The very best satire establishes absurdity as commonplace, and Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language feature film The Lobster is a fascinating example. Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, this dark romantic comedy imagines a dystopia where single people are sent to a hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner. Should they fail, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild. Some attendees don’t wait that long, and escape into the bordering forest to live in a kind of fugitive singleness. The Lobster viciously jests through this dichotomy, exploring the nature of relationships and how societal pressures can paradoxically be the cause of both settling and celibacy.
The Lobster begins with a cryptic cold open absent any dialogue or explanation before leering at David (Collin Farrell) slouching on a sofa while his off-screen wife dumps him. He is whisked away to The Hotel where the staff provide deft exposition and introduce us to the rules of this world. David has brought his brother (who is now a dog) with him, but the dog is not allowed outside of his room. In the event that David fails to find a mate, he reveals that he would like to become a lobster, as he enjoys swimming, lobsters live for 100 years, and are always fertile. The hotel manager is impressed by his unconventional but excellent choice. Still, David’s right hand is cuffed behind his back for his first night, in an effort to make him remember how “two is better than one”.
The indoctrination and propaganda continues the next morning with the other denizens of the Hotel. Uncoupled people deliver brief A.A.-style monologues before the group detailing their “defining characteristic”, which is always some fault or negative. Belabored skits oversimplify the glories of couplehood and the dangers of single-living. Bizarre sexual habits keep the guests’ spirits up, but they are forbidden to masturbate. And finally, at odd intervals all guests at the Hotel hunt fugitives in the forest, earning an additional day at the Hotel for each person they tranquilize.
Obviously, as a person’s days dwindle, they begin to get more desperate to couple-up, where they will get the keys to a double room, an opportunity to spend two weeks on a yacht, and even can be assigned a child to help reduce arguments (which always seems to help). Brilliantly, the basis for most coupling is two people sharing the same hardship or deformity – a limp, for example. This creates an immense incentive for people to fake an injury, condition, or particular disposition. The lengths to which some of the characters go for an amicable coupling provides the perfect metaphor for just how willing we are to hide our faults and adopt fakeness for a relationship. At times, it will literally sicken you.
Hence, David escapes and joins the “Loners” in the forest, led by Léa Seydoux’s character. Here, the militant pro-relationship agenda of the Hotel is replaced by an equally horrible ant-relationship stance – complete with the same brutal punishments. The plot of the film reflects this dichotomy perfectly, as The Lobster is built around the rare two-act story structure, bifurcated by a momentous event. Here, that event is David’s escape and meeting The Shortsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Now in a setting where love is forbidden, it of course starts bubbling to the surface.
And this is the ultimate beauty of The Lobster. Though it may choose brutal methods of revealing its madness, this is a film about the pressures put on us by others to conform to “the correct” kind of relationship. In The Hotel, being alone is an anathema, and literally culminates in removing one’s humanity. The pressure to couple-up is palpable, and should be familiar for anyone who has even been a third or fifth wheel, or who has been the only single sibling at a Thanksgiving Day table. At the same time, the opposing viewpoint casts togetherness and couplehood as dangerous and ultimately not worth the effort. Again, this idea should resonate with anyone who has remained overlong in a relationship, or who has observed two people in a relationship who just don’t belong together. The brilliance of The Lobster is its sardonic characterization of this false dichotomy. It is not relationships qua relationships that it decries – but unfounded and unwelcome pressure from others to act a certain way.
With its own twisted voice, The Lobster is a champion of the individual’s right to choose a partner or remain alone – without reprisal. It is at once a touching romantic comedy and a black satire of the worst aspects of romance. What’s more, Lanthimos has a wonderful eye and sense of purpose behind the camera, imbuing this bleak film with repeated streaks of splendor that highlight the darker moments and make them pop in the viewer’s mind. The Lobster is a unique film; any comparable film that one could name winds up being a magnificent stretch in one direction or another. That being said, it reminds of the bleak worldview of Brazil, the violent comedy of In Bruges, or the sarcasm of the best Woody Allen films. For crafting this wonderful world and delivering a powerful viewpoint on a universal theme, Lanthimos most certainly earned his Jury Prize.
Did anyone else enjoy this film as much as I did? If it is playing near you and you have the chance to watch it, I suggest you give it a shot. As always, you can help Plot and Theme out a great deal by sharing this piece if you enjoy it, and by singing my overall praises to other movie-loving people you know. I also like arguing with people who think I am stupid for various reasons, so I welcome that as well!