I’m not really sure how to write about The Lobster, but from the look of it, neither is anyone else.
It seems like one critic set the narrative early on, that this is a “brilliant satire of 21st-century relationships”, and everyone else fell in line to comply. It’s the “No soap, radio” ideal: No one wants to be seen as the one person who doesn’t get it. As a result, every positive review I read says essentially the same thing, but reads the metaphor in differing, often contradictory, manners. Well, I’ll be that one person who admits it: I didn’t get that from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. At least, not the entirety of the film anyway. The metaphors are pretty apparent in the first half of the film, but as the story progresses and you consider more of the unnecessarily-complex rules the film gives itself, they become more and more muddled. Eventually you’re left with something that’s approaching a commentary from the side, too concerned with itself to reach it head-on. Fortunately, there’s more to enjoy about the film than just its satirical value.
The Lobster takes place in a quasi-futuristic society where being a single adult for any reason and any amount of time is considered an abomination and is outlawed. After his wife leaves him for another man, David (Colin Farrell) is taken to The Hotel, a sort of singles rehab facility where residents are given 45 days in which to find a suitable partner and fall in love. Those who fail are turned into an animal of their choosing, like David’s brother, who is now a dog. Within The Hotel, all men and women are identified by one Defining Characteristic and search desperately for a partner with a matching characteristic. For example, after Man With Limp (Ben Whishaw) is unable to find another limping woman, he begins to fabricate nosebleeds like Andrew W.K. in order to be paired with a Woman With Common Nosebleeds (Rachel Barden). David tries everything he can to find a match, including pretending to be a sociopath so he can partner with The Woman Who Doesn’t Feel Anything (Aggeliki Papoulia). Eventually David escapes and joins a tribe of Loners who live in The Woods. There he begins a relationship with The Shortsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), even though flirting, romance, and couplehood are forbidden in The Woods by the Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux).
This is really only the halfway point of the movie, and there’s plenty more strange twists, obscure rules, and Capitalized Phrases which will only confuse you if you get too hung up on. Perhaps it’s best to boil the film down to its most tangible and attainable elements. In a recent NY Times opinion piece, writer Alain de Botton suggests swapping out our romanticized notions of partnership for more pessimistic and self-aware ones, most quotably declaring “compatibility is an achievement of love, it must not be its precondition.” It is with this philosophy that The Lobster most clearly aligns.
In the film, “suitable matches” are based on the most mundane characteristics, many of which are physical and obvious, and several of which are actually shortcomings. People are matched together because they share the same physical ailment, or they both have nice singing voices, or because they studied the same subject in school. These micro-compatibilities, not terribly dissimilar from the questions asked in an OKCupid profile, dominate the society’s ideals of love so heavily that when David meets someone he matches with organically, he can’t bear the idea of not sharing at least one Defining Characteristic with her. As the no-nonsense hotel manager (Olivia Colman) puts it, “A camel can not live with a penguin, that would be absurd.” By this logic, a person with a limp and a person with no limp are as different as camels and penguins.
In fact, forget the whole “turning into an animal” thing entirely, it’s a red herring. (Which, coincidentally, is the animal I would choose to turn into.) Its main purpose is to illustrate the societal belief that an unpartnered person is less than a human. This isn’t that far-fetched when you consider how often people describe partners as “my other half”, implying they were incomplete without that other person. Also interesting is how The Lobster builds a world of binaries: David is told that he is not allowed to mark his orientation as “bisexual”, just as he is not allowed to wear a 44 ½- size shoe. Only 44s and 45s are available, signifying that David will be uncomfortable no matter which way he goes. You are either partnered in The City or you are a Loner in The Woods (or you are turned into a peacock or something.)
This binary thinking leads to the film’s secondary conflict: The notion that one cannot be Partnered and in The Woods, the dogmatic ideology of the Loner Leader. It makes sense in the context of the film, but it’s also where the movie’s real-world parallels start to feel muddled. The war between the anarchist Loners and The Hotel doesn’t seem to line up with the metaphor as presented. Societally, in no way is the pressure to be single as greatly romanticized and ingrained as the pressure to be partnered, and I say this as someone who enjoyed a movie called How To Be Single.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the second half of The Lobster feels distinctly less engaging than the first, with Farrell and Weisz’s forbidden romance coming across as odd but still familiar. The ideas seem to flow slower and the petty rules come across more significant. But the same deader-than-deadpan delivery and charmingly-offputting detachment which pervades the first half of the film is also what successfully carries the second half. It’s wrong to say that Weisz and Farrell have chemistry, when they’re actively attempting to play stiff and stilted. Instead, they have wonderful anti-chemistry.
Just as his actors struggle to be precise in their emotionless states, Lanthimos and his preferred DP Themios Bakatakis make the cinematography precisely understated. There’s no “Wow, what an incredible shot” moment to post on your gimmicky Twitter feed, but at the same time each frame is calculated and blocked with laser-accurate determination. As a result, the film draws the audience in visually, but not too close, as Lanthimos wants to keep you and your pesky emotions at arm’s length.
The Lobster is not a film for everyone, especially not those who dislike being intentionally pushed away by movies. Those who do enjoy the weirder side of things will probably fall in love with its flattened pessimism and unflinching, almost bored, display of often-disturbing imagery. Think of Lanthimos as a version of Lars Von Trier who still kinda likes people a little bit. Just try not to get too involved in making everything fit into a perfect one-to-one ratio of symbolism, because that way lies certain failure. Instead, approach The Lobster like you would any wild animal: Respect its unpredictable nature and only get as close to it as it lets you.Liked This? Share It!