Dissecting The Lobster
(Warning: some spoilers)
A man checks into a hotel, accompanied only by his dog. He has forty-five days to find a mate and begin the process of reintegrating into the only socially acceptable way of living, in a couple. If he fails, he gets turned into an animal. It’s not all bad, though; he does get to choose which animal.
The Lobster combines a wry look at relationships and social pressures with Yorgos Lanthimos’s trademark devious scenarios and obscurely threatening atmospherics.[i] The film has been widely described as a satire and also compared to Kafka, whose work is not exactly satirical but functions in a similar way, presenting what is recognizably an exaggerated and distorted version of our society. What I found curious about the film was how these different elements undermined each other.
Not everyone would agree. In the generally favourable notices, reviewers saw the combination of the film’s carefully constructed fictional world and satirical edge as providing much of its bite. Here’s Bob Mondello on NPR:
Lanthimos is fond of hermetically sealed satires like this, where the logic is rigidly internal and the results of following that logic determinedly strange. The Lobster is his first film in English, and it plays cleverly with the compatibility assumptions behind, say, singles groups and online dating sites.
‘Hermetically sealed’ is the mot juste; Mondello inadvertently puts his finger on what I disliked about the film. The fictional world is very cleverly constructed, but it leads the film to overplay its satirical point.
The first half of the film, more or less, is set in the hotel, and there is much fun to be had working out the rules of the game, both social and otherwise. There are plenty of droll moments, from couples in the hotel being given children to prevent them from arguing, to Colin Farrell inquiring into what sexual options are available, to Olivia Coleman, dependably superb as the hotel manager, reminding Farrell of what he has signed up for:
In this part of the film, the fictional construction and the satirical points work together: the fictional world is unfolded for the audience in a series of barbed comments about relationships, romance and the pressure to find a partner. The world Farrell finds himself in is in many respects a version of our own, but one where certain implicit social conventions have been codified and are backed by the law.
The problems start when Farrell escapes from the hotel. The loners he stumbles across living in the woods reject the strictures of mainstream society, and are hunted for their pains by hotel guests. So far, so like a number of science fiction films. However, the loners do not only reject the requirement to form couples, they do not permit their own members to pair off. This makes for a pleasing symmetry in the fictional world: both ordinary society and the loners who reject it turn out to be bound by rigid rules concerning relationships. But the satirical point of this symmetry is less clear. The attitude of the loners feels like a contrivance rather than an exaggerated version of something with which we are familiar. It is noticeable that the jokes which studded the first half of the film largely vanish during Farrell’s sojourn in the woods.
Perhaps it might be suggested that in these scenes the film is satirising something more general, namely any group which rejects mainstream society but which imposes its own strict conventions. But in the context of this film, such an interpretation feels like a stretch. The loners are rejecting mainstream society, but specifically because of the requirements concerning couples. It is not explained why they would wish to be bound by new rules, and without any motivation for this the satirical point is unclear.
Granted, it is not made clear either why mainstream society in this fictional world insists so rigidly on people forming lasting relationships, but there is no need, since in our society there is a familiar pressure on people to do so. Without some way to link the motives of the loners back to our own social mores, even if that way is rejecting them – because of a fear of commitment, or an exaggerated sense of isolation or of personal space – the fictional world is untethered from our own, drifting too far away for the kind of proximity that is crucial to satire.
[i] Dogtooth, his first film, is highly recommended (both that film and The Lobster were written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou).