The Lobster is a pitch-black comedy about love and relationships in the modern age.
You need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.
The Lobster is a bizarre little film that, frankly, has no interest in sanding down its darker, quirkier edges in order to appeal to the masses. In its opening scene, a nameless woman drives her car through the countryside. The scene is completely innocuous — that is, until she pulls off the road, grabs a pistol from her glovebox, walks into a field, and proceeds to pump three bullets into a grazing donkey. There’s no dialogue or context, and the audience is left as bewildered as the other donkeys. Smash to title card.
That’s your warning, audience, and if you don’t find that donkey murder hilarious, you should probably just get up and leave before The Lobster goes any further.
The Lobster is the first English-language film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), and this meditation on love and courtship is one of the darkest black comedies I’ve ever seen. The film is set in a dystopian near-future where single people are forced to either find a new partner in 45 days or be turned into animals forever. Love doesn’t even enter the equation. Love is seemingly a secondary emotion that falls way behind partnership in terms of bureaucratic importance.
That’s the situation facing David (Colin Farrell), a man who finds himself recently single after his wife leaves him for another lover. He enters the building known only as “The Hotel” and is stripped of everything that makes him an individual, before being assigned the same nondescript pants and sport coat that every male at the Hotel wears for the length of his stay. Luckily, David is able to keep his border collie in his room. “This is my brother. He was here a couple of years ago, but he didn’t make it,” he relates, adding an additional reminder of urgency to every day.
The world that Lanthimos has created is a bureaucratic nightmare dominated by long lists of rules and an ever-present drizzle of rain. David and his fellow hotel guests are put through a gauntlet of dating rituals like sporting activities, mandatory dance parties, and daily propaganda performances about the benefits of being in a relationship (if you dine alone, there’s no one to give you the Heimlich when you choke). Further reinforcing the idea of a bureaucratic emotionless world, all of the couples seem to be matched purely based on their physical traits or preferences that only go skin-deep.
Pairs form due to limps, stutters, enjoyment of sailing, and a whole array of other seemingly inconsequential details. Thus, some hotel guests like Lisping Man (John C. Reilly, Step Brothers) and Limping Man (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) watch their remaining days as humans quickly tick away, unable to find partners who share their maladies. It should trigger an uneasy shudder in anyone who’s entrusted their romantic life to a website that matches partners based on algorithms or the quick-snap judgements of Tinder. Even if you do find a relationship, the Hotel’s pervasive meddling may not be over. “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children…that usually helps,” the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman, Broadchurch) says without a hint of absurdity.
The strangest parts of the stay are the mandatory trips to the woods where the hotel guests can earn extra days by hunting a group of separatist loners with tranquilizer darts. “It’s no coincidence that the targets are shaped like single people and not couples,” the shooting instructor says during a training session. Each captured loner earns the hotel guest who shot them an extra day, and it’s no surprise that the sociopathic Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia, Dogtooth) is so good at hunting people that her hotel stay has reached a record length despite being completely incompatible with anyone.
Make no mistake though, being a loner is not an idyllic escape from the bureaucratic rules that govern life in the Hotel and the City. The loners have their own set of rules, completely eschewing relationships to the point that flirting is punished by physical violence. Hilariously, the only music the loners are allowed to listen to is electronic music because it’s impossible to dance to as a couple. The loners’ world misunderstands love and relationships as much as the world of the Hotel. They just do their misunderstanding outside in the drizzly forest.
After an early flirtation with leading Hollywood roles, Colin Farrell has settled into a second career as a fantastic character actor, and The Lobster is a perfect example. Physically, he’s gained a considerable amount of weight to play a typical middle-aged man, and his fantastic mustache helps to conceal his movie star-quality good looks. The characters in the film take a backseat to the world they’re living in, but Farrell’s deadpan affectlessness is the perfect lens to see this world through. Rachel Weisz is equally as good as the loner, Short-Sighted Woman, but I’m reluctant to even mention her for fear of spoiling the film’s second half.
Great science fiction has an amazing ability to take outlandish scenarios and use them to reveal questions about the modern world. Blade Runner and Ex Machina use robots to question our understanding of humanity. The Matrix is an investigation of our increasingly technological world. District 9 is a parable about racism and apartheid. Underneath its bizarre veneer, Lanthimos’ film has a lot to say about modern love and relationships, wrapping its philosophical questions in a cloak of pitch black comedy. When Lisping Man is caught with pornographic contraband, the Hotel Manager points out that he’d be better off looking at the horse in the pictures rather than the naked woman because life as a horse is his fast-approaching future.
In the face of such a future, is it better to be in a relationship no matter the lengths it takes to make it work? That’s the philosophy of Limping Man, who takes to bashing his head against hard surfaces in order to produce nose bleeds, so that he has something in common with Nosebleed Woman. But what if your best option was an amputee or a blind woman? Just what will these people do to in order to find a secure relationship, even one that’s only skin deep?
The one small comfort of the Hotel’s process is that the guests get to pick what animal they’d like to become if they’re unable to find love. The reason and method for the transformations are never explained, but the Hotel Manager presents it as a second chance to find a relationship after failing as a human being. David knows exactly what he’d like to be in that eventuality, choosing a lobster because “lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.” The knowledge that lobsters are said to mate for life goes unsaid in the film, but you have to wonder if David does know this.
I found The Lobster deeply funny, but had that odd feeling of being the only person in my theater who was laughing really hard. Maybe some of the other patrons didn’t really understand what film they’d signed up to see, or, maybe, they simply weren’t prepared to give in to the laughs due to the uncomfortable horror that underlies each one. Then again, maybe they were thinking of the times in their lives when they, too, had been alone. What would they do if forced into The Lobster’s “date or die” process by a jilting lover? And what if they did find love and rejoin society, only to reencounter that same ex later in life and find that he or she hadn’t been so lucky? All I’m saying is, maybe that donkey deserved it.