This five-nation collaboration was the winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, among many other accolades, in spite of being both wildly experimental and evidently low budget. The Lobster’s director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos specialises in films based on a single, unusual concept extended into a story: in his past films, for example, recently bereaved people hire actors to impersonate their deceased loved one, and teenagers are confined in isolation for a reason relating to their teeth. The Lobster, Lanthimos’ first English language feature, falls into that category.
The setting is a dystopian society a short time in the future. This society’s defining characteristic, apart from being dictatorial like most dystopian future societies, is that it has no tolerance for the unpartnered state. Everyone must be part of a couple. Those who lose their partner, for whatever reason, are sent to a compound known as The Hotel, where they choose a new one. Anyone who remains single after forty-five days is transformed, by some means never clearly defined, into an animal.
Lanthimos explained in interview that the futuristic setting is merely a vehicle for exploring a present-day reality; the oddness of the dystopian society is meant to force the viewer to look at familiar things from a new perspective. He describes it as reality ‘altered and tweaked’ to reveal the absurdity behind ordinary customs and attitudes. While The Lobster does provide that new perspective, I would have to add that its fictional society is presented in such a striking way, that it tends to overshadow the message. It’s difficult to see beyond the understated horror of Lanthimos’ new world; he has done his job a little too well.We are introduced to this bizarre situation through the central character, David (Colin Farrell) – one of the few characters in this impersonal world who is identified by a name rather than a description, like Hotel Manager or Short-Sighted Woman. His girlfriend abruptly leaves him for another man, requiring David to enter The Hotel. He is accompanied by his collie, who turns out to be David’s brother, an earlier victim of unsuccessful pairing who has therefore been turned into a dog, demonstrating early in the film that this animal transformation is meant literally. The Hotel has the calm, clinical, benignly restrictive atmosphere of an upscale rehab facility. It also notably limits guests to clear-cut choices: one may identify as straight or gay, but not bisexual; shoes may not be ordered in half sizes. The guests accept these rules passively as they go through the often humiliating orientation process and prepare to find a new mate among the other residents.
The Hotel seems overbearing but fairly innocuous until the second day, when the guests’ regular hunting excursions are introduced. Guests are taken to the woods, armed with tranquiliser guns, to hunt down any escapees from The Hotel. Those who manage to bag a fugitive are granted an extended deadline. The stark filming of this strange event manages to overcome any sense of its absurdity, and introduce a feeling of menace into The Hotel’s relentless serenity.
As the story continues, that contrast between the bland, detached aura of The Hotel and the occasional revelations of its cruelty and the inmates’ desperation becomes more apparent. The ‘loners’ meet each evening for what seems like an innocuous social gathering, including simple public-service vignettes meant to remind every one of the importance of being part of a couple; but the pressing need to locate a partner before time runs out is on everyone’s mind. The guests’ docile acceptance of the rules is occasionally contrasted by the vicious punishment meted out to those who violate any of their restrictions.
In spite of being such an obsessive goal in this society, the relationships themselves seem to be approached in a superficial way; trivial similarities between two people are regarded as proof of perfect compatibility and ‘true love.’ David is driven to attempt to make a match with a sadistic and callous woman through subterfuge, which backfires tragically, and he is left, still a loner, with only a few days before his dreaded deadline.At this point, The Hotel’s calm ambience is broken by signs of deep unrest more and more frequently and in increasingly grim ways, including a graphic and disturbing failed suicide attempt, and at last, David desperately attempts to escape. This leads to the second part of the film, which deals with David’s attempt at freedom and the people he meets in the process: other escapees attempting to make a life outside the confines of their society. Satire becomes more pointed here, as various efforts at freedom are repeatedly hindered by an unconscious tendency to return to familiar ways of thinking rather than break free entirely. The film ends with an outrageous example of this lack of insight about to take place.
The Lobster is impressive in its ability to capture the viewer’s attention, in spite of the flat, minimalist style. In an interesting choice, much of the dialogue is conducted in a deliberately stilted way, resembling schoolchildren acting out a story. Actress Ariane Labed (who plays a hotel maid in the film) recalls that Lanthimos avoided rehearsal for The Lobster, because he was striving for a feeling of unprepared awkwardness. Rather than diminish the story’s authenticity, this approach seems to underscore it somehow, emphasising the message that the characters are trapped by their preconceptions like the storybook characters they sound like; and gives the periodic scenes of realistic violence or fear more impact by contrast.
This is a peculiar film which logically should not work, but somehow, through the uninhibited and confident ingenuity of the filmmakers, produces a remarkable impact.
For further viewing:
Ruby Sparks (2012) uses a familiar fantasy, that of a writer able to make his character come to life, to explore love and control in a thoughtful, interesting way. It is The Stepford Wives turned on its head.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007) follows a lonely, delusional man’s relationship with a plastic doll he believes is a real woman, and how his friends and family try to help him accept reality.
Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her, uses another metaphor, that of the connection between humans and electronics, to assess the nature of love and attachment.