“The Lobster” (2015): An Absurdist Social Satire
Since their gradual emergence in Western popular culture over the period from the 1960s to today, the memes of “finding yourself” and being “in a relationship” have become perennial social preoccupations. The Lobster (2015) skewers both by reducing them to absurdity. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009 – see Kim McDonald’s review) and writing partner Efthymis Filippou show how solitude and togetherness are ridiculous when they become obsessions that obscure all other considerations.
In the context of a failed marriage, David (Colin Farrell) struggles with this dichotomy of choices after he arrives at the Hotel. According to the law of the City (for which Dublin stands in here), he must go there to find a new relationship. Through David’s story, Lanthimos and Filippou also point out how oppressive and dangerous “togetherness” is when a dominant ideology mandates it. As it turns out, solitude isn’t that much better, especially when it’s rigidly defined and enforced by an external authority. People (white, heterosexual, middle-class people, at least) don’t seem well suited for either state.
In the dystopian, near-future world of the film, the government has mandated interpersonal relationships for all adults. By law, David has forty-five days to find a new partner. If he fails, the Hotel — through the agency of the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) — will turn him into the animal of his choice. This penalty equates a lack of relatedness to others with the non-human. David thoughtfully chooses the lobster, in part because its lifespan can extend to a hundred years, during which time it is always fertile. In the last resort, at least he will have a lifetime of lobster sex — provided, of course, that he does not end up boiled and eaten.
The people of David’s world are not particularly good at interacting with others. He himself is chronically nervous; his conversations with others are stilted and awkward. Some of his anxiety could be situational. His brother recently failed to make a match during a recent Hotel stay. Now transformed into a dog, he accompanies David on his Hotel visit, where he is an ever-present reminder that failure is possible. The two men David befriends at the Hotel have physical disabilities that both contribute to and symbolize their social problems. Robert (John C. Reilly) speaks with a lisp; John (Ben Whishaw) walks with a limp. The women with whom this motley crew first interacts are also caricatures of social pathology. The Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), who claims to have no emotions, is a psychopathic narcissist. The Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), who always appears with a small pack of biscuits, is needy and clingy. The life of the Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) revolves around unpredictable episodes of epistaxis.
David and his fellow “guests” must follow a draconian set of rules and a regimented schedule of activities at the Hotel. The aim of these rules and activities is to prevent solitary activity (e.g., masturbation) while promoting interpersonal relationships. The unattached stay in single hotel rooms, but attend required group activities, such as dances and didactic presentations by Hotel staff, during which they meet and mingle with the others who are searching for a match. If they do “hook up” with a partner, the new pair enters into the couples’ phase of their stay, which is replete with its own absurd program (including giving a couple children when difficult problems arise).
Given the social ineptness of most of the guests, such a system seems necessary, albeit ludicrous. Yet the rules frustrate and humiliate instead of helping them overcome their inhibitions. For example, in one scene the Maid (Ariane Labed) insists that David submits to a daily, scheduled session of frottage with her — where she just as regularly stops before he can have an orgasm. She tells him it will improve his virility, but it seems instead to enhance his sense of defectiveness.
It’s interesting (and important) that the criterion for making a match is shared, superficial personal characteristics. “Vive la différence” is definitely not the basis for long-term relationships in this community. Ignoring the overtures of the Biscuit Woman (a heartless act, as it turns out), David pursues the Heartless Woman despite being completely unlike her (or is he?). At first, he succeeds in feigning a lack of empathy, but in the couples phase, she unmasks him through her cruelty. Bad relationship choices based on a complete lack of social intelligence seem to be David’s forte.
Another mandated activity for single Hotel guests is hunting “Loners.” Loners are those who defy the City’s relationship law. Their rebellion forces them to live outside the City in the forest, which is (ironically) also where Hotel guests go after they become animals (and are sometimes eaten by Loners). There the Loners must evade the Hotel singles, who hunt them with tranquilizer guns. Each Loner that a guest captures adds extra days to his/her Hotel stay, thereby staving off the looming termination of human existence. Of course, this activity also reinforces the notion that guests should avoid solitude at all costs.
The Loners live by their own (and equally ridiculous) code. Its enforcer is the Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux). Its rules are the exact opposite of the Hotel’s; they seek to promote personal isolation and prevent romantic and sexual relationships by threatening extreme and bizarre punishments for infractions. One such penalty is the “red kiss,” where those caught in a romantic situation have their lips cut off and are then forced to kiss each other. A worse punishment is said to be the “red intercourse,” which one can readily imagine after hearing about the “red kiss.” Loners are also forced to dig their own graves and lie down in them when they feel that they are about to die.
As a revolutionary brigade under the Loner Leader’s command, the Loners carry out attacks on the Hotel and go on reconnaissance missions into the City. The aim of the former is to expose the hypocrisy and falseness of interpersonal relationships. The purpose of the latter mission is to buy needed supplies, but also involves visits to the Loner Leader’s parents. Ironically, the Loners must go to the City in pairs who feign being relationship partners to avoid detection.
David winds up living with the Loners after his relationship with the Heartless Woman falls apart, forcing him to dispose of her before she can report his duplicity to the Hotel Manager. After successfully fitting in with the Loners, he develops an attachment to the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) on the basis of their shared vision problems. When the Loner Leader discovers their relationship, she takes steps to destroy this shared characteristic. Determined to stay together, David and the Short-Sighted Woman leave the Loners. In the last scene, David hesitates on the point of taking a drastic action to regain the basis of their relationship.
So, what options are left? Unfortunately, the film seems to run out of ideas at this point. In the end, the audience is left hanging when a major crisis is left unresolved. As a result, there’s no sense of symmetry or closure, no answer to the question of how people can relate to each other in a genuine way. Given this state of affairs, is The Lobster still worth watching?
While The Lobster‘s ironic absurdism is hilarious, it is also unsettling. Both the Hotel and the Loners limit personal choice in relationships, either to self or others. Moreover, human beings seem completely unsuited for solitude or togetherness. Nobody understands him- or herself or how to relate to others. A simple, elementary-school criterion of shared superficial characteristics is the main basis for choosing a partner.
Given the nature of this dark vision of a socially retarded human race, it’s not unexpected that Lanthimos and Filippou allow no escape. Nevertheless, it’s a let-down when the viewer learns that they don’t have anything else to say on the subject. Given David’s character, it’s possible that the last scene could resolve itself either way — in favor of his relationship with the Short-Sighted Woman (at a high personal cost) or himself (if he decides that the cost is too great). Either way, would David would learn anything or experience change or growth? In the end, The Lobster holds out no hope for the social misfits that populate its world. By extension, it offers none for those suffering from the real-world disconnectedness (both inside of and between human beings) that it satirizes.
Frisco Kid’s IMDb Rating: 5 out of 10 stars