“Come on, you guys. It’s a known fact that lobsters fall in love and mate for life. And you know what, you can actually see old lobster couples walking around their tank. You know, holding claws like… you have to picture lobsters.” –Phoebe, Friends
The Lobster is a movie with a premise that perfectly straddles the line between genius and insane. The film takes place in some kind of dystopian future/parallel universe/whatever. Better not to think about it too much. The important thing is that everyone who’s single is sent to The Hotel and given 45 days to find their life partner. Anyone who doesn’t make the deadline is turned into an animal of their choice.
Colin Farrell plays David, one of the Hotel’s most recent guests following his divorce. His ex-wife doesn’t follow him to The Hotel, so I assume she left him for someone else. David is accompanied by his brother, who was previously turned into a dog. And if David is unsuccessful in finding love, he’s chosen to become a lobster.
In many ways, the film works as an allegory for modern romance. The premise is centered around the monumental social pressure to find a mate by a certain arbitrary age and/or within a certain arbitrary time. The alternative is to be labelled as effectively hopeless, consigned to an existence that is somehow considered “lesser”. Faced with such a predicament, those who can’t find their soul mate may be forced to fake their shared attraction, settle for whatever they can take, kill themselves, or just say “Fuck it, I’d rather be single.” Hell, being single could potentially be so awful that those who are in already in relationships could threaten to break it off just out of spite.
None of these hasty decisions are unheard of among desperate singles in the real world, of course, but the sick and twisted nature of the premise makes everything that much more heightened and ludicrous while also raising the stakes by a considerable margin.
What makes it even crazier is how The Hotel operates. The guests are only referred to by their room numbers and never by their own names. Nobody is allowed to take any personal items or clothes with them and a dress code is strictly enforced. Any kind of sexual contact — including masturbation — is verboten. But to act as a kind of release valve, every guest is forced on a daily basis to grind against a housekeeper in the most sterile and apathetic way possible, stopping just before orgasm.
Perhaps most importantly, while everyone at The Hotel stresses the importance of finding a life partner, they kinda suck at explaining why it’s so important. There’s really nothing more coherent than “safety in numbers.” Nobody ever talks about raising kids — in fact, the couples are assigned children! There’s nothing about emotional support or sexual compatibility, nothing about having someone to grow old with and witness all your happiest moments in life, nothing about having someone at your side during your hardest moments… really, there’s nothing at all in terms of emotions or passion.
The only given measure of partner compatibility comes down to quirks. Every guest has one notable quirk. And only one, no more and no less. David, for example, is short-sighted. John C. Reilly plays a guy with a speech impediment. Ben Whishaw’s character has a limp. Angeliki Papoulia plays a sociopath. Jessica Barden (who’s now in her twenties, and dear God do I feel old) plays a young woman with frequent nosebleeds. And so on and so forth.
Two people shown to have a similar quirk are considered to be life partners. Simple as that. The choice about who these people are going to marry — arguably the most important decision anyone will ever have to make in their entire life — depends on absolutely nothing else about them except for one solitary quirk. These are flesh-and-blood human beings forced into being two-dimensional caricatures of themselves, void of any other interests or desires, creating personal strain that’s sometimes visible with tragic results.
Even worse, when two people have the exact same quirk, it could mean that their strengths can’t complement each other because they have the exact same weakness. This notion is taken (or possibly not, it’s left ambiguous) in the film’s terrifying, teeth-clenching final moments.
Every single character in this movie seems to talk and act as if they’ve only heard about emotion from a thirdhand source. Nobody knows how to form any kind of social connection beyond the most formal and dispassionate niceties. You know how people in the first stage of courtship try to act cool and confident when they’re really insecure dopes with no idea of what they’re talking about? In this movie, that’s been exaggerated to the point where the characters try to pretend that they have beating hearts when none of them have the slightest clue of what love really feels like. Either that or they’re deathly afraid of some horrific punishment if they so much as breathe wrong.
