not in our stars, but in ourselves
There are plenty of movies about love and the complexity (or agony, or ecstasy) of human relationships. Some of them are happy, some are sad; some are keenly observed, some are clumsily thrown together. Very few movies – at least very few that I’ve seen, for whatever that’s worth – take into account what it means to be lonely. You hear all these sappy songs, see all these moony-eyed couples, read all these delirious love stories, and wonder what the hell makes you so unlovable. That seems to have been the jumping-off point for Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, in which the crime of being alone and unlovable is punishable by a fate worse than death. So it often seems.
In the unnamed City, it is mandatory for all adults to be in committed, monogamous relationships. If those relationships end – due to divorce or death or something else – adults must go to the Hotel. At the Hotel, they have forty-five days to fall in love with another of the Hotel’s occupants, or else they’ll be turned into an animal. They get to choose the animal, but still. David (Colin Farrell) is taken to the hotel after his wife leaves him for another man. David is looking after his brother, who was turned into a dog a few years ago when “he didn’t make it” – i.e., didn’t fall in love. The other guests in the Hotel are, as one might expect, not exactly the most glamorous and interesting: most, like David, are schlubby and middle-aged, having settled into a relationship that they assumed would last for life and then having to start all over again after their bloom has left them. David tries to find someone, but after his tentative match ends up killing his brother by kicking him to death, he decides to leave. He heads into the forest, where he meets the Loners. One of them, the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), thinks he’s quite nice, and they begin to fall for each other for real. The only place where people are permitted to fall in “love,” however, is in the Hotel. If Loners fall in love, they’re harshly punished by the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux). Loners must remain alone, or else.
It all sounds pretty dour, and it does contain some tough scenes. Lanthimos doesn’t seem to be much of an optimist (his earlier, most famous film, Dogtooth, is apparently An Ordeal to which I will someday expose myself), but I do think he’s an idealist, all the same. The few happy moments that David is able to steal with the Short Sighted Woman, out in the Woods or in the City, are positively joyous. They’re sweet, tender, lovely, and funny: exactly what you’d want when you’re in the first flush of a new relationship. Difficulties mount – as they always do, the longer a couple is together – but their devotion to one another remains genuine. And because they’ve found each other out in the wild, so to speak, where they’re not only not encouraged to form a match, but outright forbidden from doing so, their bond is all that much more affecting and heartbreakingly real. In the stale air of the Hotel, with its artificial lighting and garish carpeting, how could anyone fall in love? All the same, it seems likely that these two would have found a way, if only they’d been in the right place at the right time. Nice work if you can get it.
The heart of The Lobster, however, rests in its deeply felt understanding of what it means to be alone. Here, we’re in some sort of dystopian alternate universe where the punishment for being single is either turning into an animal or being hunted like one in the Woods. In the real world, the “punishment” for being single feels just as bad, especially if you were with someone for years and suddenly find yourself without: all those smug marrieds, all those commercials selling True Love Everlasting™, all those syrupy songs, all the societal norms telling you that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you as a person if you’ve failed to find The One and pop out 2.5 kids. It all stings, and it feels like you really do have a target on your back and dwindling days before catastrophe strikes – and it’s that much harder, crueler, more devastating, if you’re trying to start all over again when you’re older, fatter, more tired and less hopeful than when you tried the first time. How do you convince someone else to love and accept all your peculiarities, which have calcified over the years? Why bother?
Indeed, in some ways – and for this observation, I am indebted to my very smart boyfriend – the world of The Lobster seems to be adulthood as understood by seven-year-olds. Grownups seem to be a bunch of grumpy people who don’t really like each other, but who stay together anyway. Why? Well, maybe something terrible will happen if they aren’t together. That must be it! Maybe they turn into some kind of animal forever, unless they get married. But they can only get married if they’re in one place! If they’re somewhere else, they have to avoid falling in love or they’ll get in trouble. And so on and so forth. The internal logic of The Lobster isn’t at all the usual logic of rom-coms, sci-fi, dystopian fantasy, or any of the other genres in which it could be classified. It’s the absurdist dream logic of children trying to figure out the depressing anti-logic of the adult world.
And yet! Even in this stupid world, with its arbitrary rules and regulations; even in the bizarro, Calvinist (as in Calvin and Hobbes, you understand) imaginary world of The Lobster; even then, you can still find somebody to love, somebody to love you. You can’t force it. It might happen at a terribly inconvenient time. But hell, you only have so long on this planet. The film ends on a deliberately ambiguous note. Whether you read it as happy or sad, you’re right: it all depends on whether or not your own idealism has faded into cynicism. For my part, I choose to believe that it ends happily. Call me a sucker.