SPOILER ALERT! This film will be released in the UK this Friday; a shitload of plot spoilers lie ahead.
In the past ten years or so, it’s seemed to me that pop culture has become saturated with dystopia – books, films, and television shows that would have us believe that the future is a dark, desolate, desperate place with scarce resources and no humanity. The Lobster, a new film from director Yorgos Lanthimos, is a light in that darkness.
The film opens with the main character, David, played by Colin Farrell (in a mustache strongly reminiscent of 1980s Bruno Kirby), being dumped by his wife. In the next scene, he’s checking into a hotel, where he is informed that he has forty-five days to find someone else in the hotel to pair off with – no grieving period for his lost relationship; no time to heal his broken heart. If he doesn’t find a partner, he’ll be (through some future scientific miracle) transformed into the animal of his choosing. In case you didn’t catch that: all that separates us from the animals is monogamy!
What ensues is a process of calculation by all hotel guests in terms of potential choices: Find someone you can tolerate and pair off in order to get out of the hotel. Commit suicide. Escape from the hotel and live in the woods with a ragtag band of loners – but then live a life of celibacy (or face extremely severe consequences). Or, in the case of one hotel guest, get really good at hunting. For each loner that a hotel guest catches in the woods, they get one extra day to find a mate.
When two people announce their official coupledom, they are literally given privileges – bigger rooms, better meals, time on a yacht, access to sports and hobbies that require pairs. Guests are further motivated to partner up via a series of hilarious skits – woman alone is raped. Woman with man is felt alone. Man alone dies by choking to death. Man with woman is saved.
How does one find a partner, then? It seems that people pair up based on physical and psychological maladies. Characters feel that they are adequately matched based on the fact that they get nosebleeds or that they have a limp. There’s a telling scene in which David asks the woman he’s sleeping with (played by Rachel Weisz) a series of questions to find out if they have anything else in common besides their bad eyesight; they don’t. We hold onto tenuous threads a sign of destiny when first meeting someone – “Wow! This person also likes Miles Davis! We are SOULMATES!” – and Lanthimos nails it.
His presentation of the intersection of sexuality and partnership is also fascinating; in the hotel, partner sex is encouraged, but masturbation is banned (and there’s a horrific physical punishment in place for breaking that rule). Guests are forced into a state of arousal but then forbidden to jack off. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Loners are encouraged to masturbate, but partnered sex is forbidden. Even flirting is punishable by physical deformation. It’s here where the dystopia (and the main point or the film, I believe) really took hold for me: There’s a Manichean binary between monogamy and dying alone.
And so people in this imaginary world, not so different from our own, couple up in order to avoid transformation or being hunted. In what is my absolute favorite scene in the film, the Loners hold the couple who run the hotel (and enforce the rules) at gunpoint, asking the husband how much he loves his wife. From the bottom of his heart, he claims. They then ask him to choose whom they should shoot: Himself or his wife. Shoot her, he says; he can live alone. She can’t. So much for true love!
The Lobster is not a very subtle allegory, but it gets its point across in a hysterically deadpan, macabre way that left me eager to see it again. It is wonderfully strange and presents a delightfully different vision of dystopia. This movie is comical satire at its finest, even when what it’s satirizing – the serious social pressures we face to become we instead of me at any cost – isn’t so funny.