The Lobster is a disturbing, disconcerting, and disarmingly alarming movie. It tells a romantic story in a dystopic setting, crackling with the blackest of dark humor.
The movie takes place in some not-so-distant future where being paired up is mandatory. After his wife of twelve years leaves him, the protagonist, David — the only character in the movie given a name; everyone else is defined by some incidental detail such as a limp, a lisp, a great smile, a tendency to nosebleeds, or being another person’s best friend — checks into a rigidly managed resort hotel where he has forty-five days to find a mate. Failing that, he will be turned into an animal of his choice: a lobster, he has decided, since they are long-lived, have blue blood like aristocrats, and are fertile till death. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that a lot of lobsters just get eaten.
The world of The Lobster is highly circumscribed and characterized by a flaccid passivity — remarkably so, given the high-stakes, short-duration task the inhabitants must accomplish. The unpaired guests are given identical clothes and shoes; they are to presumably find each other in this sea of uniformity on the basis of their individuality. But what passes for individuality is only outward quirks and tics: failing to find a limping girl, the limping man fakes nosebleeds. There is no desperation, just resignation and lethargy. There is certainly no passion.
Nightly, the residents are reminded, through dances, presentations, and lectures, of the importance of being mated. One telling demonstration — ineptly, woodenly, and ludicrously performed by the hotel staff — showed a single woman walking on her own being sexually assaulted. The same woman walking in the company of a man (albeit one some forty years older than she) was not. The lesson is clear: it’s safer not to be alone.
And that’s when I started to see a larger message in the movie. It could very well be that it is only meant as a dark comedy about the difficulties of being in and out of relationships, but we saw it as an exegesis on conformity and freedom, and the price that people are willing to pay for security.
In this mannered and restricted world — somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, I thought — the people have surrendered their judgment and individuality. I was reminded too of Sartre’s No Exit; it seemed to me resistance was not futile, just not undertaken.
In the second act, David does resist and escapes to an equally oppressive mirror world in the woods just outside the hotel. Here, a tribe of loners are led by a dictatorial young woman who has every bit as many rules and regulations for living as exist in the hotel. The objective in the woods is not to pair up and to fiercely reject anything that smacks of empathy. And of course it is here that David falls in love.
A word that kept running through my head during the movie was “affinity” — as in Goethe’s Elective Affinities, a book I hadn’t thought of in lo these many years since college and which I don’t even own anymore. But a quick wiki confirmed the connection: Elective Affinities posits that human relationships are all just, as Guys and Dolls‘ Sky Masterson would aver, chemistry. Which is to say, outside the bounds of higher order rationality, respect, or reflection: like finds like and connects and bonds. The superficiality of the affinities displayed in The Lobster are almost farcical. And this leads to the film’s punchline, for David’s affinity is based in his being literally shortsighted.
I found The Lobster unsettling yet appealing, repellent but compelling. Julie thinks it was responsible for giving her a migraine, and no animal lover will sit easy. Its several acts of brutality can be seen as a series of escalating wake-up calls, gradually shaking the protagonist — and us — out of passivity and into action, however misdirected, misguided, and — yes, here is the punchline — shortsighted.
A postscript upon sleeping on the movie and its affects: Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s vision is sufficiently fluid, and the movie’s ending sufficiently ambiguous, as to permit a quite converse conclusion. Inaction could rule the day, making the brutality, and the shortsighted hero, tragically meaningless.