There is a biting, socially relevant satire to be made about the almost laborious process of finding courtship in the age of the internet. Causally approaching someone of the opposite sex is getting to be a frowned-upon social convention – at least in the United States – and the number of relationships that begin via virtual communication, dating websites, or silly hot-or-not mobile apps like Tinder and WhatsApp today is truly astonishing. The concept lends itself to being a truly topical film regarding relationships and dating in the modern day.
However, after seeing Yorgos Lanthimos’s acclaimed, absurdist comedy The Lobster, I quietly wish I would’ve just put on another mumblecore film by Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, or even Andrew Bujalski, and hope all the answers would subsequently fall into place. The Lobster is a wholly original film in both concept and execution, and its narrative goes as far as it can on the basis of its concept rather than stifling the atmosphere with a series of winking, fourth-wall-conscious quips that plague the genre too often nor getting too entangled in plot-specifics. But the underlying issue I have with The Lobster is in regards to its entire allegory of how single, married, and mutually exclusive people are viewed and portrayed in society, coupled with how the film views longheld conventions like “opposites attract,” a theory that has also proven to have some truth and longevity to it. Then there’s the general look and feel of the film I found prolifically grating, especially during its largely woodsy-set second act.
I’m getting way ahead of myself here. The film follows David (Colin Farrell), who checks into a special hotel upon finding out his wife has left him for another man. At this hotel, which is open only to single men and women, people are only allowed 45 days to find a romantic partner before they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing. David decides that failure to find a sustainable partner will render him a lobster, being that lobsters can live to be 100 years old, are blue blooded like aristocrats, and remain fertile throughout their entire life.
This hotel has many rules, specifically banning masturbation but requiring stimulation by a hotel maid on a daily basis, in addition to various meetings where guests are shown videos explaining the value and necessity of immediate and everlasting courtship. David makes friends with a genial man who is burdened with a lisp (John C. Reilly), who winds up getting caught masturbating one day and receives a punishment in the form of the hotel manager burning his hand with a toaster. During downtime, singles are encouraged to take the tranquilizer shotgun and various ammo outside to the local forest preserve to shoot and detain “loners;” each loner shot earns them an added day to find a romantic partner.
The first act of The Lobster takes place almost entirely within the confining walls of this hotel. You can practically feel the wallpapered-rooms, antiseptic hallways, and luxurious conditions close in on characters and their presumably low feelings of self-worth from the very beginning. The second act of the film, conversely, takes place entirely in the forest, largely revolving around David and a cantankerous woman he meets and eventually considers marrying. The hotel scenes have a certain awkward stiffness to them in the best possible way; they make the audience feel as if they are trapped along with these characters, somewhat reminiscent of a “Hotel California” for singles that only have a certain time to find suitable partners before they are “cursed” as animals.
When the film ditches the hotel setting for the forest, it’s almost as if Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou admit they are unsure of how to handle the film and its eccentric premise. The forest scenes significantly lack any kind of tension the hotel scenes had, and with the film bearing such little energy in terms of assuming a typically absurdist, dead-pan, almost reality-TV-esque image, it’s not as if the change in setting results in a change of pace for the film either.
The issue I take with the metaphor in The Lobster is the idea Lanthimos and Filippou paint in the near future, where being single is a societal taboo of sorts. If anything, this was more of a taboo decades past, when few people found themselves living alone or living with their parents well into adulthood, regardless of sex. If the film’s sentiments were more predicated upon psychology and the idea of worth a person has when they’re alone versus when they have someone of the opposite or same sex to love them, then therein lies a more believable setup. Furthermore, another rule of the hotel is that, once turned into the animal of his or her choosing, a person cannot interact nor form a courtship with an animal of a different species (a wolf can’t go with a penguin nor can a camel go with a hippopotamus we’re told). With that, not only does being single become a taboo in the future, but the idea of opposites attracting holds no sort of gravity nor significance whatsoever.
These are petty issues that should probably come with the same suspension of disbelief used to justify humans turning into animals after failure to form romantic commitment in less than two months, but I find it difficult to accept a social satire that shifts its primary focus on something that is often internal and plays it for more of an external, society-driven taboo. Of course there are images, TV shows, and movies that perpetuate heteronormative romance and courtship, but the feelings of wanting such a relationship come from ones self and an analysis of what one doesn’t have moreso than the portrayal and strict rules of society.
The Lobster, to say the least, was difficult to digest, and its perpetual dryness and dead-pan demeanor scarcely resulting in humor or noteworthy observations didn’t make the experience much easier. My above-average rating comes largely from my admiration of the film’s original, if problematic, concept, as well as its sporadically entertaining and intriguing first act that doesn’t lose ground even with a significantly lesser second act. This is a tricky beast, almost as tricky as imagining the process of a person turning into any kind of animal that doesn’t make for some kind of sick, Tusk-esque process.
NOTE: As of this writing, The Lobster is available to stream on Max.
Starring: Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, and Jessica Barden. Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!