(Reviewed June 23, 2016)
When you must you can’t; when you can’t, you must. This view of falling in love could be the "message" of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, which he directed and co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou. Or not. For there’s something about this quasi-surrealist fantasy which seems inconsistent with messages, morals or any kind of serious thought about the world outside its own fantastical boundaries. For most of its length it appears to be no more than utopianism for its own sake. There must have been some kind of thrill in dreaming up a world in which people living in a hotel for singles are required to pair off — they may choose either homosexual or heterosexual pairing, but they have to announce their choice in advance — within 45 days or else be turned into an animal.
The catch is that they have to find someone with a "defining characteristic" — short-sightedness, a limp, a tendency to nosebleeds — that matches up with their own. It’s a bureaucrat’s idea of what love and romance mean. Thus when the hero, David (Colin Farrell), fancies someone known only as "Heartless Woman" (Angeliki Papoulia) he has to pretend to be heartless too. When she finds out that he really isn’t heartless, she heartlessly betrays him to the authorities, leaving him with no other option than to run away to the woods and join those known as the Loners. They live in a mirror-image world where pairing off is prohibited. Or at least they do unless and until they are hunted down by the non-Loners, shot with tranquilizer darts and forcibly animalized.
If the movie is meant to portray a bureaucratic nightmare, we never get to see any of the bureaucrats themselves, unless you count the hotel Manager and her staff, who appear to be rather stupid and inept but well-meaning. At least the hotel-dwellers are allowed to choose the animal they will become if they fail to find a mate in the specified period. The film takes its name from the animal chosen by David on checking in to the hotel. Why a lobster? "Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue- blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much. I’m quite good at swimming. And water-skiing." This is said by his interviewer to be an excellent choice.
You may guess from this that the movie is supposed to be a comedy, though of a blackish kind that may owe something to Artaud’s "Theatre of Cruelty" of the 1930s, which also grew out of surrealism. There is one moment, or perhaps two, where the absurdism gives way to what looks like an attempt to convey meaning. A party of the loners, including their leader (Léa Seydoux), breaks into the hotel late at night and enters the bedroom of the manager (Olivia Colman) who is in bed with her own partner (Garry Mountaine). The Manager is ordered out of bed, tied up and gagged. Her partner is then quizzed as to how much he loves her. At first, like all the enforced couples, he makes extravagent professions of devotion, but then the Leader points her revolver at him and, giving him a choice between his life and his partner’s, says that, in that case, he must not be able to live without the latter.
Thereupon, he swiftly backtracks, saying: "I can definitely live on my own. Shoot her." The leader then hands the gun to him and orders him to shoot her, as the Manager makes frantic noises trying to be understood through her gag. Her partner’s love is actually measured by the length of the moment of hesitation before he pulls the trigger — though the gun turns out not to be loaded. The loners, it seems, are thus meant to stand for those who, being disillusioned with love themselves, delight in nothing more than exposing it as a falsehood and a pretense wherever they can — though the bureaucratic ideology of enforced pairing off (and of hunting down loners) appears to be unaffected by any such exposure of its hypocrisy.
A second gesture in the direction of a serious, real-world meaning comes at the very end when one of the film’s leitmotifs, the idea of the "defining characteristic" arrives at a shocking reductio ad absurdum. What is especially curious about this is that the matching of defining characteristics is a feature of the hotel world, dreamed up by the faceless bureaucrats of the official culture, but the two who are forcibly matching themselves by defining characteristics at the end are from among the wild loners, who are in every other respect the antithesis of the hotel people. Or every other respect apart from their both forcing people in their power to behave according to a controlling ideology about sexual behavior.
That, too, I suppose, counts as an attempt at meaning, though one by now so remote from European or American reality as to seem almost quaint when satirized as it is here. What’s the point? you may want to ask yourself. Ah, but you see? The fiendishly clever Lobster gets away with it because there is no point — no more than there is to its opening scene in which a woman (Jacqueline Abrahams) unconnected to anything else in the film first drives and then walks up to a fenced-in pasture and for no apparent reason shoots a donkey that had been peacefully grazing there. Perhaps, we may surmise, it was a former denizen of the hotel, now living as a donkey, who once wronged the woman when it was human. I’m afraid we shall never know.