After director Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favourite won Olivia Colman an Academy for Best Actress in a Leading Role, I thought I should see one of his previous films to get ready for The Favourite. Sometimes filmmakers have a particular style of making their movies, so it usually helps me to see what other work someone has done before I go see more of their recent work. This was definitely one of those films where it didn’t hurt to read the Wikipedia plot summary of the film while trying to follow along with it. Yes, it is confusing. Yes, it is rather outlandish. Yes, it is a dark comedy. But it is one of those films that will stay with you for a long time.
Earlier I reviewed the romantic-comedy How to Be Single. For those who haven’t seen it, it is absolutely hilarious. It also has a sweet message that being single doesn’t need to be a bad thing and can even give individuals a chance to discover their purpose in life, or if you are Rebel Wilson’s character Robin, have fun with no regrets. It is the perfect Valentine’s Day movie to watch for anyone, especially if you are single. Even though some of the moments are genuinely sad, the film is light-hearted and you can probably watch it before going to bed at night and not have nightmares. I laughed a lot and was able to go to sleep with good dreams about sunshine and rainbows (not really but hopefully you get what I mean).
The Lobster, however, is an anything but a light celebratory film. Unlike How to Be Single, it is completely and utterly dark and while I was laughing at the sheer absurdity of everything at the beginning I stopped laughing by the middle of the film because it got dark real fast. I even started thinking, “Wow, I should have watched The Lobster first, and then watched How to Be Single so I could sleep at night.” However, I am glad I saw it because it is, in all seriousness, a film that we should genuinely promote for Singles Awareness Day. Why? Because it basically centers around a dystopian society where singles actually face life-threatening discrimination and being a couple is the norm. While How to Be Single celebrates friendship, romance and sex in all shapes and sizes, The Lobster presents a much more complicated discussion about love in the 21st century, one that is rather bleak but needs to be discussed.
The Lobster follows a recently divorced man named David who is given 45 days to find a life partner or else get transformed into a non-human animal of his choice. When he checks into the hotel, the clerk gives him only two options: either identify as straight or gay. Even though David had sexual encounters with both men and women, bisexuality is not one of the options he can choose, so he chooses the straight option for when he has to find a partner (he can’t even have half-size shoes because the hotel only has whole-number sizes). His brother got turned into a dog because he couldn’t find a partner within the 45 day period, and goes everywhere with David. The hotel manager (played scarily well by the aforementioned Olivia Colman) comes into his room with her partner and tells David the rules about staying at the hotel. When she tells him he must choose an animal that he’ll be turned into if he doesn’t find a girl to marry within the 45-day period, he chooses the lobster because, according to him, lobsters “live 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats and stay fertile all their lives”, and that he, like lobsters, loves the sea and swimming. The hotel manager approves of his choice for the animal because most people choose to be transformed as dogs.
The rules of the hotel are laughable at first but as you get further into the film, you realize how messed-up the place actually is. Residents cannot masturbate, use couples-only facilities or play sports meant for couples. In each person’s room there is a tranquilizer gun mounted on the wall, as well as other austere items in the room, not to mention the very monotonous uniform that male and female residents must wear out and about and during dances. Each person is given a gun because the hotel stages daily hunts where the residents go out and hunt anyone who is a “loner” and bring their bodies back to the hotel so they can be conditioned to find a partner and not be turned into non-human animals. For every loner the hotel resident kills, he or she gets to live an extra day as a human being. Singles sit at perfectly arranged tables all by themselves next to one another because they don’t have a marriage partner to sit across from them. David wakes up to a creepy Alexa-like voice every morning that tells him how many days he has left before he gets transformed into a lobster.