Everybody is trying their hardest and nobody really knows what they’re doing, which pretty accurately sums up the entirety of modern dating. This is the cornerstone of the film’s humor, as the concept is outrageously exaggerated in such a way that it’s funny, heartfelt, and incisive all at once.
But let’s back up a bit and get back to The Hotel. You might have noticed a loophole in the establishment’s rules: What’s to stop anyone at The Hotel from simply picking up and walking out the door? Well, let me introduce you to the Loners.
The Loners are a loose collective of people who decided they don’t want any of The Hotel’s bullshit. Unable to legally live in civilization without a life partner, the Loners live in the forest surrounding The Hotel. And even if the Loners don’t have access to the modern comforts of home, they can still masturbate and listen to music and run around doing whatever they want with impunity.
But even then, there are problems.
First of all, guests of The Hotel make regular trips out to the forest to hunt down Loners with tranq darts. And with every Loner they bag, the guests earn more time at The Hotel to find their perfect mate (which is how the sociopath played by Papoulia has been able to stay at The Hotel for a record length of time well beyond her allotted 45 days). As for what happens to the Loners who get caught… well, nothing’s certain beyond rumors and hearsay, but it’s definitely nothing good.
Secondly, though the Loners may look and act as a loose-knit collective, they are in fact alone when all is said and done. Those who get sick or injured are on their own, with no help or sympathy from anyone else in the pack. In point of fact, the Loners are all expected to dig their own individual graves ahead of time — they have to crawl into their own holes and bury themselves when the time comes because nobody else is going to do it for them.
Thirdly, the Loners are all under the rule of Lea Seydoux’s character, which makes no sense. You’d think that a group so devoted to individualism would be a full-on anarchy, keeping a fragile status quo with no clear leader among them.
Worst of all, the Loners are every bit as incapable as anyone in “civilization” of interpersonal connection, and the punishments for any kind of romantic attachment are straight-up barbaric. For example, those who get caught flirting have their lips cut off as part of what’s called “The Red Kiss.” There’s also something called “The Red Intercourse”, but the film mercifully spares us details about that one.
On the one hand, I get how the Loners are all about strength through independence and how personal connection is a liability and so on. But on the other hand, a huge part of individual liberty is in doing whatever you want. If there are all these rules about what you can do and whom you can fuck, doesn’t that defeat the point? What’s more, if the Loners are just as dispassionate and soulless as those in The Hotel, that kind of spoils the contrast between the two and ruins a chance to make some greater artistic statement on the subject. It’s hard to get behind either of these two sides because they’re both dictatorial assholes bent on the complete obliteration of basic compassion and independent thought, and there’s no reason given as to why.
Incidentally, this lack of passion comes through on a technical level as well. The sets (particularly those in The Hotel) are all spotless and nearly every shot looks like it was set up on a tripod. Even the score is aggressively minimalist — the music is limited to a few brief bursts of music from what sounds like a basic string quartet. It helps give the film an antiseptic feel, adding to the strange contradiction of a dispassionate film about passion.
All that’s really left to talk about is Rachel Weisz’ character, but there’s not much to say without getting into spoilers. Suffice to say she turns up in the back half as David’s primary love interest. Until that point, she serves as our narrator, commenting on everything in a dry and dispassionate way that further amplifies the joke of whatever’s going on at the time.
The Lobster is a fascinating and thoroughly twisted debut from director/co-writer/producer/editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis. It’s creative, funny, heartfelt, and disturbing, wringing sardonic humor out of characters who seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be fellow human beings. It’s also offbeat and opaque, set in a world that can only be maintained through the most liberal suspension of disbelief, and there are times when I wondered if even the filmmakers themselves had lost track of what they were trying to say.
But when this film works, it’s a diabolically clever fable about 21st century romance, delivered with a mercilessly dark sense of humor and a highly unique perspective. If this is a subject you have any interest in, and you have a high tolerance for offbeat cinema, go ahead and give this a look.