose-bleeder should have much in common with another. And someone short-legged should be compatible with another who limps.

Before long, David realizes such reasoning is, well, incompatible with compatibility. So he escapes the Hotel and discovers the Loners, an underground group of singletons living in the woods near the Hotel. They are led by belligerent “Loner Leader” (Léa Seydoux). In this distorted mirror-image of the Hotel, pairing off is forbidden. Despite this prohibition, David is strangely drawn to Short-Sighted Girl (Rachel Weisz), who like him, is myopic.

Is it that the environment of mandated Coupledom makes David want to be a Loner and that of mandated Lonerdom makes him want to pair off? This comedy, alternatingly droll and violent, keeps a poker face.

One might conclude that for Lady Susan, there is no greater love than self-love. And that for David, love is blind.

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