Yorgos Lanthimos burst onto the scene in 2009 with his proclaimed “absurdist comedy” Dogtooth, that looked into family dynamics through a disturbed lens of abuse, incest, rape, and manipulation. In 2012 he returned with Alps, a slightly more palatable surrealist drama about a service that provides imitation phone calls for the recently deceased. In the opinion of this humble critic, Lanthimos exposed with Dogtooth, as Darren Aronofsky did with Pi and Requiem for a Dream, that he is a fearless filmmaker in terms of raw content, and that he is a visually accomplished artist as well. His first two films demonstrated to me an artist with the potential to be one of the greats of his time who just wasn’t quite there yet. I don’t want to get ahead of myself over a single film, but if The Lobster is any indication of what we can expect from Lanthimos in the future, we have a real talent on our hands.
The premise of The Lobster, as you probably know by now, is centered around a hotel where single people are sent to find a suitable match. They are given forty-five days to do so. Should they fail to find a partner, they are sent into the woods and transformed into an animal of their choosing. There are greater specifics revealed in the film, but they are scarcely worth discussing as this is less the premise of a science fiction film, where one can expect a set of rules and boundaries to define the setting and culture of the story, than it is a surreal depiction of our current society. As such, it is free to divulge as little information as necessary convey the absurd nature of our real relationships.
As The Lobster opens, David (Colin Farrell) is loaded onto a bus and sent to the hotel. He is briefly questioned about his previous relationship and then asked about his sexual preferences. He has a dog with him, which we learn used to be his brother in human form. Once enrolled in the hotel, he and the other guests are forced to engage in social situations that feel rather like middle school arranged social gatherings. Everyone is awkward and speaks in overly premeditated sentences, specifically talking about their “defining characteristic.” This all reminds one a bit of reading dating profiles on Match.com or OKCupid.
The “defining characteristics” of each character are always arbitrary physical details, such as a limp or being short-sighted. No single traits are seen as desirable or undesirable. Guests only look for traits they share with other guests. On the one hand this appears a metaphor for how dating in our current society is built on arbitrary superficial details. On the other hand, the idea of mating with someone who shares traits increases the chances of your offspring carrying these traits, which makes the system look like eugenic breeding.
Due to the pressing fear of becoming extinct, many of the men in the hotel opt to fake “defining characteristics” in order to expedite their matrimony and escape the peril of becoming a less intelligent animal, lower on the food chain. One particularly attractive girl has the peculiarity of spontaneous nosebleeds. To meet this need, a young man regularly smashes his nose to fake bleeds. Hence their relationship is not just based only on an arbitrary, superficial, and almost inarguably negative trait, but it is also built on a lie.
Whether you want to look at this imagery as a parallel for the increased potential of anyone to misrepresent themselves in an online dating environment or in the broader terms of anyone becoming someone they are not to try to become involved with a particular person, it is a great example of how the surreal and minimal landscape of The Lobster expertly speaks to the nature of relationships of all capacities. I’ve mentioned the online dating environment specifically several times already, but the film really is more universal than that. Still, I can’t shake the image of a recently dumped person being shipped off to a hotel of single people being roughly what it is like for a recent divorcee to sign up for Tinder for the first time. There is something about the idea of the pool of single people who all know everyone is single and desperately looking, otherwise they wouldn’t be there, along with the shallow presentations and awkward, superficial interactions that speaks specifically to the online world.
The second half of The Lobster, and I know I’m not spoiling anything here because this is all revealed in the trailer, takes a different turn. We are introduced to a society outside of the hotel and forced relationships where all relationships of any kind are strictly forbidden. It is here, where David first finds love. It is fascinating to see this happen because we get the sense that the connection he finds with his fellow shortsighted “girlfriend” (Rachel Weisz) seems genuine and emotional, even though it is still based on a physical feature. At least this time they are not lying about their shared physical trait and we feel sincere romance between the two as well.
In short, we see two opposing groups with strict practices enforcing limited perceptions of relationships that have absolutely nothing to do with love. There are countless ways that one could argue that our current society deters and prevents genuine relationships even before you take into account the shallow world of online dating. The beauty of the imagery on display in The Lobster is that avoids being specific without losing focus. What is the film about? That will probably depend on your own experience and opinions with relationships and loneliness. I have a friend who considers the film to be an exploration of the question “what is love?” I won’t say that is not in there, but I think the film hints at much more.
Does being turned into an animal have to do with the idea of reincarnation? After all if we do find a mate in this life and produce offspring, that is how we go on this world. If not, and your genealogy comes to an end as your remains are recycled into the earth. This is what part of the set up seems to allude to, but it is simply a challenge to fully address The Lobster having only seen it once.
The end result is a bizarre rollercoaster ride of moods and emotions. The film is as bleak as Dogtooth or your average outing from Lars Von Trier. But it has a genuine love story at its heart, a sympathetic protagonist whose loneliness is both palpable and somehow strangely relatable, and a biting sense of humor. And after all of that, it ends with a shot that gave me nightmares.
I would imagine that Lanthimos draws heavily on the works of Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel, the plays of Samuel Beckett, and the writing of Eduardo Ionsecu. His past three films have displayed an intriguing development of a new artist with a fresh and relevant voice, willing to get his hands dirty. With The Lobster we see a language rarely executed well in cinema delivered with fearless perfection. It is a film I need to see again and refine my interpretation of over the years. For now, I’ll just say this is a work that shook me thoroughly, leaving me in a delirious and perplexed daze, reflecting on my own understanding of relationships. Few films come out each year that are this thought-provoking.