Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is an unconventional love story, set in the not-so-distant future in an unnamed dystopian city, where all singletons are apprehended and relocated to ‘The Hotel’ in order to find a partner. While at The Hotel, they are obliged to secure a suitable mate—with compatibility being based upon the mutuality of a person’s defining physical characteristics—or else face being transformed into an animal of their choosing, and released into the nearby woods. The only other options? Faking a relationship, or escaping The Hotel and joining ‘The Loners’ who inhabit the forest, and for whom relationships are forbidden.
Speaking plainly, I’d have to say that The Lobster is probably one of my favourite films, and not even just a favourite of 2015. Lanthimos seamlessly blends romance with drama and tragedy before wrapping it in a veneer of deadpan comedy that, while being incredibly surreal, just works.
What I particularly liked about The Lobster‘s brand of humour is that there’s no outright dependence on its jokes; which is especially significant given that the cast includes actors and actresses typically associated with more blatant comedy styles (John C. Reilly and Olivia Coleman to name a few). Regardless of any viewer’s own comedy preference, The Lobster doesn’t force its humour, and nor does it rely on its cast to hammer home punchlines. The comedy is an undercurrent that carries the film’s aspects of romance and tragedy, pushing them away from melancholy towards an off-kilter satirising of relationships.
This satirising, in my opinion, is what elevates The Lobster from an absurdist flick into a poignant reflection of the ways human relationships (both in terms of romantic and platonic partnerships) work. By reducing social interactions to their primitive functions—namely the drive to procreate and the urge to compete for mates by extension—and stripping away personal freedoms that are associated with traditional distinctions between human-beings and animals, The Lobster becomes an exploration of romantic attraction when the notion of “love” itself is sterilised.
Condensing relationships into a search for compatible physical characteristics like limps, lisps, good hair, or short-sightedness works on a number of levels within the film. The most obvious of which is the highlighting of how outward and physical appearances affect a person’s level of physical attraction for another. But, taking this further, The Lobster‘s preoccupation with physicality also represents the innate desire for a sense of shared experience to garner a connection within a partnership. For example, when The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) realises his time at the hotel could be over before long, his initial is not to search for another hotel inhabitant with a limp; but to begin faking nosebleeds in order to attract The Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden). In doing so, The Limping Man becomes the embodiment of the expectation that dissimilarities within partnerships will end in disaster through his desperate attempts to feign a personal connection.
The result is a relationship fraught with tension that the film’s protagonist, David (Colin Farrell), also encounters—based on his belief that it’s easier to fake having no feelings at all than pretending to have feelings for someone—but narrowly escapes after a disastrous stint with a so-called Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). In fact, the only time David encounters a suitable partner is when he escapes The Hotel and joins The Loners in the forest, for whom partnerships are forbidden.
Therefore his relationship with The Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) becomes an examination of the external pressures placed upon couples; with the contrast between their trips to The City (which allow them to express their feelings for each other) and The Loners’ requirements that they mask these feelings proving to be increasingly strenuous on the pair. Being forced, yet again, to feign having no feelings, David succumbs to paranoia and goes so far as to claw at the eyes of a fellow Loner (Michael Smiley) in order to see if he wears contact lenses—as this would implicate him as competition for The Short-Sighted Woman.
These external pressures also reveal the fickleness of human attraction; as when The Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux) blinds The Short-Sighted Woman, David’s relationship begins to wain through the struggles of finding a common standpoint in the aftermath of such a major change in circumstance. David’s attempts to console The Short-Sighted Woman by making up “games” to help re-familiarise herself with her surroundings only serve to highlight their disjointed connection, to the point where David simply agrees that she’s guessed objects correctly regardless of the truth.
In the film’s conclusion the pair manage to escape The Loners and make their way into The City to be together—but David’s decision to blind himself in a diner with a steak-knife is left unanswered. The open-ended nature of the narrative is thereby saturated with melancholy as The Short-Sighted Woman is pictured sitting alone waiting for his return, and it is left up to the viewer to decide for themselves if he goes through with it. Personally, I don’t believe he does. I feel that The Limping Man serves as a sort of foreshadowing for this event; with the exception that while The Limping Man can choose when he wishes to achieve a nosebleed, if David were to blind himself the effect would be irreversible.
Therefore, when we see David attempting to psych himself up to committing the act in the diner’s bathroom, I think this is indicative of his reluctance to commit to a permanent change for a relationship. Despite short-sightedness and blindness both being ocular characteristics—which are arguably only distinguishable from each other by a slight degree—it’s precisely this margin of difference that creates a problem for the relationship’s longevity. Throughout the narrative, David has been preoccupied with finding a perfect mate, someone who shares the same physical characteristic as himself. When he finally finds The Short-Sighted Woman he places her short-sightedness upon a pedestal of perfection, and in her forced blindness she fails to live up to his own internalised sense of what his soulmate should be like.
In making the grand gesture of blinding himself, David is attempting to change himself physically in order to make the relationship work on a true level—without having to fake any aspects, either through masking feelings, pretending to feel, or pretending she isn’t blind. But in doing so, David blinding himself is a performance of self mutilation that in itself is an act of forgery. Its permanence doesn’t distract from the fact that he would still be physically altering himself in order to better fit his partner. Therefore, his choices are either; to gamble with the chances of regret for blinding himself, to fake blindness to appease his partner, or to abandon the relationship altogether. And as a result, regardless of his choice, his relationship is just another among many within the Lobster that is doomed to failure.