Beneath the Surface: The Lobster

There’s something oddly refreshing about art-house. I so rarely see a movie that expects more from the audience than mostly passive enjoyment. Certain wider release films are definitely capable of challenging an audience, but rarely do they assert out-of-the-box terms and demand the audience meet them on said terms. From the opening shot of The Lobster, the viewer knows they are in for something out of the ordinary. The film-makers aren’t trying to appeal to a wide audience, or pander to a small one. They are simply making the art they want to, with no apologies to anyone who doesn’t follow.

I imagine this will be a turn off for the majority of this film’s potential audience. Pretentious is a word that will probably be thrown at this movie for years to come. If seen with the wrong mind-set, this movie could easily be the most miserable two hours of a person’s life. All of this to say, know what you’re getting into. This isn’t a straight-forward story intended to be taken literally. The situations are not literal, or even allegorical, but an exaggerated version of how the film-makers see the world, laying bare the absurdity we take for granted. There is a fair sprinkling of dark humor throughout, mainly stemming from the ridiculousness of the situations and the brutal, oversharing honesty of the characters. If that doesn’t sound like a fun time to you, that’s absolutely fair. The Lobster isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. You shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t enjoy this movie, because the movie doesn’t feel bad for you either.

This only sort-of makes sense in context.

I will be completely spoiling this movie in this review, so if you do plan to watch it I’d recommend doing so before reading further. I think going in blind is the best way to watch any movie, so I’d also recommend knowing as little as possible before going in. The film is dying to be met on its own terms, not the terms of the marketing or critics. Before writing this I made an effort not to read other reviews of the film, to keep my view from being influenced. I do not intend to say that my interpretation of the film is complete, or the only way to view the proceedings, it is just the way I interpreted it. So without further ado, The Lobster.

After a bizarre and non-sequitur opening scene, we meet David, our protagonist played by a barely recognizable Colin Farrell. He asks a woman off-screen “does he wear contacts or corrective lenses.” (not a direct quote). We are given no answer. This establishes David’s obsession with being short-sighted, which is a major theme of the film. Short-sighted refers directly to his poor eyesight, but implicitly to his inability to see the bigger picture and plan decisions ahead.

Colin Farrell as David

David then checks into a hotel where he asked a series of questions regarding his stay. Among them is whether he is interested in men or women. At first he says women, but then remembers some college experiences with men and requests to be listed as bisexual. The woman behind the desk says there is no bisexual option and he must choose whether he wants to be paired with a man or a woman for the rest of his life. He chooses women. He is then given a room and a number of plain outfits identical to every other man in the hotel and a pair of shoes. When asked his shoe size he says 44 and a half, but is told he must choose 44 or 45. Here we see one of the main themes of the film present itself: forcing complicated people into uncomplicated boxes. David belongs in a space in-between the extremes of what this dystopian world considers normal. This will be taken to its extreme conclusion later on in the film.

Once in his hotel room, we are finally clued into what he is doing here. He has 45 days to become part of a couple or he will be turned into an animal. He says he would wish to be a lobster if he fails to achieve this task. He mentions that his brother came to this hotel, but no one has a memory of him. David and the viewer are led to believe the dog in his hotel room is his brother.

We are then shown the ways in which the hotel management encourage courtship between the occupants. Each single person chooses one characteristics to define them, and gives an introductory speech to other singles. This is followed by a bizarre musical performance and dancing. David quickly makes friends with two men: one who limps and one who has a lisp. These shortcomings mirror David’s short-sighted nature.

The Lisping Man, the Limping Man and David

Then we discover the hotel’s bizarre rules governing sex. A maid enters David’s room and grinds on him until he becomes sexually excited. Then she leaves, assuring him this will help him and is for his own good. It is discovered that the lisping man has masturbated, and the management force his hand into a toaster as it heats up to teach him a lesson. His hand is later seen covered with bandages.

In order to get more days, the singles in the hotel hunt those who have fled the hotel with tranquilizer darts. The more people they catch, the more days they are awarded. David is not very good at this, but it is revealed that some tenants have earned hundreds of days through the hunts.

On the way to hunt some single people.

While most people run away at the end of their days, we see one young woman decide to go willingly. One of her best friends reads some words to her, that appear to be comforting and heartfelt, but she takes them as taunts and slaps her in the face. The woman’s defining characteristic is her long beautiful blonde hair. She is turned into a pony with a beautiful blonde mane. Here we see how important people’s defining characteristics are to them. Her pride is so strong that she refuses to settle for a lesser person in order to stay human, as long as she can keep her hair, she is fine with living out her days as a beast.

David’s friend, the limping man ends up lying to a woman to get her to couple with him. She often suffers from nosebleeds, and through bashing his head against the wall he is also able to have nosebleeds. Having this in common leads to a seemingly successful coupling. David is aware of the lie, but understands his friend’s actions and seeks to emulate them. At this point we are aware of a woman who’s defining characteristic is her heartlessness. For whatever reason, David decides this is the woman for him. He proceeds to act completely heartless in order to couple with her, and is at first successful. She continues to test his lie, which leads to some of the funniest scenes in the film, and also the most disturbing and horrible. David eventually breaks down and cries after she kills his brother, the dog, in a sadistically violent way. The heartless woman goes to hotel management to report him as a liar, but David tranquilizes her and unexpectedly receives help from a maid. He then turns the heartless woman into an animal.

