The Lobster (2015): satiric alternate reality and the tyranny of social conformity

The Lobster marks the return of a modern mastermind of everything absurd and surreal, of the man whose  dystopian communities are the quirkiest satirical commentaries of our dysfunctional modern world. His Bunuelian sense of surrealism first sparked my interest back in 2009, when I saw his critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, and he has been making the weirdest, most bizarre, often uncomfortable, but ultimately very rewarding and thought-provoking films ever since.

The story follows a recently divorced David (Colin Farrell) who, due to his recent divorce and newly established single status, has to check into the Hotel in order to find a new life companion. For he lives in a world where being single is illegal, where people are meant to live in couples and whether their spouse has left them or just recently died, they are obliged to check into a Hotel where they have 45 days to fall in love. Failing to start a relationship with someone in this limited time means you failed as a human being and as a consequence of your incompetence you get to be turned into an animal of your choosing.

Of course Lanthimos drives the whole situation to the most humours extreme, but there are quite a few aspects of our own reality hidden in there. Do we not live in a world where single people are constantly judged and stigmatised? Where a person of a certain age is expected to get married and have children, where most people don’t even think of choosing a different life path? Where people, in a hurry to start a family of their own, consider it to be by their own free will, rarely realising they may be simply following social norms they have internalised while growing up? Single people seem to be constantly dating, swiping right and left on Tinder, trying to meet THE person, because they think they have reached an age where being single is no longer acceptable. And when they fail to connect, when they fail to build a lasting relationship, they feel as if they failed. “There is probably something wrong with me,” is the sentence I hear all too often. But there is actually something wrong with a society that is wrongfully letting us believe that not having a partner is somehow a result of our personal shortcomings. Our society may not turn us into an animal, but it is doing something that can be interpreted equally damaging: instead of turning us into a lobster, it lets us punish ourselves. By letting us believe that our life is not yet complete, not fully lived, because we need “our better half” to be considered a normal, fully functioning member of our society. By letting us know that it is time to stop kidding around and start living a normal life. Tick tock. The clock is ticking.

The clock is ticking for David, too, as he checks into the Hotel – some kind of a singles resort that could easily be called a Prison, since the only way of getting out in your human form is by starting a relationship and finding your “soul-mate”. And just as in real life, he has a limited time to find “his person”. Which is why most Hotel guests, desperate to get out while still being human, start to fake their habits, their (dis)abilities, even their personalities, in order to become interesting to other single visitors. The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) starts to fake his nosebleeds in order to get closer with the Nosebleed Woman, and it is not long before David, who is already running out of time, tries to change his whole personality in order to start dating the cold and unapproachable Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). Things do not go as planned, though, since she chooses to put his psychopathic tendencies to a test by killing his dog/brother. Blinded by anger and grief, he chooses to revenge his brother’s death by turning her into an animal and escaping from the Hotel – only to run into a forest full of other dissidents, as he is not the first person who chose to run from the tyranny of social conformity.

While the Loners live away from social restrictions of the house, in an endless forest that symbolises their (spatial) freedom, they are far from actually being free. They may have abandoned social rules of the majority, but their merciless leader Léa Seydoux came up with a whole set of different rules. Trying to build a society as the exact opposite of the life they lived before, everything that is required to do in couples now becomes strictly forbidden – which leads to them being no less rigid or intolerant than the society they chose to escape from. The way they function is reminiscent to a religious cult, but I would go even further than that: if the world outside of the forest represents a totalitarian regime in an alternate reality, the forest represents freedom that most of the former communist countries imagined when they thought of the word democracy. However, things did not turned out all that great as one might expect, once the era of communism ended and an era of democracy (and with that, capitalism) began. What Lanthimos therefore tries to say is that we can change the system, but the ideological package that surrounds us does not really matter as long as the people, at their core, remain the same. Of course there are different methods for achieving social (and political) power, as one system will kill your human form and the other will blind you while pretending to help, but the end result will essentially be the same: entrapped by the system, we will be playing by someone else’s rules instead of making decisions for ourselves.

There is a story about forbidden love hidden in there also, a modern Romeo and Juliet of sorts, even though none of the lovers dies at the end. Instead of death we get a very typical Lanthimos ending, not much different from the self-mutilating bathroom scene in Dogtooth. And while the scene certainly serves as a reprise to his previous feature film, I believe the real power of it lies somewhere else. What the message here seems to be is that we need to embark into the future blind (figuratively, although the film shows it quite literally); free of all the rules, preconceptions, norms and beliefs that up to this point limited our existence. That we need to distance ourselves from everything we knew as our reality, because only then can we can realize how absurd and socially constructed (and therefore, changeable) most of the things we consider normal and “right” actually are.

Lanthimos, always ready to perform an artistic surgery on social stigmas and taboos, chose to address the stigmatization of single people in the way he knows best: in a satirical love story, full of mechanical dialogue, dark humour and absurd situations. His style sure is not for everyone’s taste – but if you are willing to put up with absurd situations that reflect our everyday life, this is going to be one of the best film experiences of the year.

The Basics:
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Angeliki Papoulia
Running Time: 118 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9