What really strikes me about this film is the explicit stigma against single people. All of the newly arrived single people to the hotel are forced to get up in front of an audience and talk about their backstories that may have factored in them being single for so long. The waitstaff also mime for the audience how single people won’t get help from anyone if they choke on food by accident or encounter a serial rapist, but that if in a couple they have less danger coming to them because someone (in most cases a man) is protecting them from this danger, and thus single people should focus on finding a partner rather than musing about how they would like to spend their last day as a human being. David is sitting with two of his new friends Robert (John C. Reilly) and John (Ben Winshaw), and John reveals to them what the hotel actually does to single people who don’t succeed in finding a partner by the time 45 days is up. Although I won’t delve into the process here, it being quite unpleasant and graphic, I will say this: in the dystopian world Lanthimos has created in The Lobster, single people are no more than wastes of space and need to conform to societal norms by finding a companion in order to feel fulfilled instead of like wastes of space, otherwise they and their vital organs hold no meaningful value to this society except for when there are no blood donors and they need blood donated to hospitals.
It reminded me of the novel (and movie adaptation) Never Let Me Go, when Ruth, Tommy and Kathy are organ donors and nothing else in terms of how they bring value to society and they have no choice but to “complete”, or die, after their organs are donated. They go to a boarding school where they are incredibly gifted and any work that the headmistress considers exceptional goes in her gallery. Tommy becomes extremely discouraged when the teachers don’t value his art as highly as they do that of other students and acts out. Even though his teacher at first tells him it’s fine to be different and not compare himself to the other kids, she tells him she was wrong years later, and he becomes more resentful later on about his lack of creativity. However, as they get older, Ruth, Tommy and Kathy realize that their lives are short and try everything to escape the draconian society that doesn’t value children’s ideas and instead controls their every move throughout their lives, to no avail. It is a doom-and-gloom book and the movie had me crying so much, but like The Lobster, it’s one of those emotionally difficult films where you need to have a long discussion with someone about it rather than see it by yourself and have to carry that feeling of heaviness with you when you go to work or do anything else.
One of the most disturbing scenes is the hunting scene, when the hotel residents have to shoot any loners in the forest and bring their bodies back to the hotel. It is shown in slow motion with quiet music playing in the background, but this is what makes the scene so unsettling. There is no dialogue, just slo-mo shots of Colin Firth and John C. Reilly attack people in a dark forest at night after they just spent time at an elegant dance in the hotel. This scene really embodies the discrimination that the singles face in the film, but it’s not like the loners in the forest feel bad about what they’re doing. David, after escaping into the forest after a heartless woman he meets kills his brother (the dog named Bob), says that he would rather be a loner than be back at the hotel because he can listen to music, reflect on his own and just be his own person. However, the loners aren’t just vegging out for the fun of it; like the hotel, there are strict rules, namely no flirting. The leader of the loners, played brilliantly by Lea Seydoux, says that there is severe punishment for flirting between loners, and had two loners punished in a disturbing and painful way for flirting with one another. However, David meets a woman called Short-Sighted Woman, who also narrates the film (played by Rachel Weisz. The last film I saw her in was the sweet comedy About a Boy), and struggles with his genuine feelings for her. When the waitstaff and loner leader find out about Short-sighted Woman and David’s plans to run away together, Short-Sighted Woman suffer literally physical consequences. This shows how controlled everything is in the society.
Another deep scene is when a young blonde woman doesn’t find a partner within the 45 day period and meets in the manager’s office to tell her what she would like to do on her last day as a human being. Her friend reads her a letter she wrote about how she is sorry how no one wanted to be her friend’s life partner even though she is very pretty and continues to ramble on about how close they were as friends and how she is going to think of her when she has new friends and her new husband (unlike traditional marriages, a couple finds each other, the manager announces their marriage, and they get children to help them resolve any conflicts they cannot resolve themselves as reasonable adults). Finally the girl slaps her friend to get her to stop talking so she can get right to the point and tell the manager what she’s doing on the last day. Hearing the girl read this note, we may think, “Wow that was such a cruel note and this girl is a terrible friend”, but as we reflect on the film we realize how deeply shame is imposed on people who can’t find companions and how singles are made to feel bad about themselves for not finding love. There is no crying between these two young women, just an emotionless interaction before the single girl gets transformed into a pony.
Ah, no…I’m fading. I’m going to write more of this review tomorrow in a part 2 because I’m beat and need to get rest. Will continue tomorrow.