David drags the heartless woman into the Transformation Room

It is through this sequence that the film-makers opinion of relationships starts to take form. Both David and the limping man change for their potential lovers, and are forced to live with those consequences.  Both of them show less pride in themselves than their lovers or the blond woman, and seem to have a better understanding of their impending demise. It is incredibly frustrating to watch these scenes, since realistically you would think everyone would settle and pair up with someone they can stand rather than someone they necessarily love. Very few people seem to take this route, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Spending your life in a relationship with someone you don’t love, could be seen as a fate worse than death by some. However, I think the intent is to convey in the hotel a smaller and more direct version of how our society functions. We try to find a like-minded or similar person to ourselves with all the qualities we want and avoid settling with someone we see as below us in hopes of finding the perfect person. In The Lobster, similarities are reduced to one characteristic, and instead of a lifetime our characters have 45 days (or more if they are successful hunters). Yet, they still act in the same ways. The film-makers appear to be taking the cynical view that people would act in the very same ways they do now even if the time-table of our lives were accelerated. Or perhaps the time-table is accelerated only to drive home the absurdity of romantic pursuits and life-long romantic commitment.

But the movie is only half over.

“Isn’t this a romance?” you say. We’re getting there, hold tight.

David flees into the woods as his lie is bound to be discovered, and finds a society of loners living in the woods, led by Lea Seydoux. At first we might assume that these people are a bastion of freedom and individuality fighting against a dystopian machine. But no, this isn’t that kind of movie. We soon find out that the society of singles is just as driven by arbitrary rules as the hotel. One of the fist men we meet wears bandages on his lips. It is explained that his lips were sliced when he was found kissing another person. Whereas in the hotel, being single is seen as a condition to be fixed, in the forest being in a couple is seen as a violation and betrayal of other single people. Any sign of companionship that goes beyond cordiality is punishable. The society is the total opposite of the hotel. Masturbation is allowed or even encouraged, and rather than dancing as couples everyone dances by themselves together to the music on their own headphones. Shortly after joining the society, the loner leader takes David to a quiet place and suggests it would be a good place for his grave. He digs his own grave, and she explains when he dies he will have to come here and cover himself with dirt, which she then has him practice.

Lea Seydoux as The Loner Leader

In one of the film’s more entertaining sequences, a group of loners sneak into the hotel and violently threaten a number of couples. We at first believe their intent to be murderous, but through the proceedings find their goal is to break up the couples. David reveals that the limping man is lying about his nosebleeds. The loner leader gives the male member of management a gun to shoot his wife. He pulls the trigger, but the gun isn’t loaded. They then leave the couples to their ruin. The loners are hence defined by vengeance and spite.

Soon after coming to the loner society,  Davd meets a short-sighted woman played by Rachel Weisz. Finding their impaired vision as a commonality, David falls in love with her nearly instantly. He shows this by catching rabbits for her to eat, always coming up with a plausible excuse other than feelings for her. During a trip to the city, they pose as a couple in order to not be arrested. Shortly after this, their relationship blooms to the next level. They take care to stay secret at first, but soon slip into a comfortable complacency. They make a plan to escape, but the loner leader discovers the short-sighted woman’s diary and makes a plan of her own.

Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell as characters with precisely 0 chill

The leader takes the short-sighted woman to the city and coerces her into getting eye surgery to fix her eyes. Afterwards she is permanently blinded. At first she attempts to lie to David about this, but soon gives up. They try to work around her condition, but David begins spending less time with her. Finally he tells her they will go through with their plan to escape to the city. David overpowers the loner leader and leaves her for dead. The two go to the city and stop in a diner. David decides the only way for them to stay together is to blind himself, so he takes a steak-knife into the bathroom. In the bathroom we see him struggling with the decision, before cutting back to the blind woman sitting at her table. The film cuts to black before we know his decision.

And that’s The Lobster.

Rachel Weisz as The Short-Sighted Woman explaining what it’s like to be blind

On the surface, the film is a satire of the way relationships are viewed as simple algorithms with increasing superficiality, but dig a little deeper and we find a strong statement on how society treats people as a whole. There is no room for in-between in this society. Between straight and gay, between shoe sizes 44 and 45, between single and coupled. David continually finds himself being forced into boxes he doesn’t belong in in order to function in the society. He must commit to permanent monogamy with a heartless woman, die alone, or become an animal. His relationship with the short-sighted woman is based on the same shallow criteria that the hotel enforces, but is different in one significant way. Rather than a government enforced monogamy, they have only their own word. Their relationship resists the strict control of the government approved couplings, but flies in the face of the forced chastity of the loners. At the end of the film, David is given the choice to change his defining characteristic and stay with the blind woman, or remain true to himself and leave her. Once again, he is forced to choose which box he will be forced into. The film ending before his choice is known is the only way for him to actually stay true to himself, since his identity (and indeed anyone’s identity) can never be defined by cleanly organized boxes.

By the way, if I end up alone, I’ll be a rabbit.


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