by Jen Scouler
From the films we consume from a young age, to the narratives drawn through the media we read every day, the idea of finding a partner for eternity is still sold as one of the key goals in life. There must be that special someone for everyone, with the envisioned achievement often ending in some kind of marital bliss. When that happens, you’ve got this life thing all figured out.
The Lobster – A Single Terror
Somewhere at its heart, the message isn’t a bad one. Loving relationships make the world a better place and everyone wants to find someone they can trust. However, it’s an idea that has evolved to mean everything, over-complicating the way in which people look for love, or exaggerating its importance to grow the warped perception that it’s better to stay in an unhealthy relationship than be alone.
The Lobster, a film written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, looks at those bizarre knots in which we’ve tied ourselves, and satirises it around an intriguing central concept. In this movie world, all single people have just 45 days to find a partner for life, or they get turned into an animal (of their choice, naturally).
Lead character David has just been dumped by his wife of 11 years and gets funnelled through the compulsory coupling process at a hotel, with a daily schedule of bizarre propaganda, masochistic routines and ritualistic hunting of runaway single people in the local forest. The more single people he tranquillises, the more time he buys himself to find a lifelong partner in the rooms of the hotel.
In terms of the science-fiction dynamic, it’s not done in a clinical sense. There’s no explanation about when this started, the setting appears to be the modern day and, short of a throwaway comment about which organs make the human-to-animal transfer, little explanation as to the details of the process. That’s not the point though – while it’s not a scientific development that we’ll ever expect to see, this outlandish idea props up the unambiguous satire.
When attempting to find the perfect match, those in the hotel have a ‘defining characteristic’, from a slight limp to a beautiful smile. Couples in the film choose each other based on key characteristics in common, as new pairs are described as the ‘couple who both love to ski’, or the ‘couple who both love social sciences’.
At times, in order to snare a partner, the single residents will try to replicate their intended’s quirks to prove their suitability. John, an awkward acquittance of David, starts to smack his face against walls in secret to impress a woman who has nosebleeds frequently. David tries to win over a woman known as having a heart of stone by imitating her cruelty, but the lie is found out when she tests him in a particularly brutal way.
This film is targeting two emerging social conventions. First, it’s a reflection on the online dating culture, particularly apps like Tinder. We tend to filter and match by what ‘defining characteristics’ we have in common with the person on the screen, in order to find a mutual talking point, but it’s no guarantee that there will actually be genuine chemistry. People being different is what makes us all interesting and challenges us – to find someone who thinks the same is to risk missing out on learning experiences anew.
There’s also the very human habit that on deciding on someone, we will often feign an interest in something to impress them. Those in the hotel are bombarded with on-the-nose reenactments of the dangers of being alone, and that cultural fear is very much alive. In order to be with someone, we might mould ourselves to something unnatural to keep a crush interested, or else choose to stay with someone who makes us unhappy for fear of the alternative. Our real life singledom may not be life as a llama, but the worry of being alone forever is drilled into us from a young age. As Mark Corrigan says in the Channel 4 programme Peep Show –
‘I suppose doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.’
The Lobster tears these warped attitudes to shreds through parody – uncomfortable and piercingly brutal, it doesn’t spin a love story but deconstructs the ones we tell ourselves. Through its use of an outlandish science fiction concept, it brings to light the weirdness that sits under the surface in our real world. Even if our world doesn’t have people being transformed into flamingos.
Jen Scouler is the founder of Lost In Drama, a film site devoted to classic novel adaptations and period dramas.