Love & Punishment in The Lobster

The Lobster

If you’re wondering whether you should see The Lobster, the answer is yes.

Particularly if you’re an American feeling somewhat weary of formulaic and/or predictable American films, The Lobster will offer a refreshing approach to storytelling, plot development, and character. Undoubtedly, the film’s refreshing quality can be attributed to its Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos—who also co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou—as well as its location in Ireland and the Irish, English, and French actors dominating its cast.

What’s most enjoyable about this film is the surreal and ridiculous nature of its overarching concept (which sadly seems to be so often lacking in American-made films). Essentially, society dictates that everyone must marry, or be transformed into an animal by way of some cryptic surgery. The silver lining is that you can choose the animal you become (our protagonist David settles on a lobster, hence the title). As it is, single adults are shuttled off to “The Hotel,” an unsettling matchmaking resort of sorts where they have 45 days to try and find a suitable mate.

What’s particularly interesting is that in a society that seems to uphold love and romance above all else, love and romance are nowhere to be found. If this society only cared about marriage as an institution, it could simply mandate arranged marriages, and therefore avoid the whole messy business of surgically transforming human beings into beasts. But, as The Hotel’s manager and staff indicate, this society seems more concerned with individuals finding spouses with whom they share common interests—the mark of a good match. And yet, The Hotel does nothing to foster a romantic environment or encourage communication between its guests. Indeed, we often see the men and women segregate themselves, seemingly afraid to approach one another. When they do, they do so timidly; a request for a dance feels perfunctory, and the dance itself leaves us, the audience, feeling as uncomfortable as the characters seem to feel. Everyone maintains a cold, even repellant attitude, underscored by their monotone speech delivery. In this least romantic of places, it’s no surprise that people often fail to pair off.

While the film at first suggests a critique of heteronormativity—in particular, the insistence that marriage is a prerequisite for successful adulthood, that single people are doomed to unhappiness, that children are the answer to marital trouble—it takes a sharp turn halfway through, revealing a reluctance to make such moral judgments.

Lanthimos and Filippou dislocate us from the world of the sinister Hotel and thrust us into another, equally sinister world—that which belongs to the Loners in The Woods. The Loners are those who either failed to find a mate or simply had no desire to do so, and thus fled to The Woods where they could hide and remain human. While this group of outlaws initially may feel like our heroic Rebels of Star Wars, we quickly learn otherwise. They maintain their own strict set of rules and severe punishments for breaking them. While The Hotel mandates courtship, the Loners outlaw it, punishing those suspected even of flirtation with mutilation of the lips and tongue; if anyone is caught having sex, the implication is genital mutilation.

Rather than heteronormativity, then, perhaps the film is admonishing any kind of normativity—maybe nothing should be dubbed “normal” and “right,” and indeed, nothing should be mandated. There’s nothing wrong with falling in love, just as there’s nothing wrong with not falling in love, nor with being asexual—a good reminder at least in the U.S., where films, music, and literature so often myopically focus on romantic love, beating into viewers/listeners/readers that their lives are incomplete without someone to share them with. At the same time, we cannot reject romantic love altogether, because love is real and of course those who find it will want to hold onto it, and that’s perfectly okay.

Right?

Reflections on Love and Courtship

The Lobster

In The Lobster, it’s difficult to know what message we’re supposed to take away regarding romantic love (perhaps there’s not one). In the film’s ruling society at least, there’s no question that its assumptions about relationships are backward, indeed harmful.

As I alluded to early, The Hotel dictates the people who pair off must be “a good match.” And what this boils down to is simply sharing some idiosyncratic trait, no matter how arbitrary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we see a man lie about getting nosebleeds—going so far as to self-induce them by banging his head against desks and walls—in order to win the affection of a woman who frequently suffers from them.

We even see our protagonist David (played by Colin Farrell) practice similar deception, as his number of days to find a mate rapidly dwindle and he grows increasingly fearful about imminent animalhood. In an effort to pair off with a fellow Hotel guest known only as the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), he pretends to share her imperviousness to other people’s suffering. And while he wins her over at first, his plan ultimately backfires. Suspecting that David has lied to her, the Heartless Woman puts him to the test by beating his dog (who used to be his brother) to death.

David suffers not just for his lie, but for trying to change himself in order to abide by the dictum that commonality is a prerequisite for any relationship. And he very nearly suffers a terrible fate: hell bent on producing “good matches,” this society views David’s lie on par with treason; the punishment for such deception is transformation into “the animal no one wants to be.”

So, building off its critique of normativity, this film admonishes rigid adherence to, and dictatorial enforcement of, rules and regulations, as both lead to destruction and pain.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Quite understandably, David runs away to The Woods where he soon joins the Loners. Ironically, while David failed to find love in a society that required it, he promptly falls in love in a society that outlaws it.

As punishment for their love, David’s romantic partner, known only as the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), is blinded. The punishment is a form of psychological torture more than anything. Like The Hotel, the Loners seem to abide by the belief that a shared idiosyncratic trait is the foundation for any successful relationship, and without said trait, the relationship will crumble. At the very least, the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) knows that David has come to believe this—obsessed as he is with the myopia he and the Short Sighted Woman have in common—and uses it against him.

After the Short Sighted Woman is blinded, then, their romance comes to a crashing halt—the spark between them seems to fizzle and David starts avoiding her. In a last ditch attempt to salvage their relationship, the two flee The Woods and David resolves to build a new foundation for them—blindness. The movie leaves us with the unnerving image of our protagonist holding a knife to his eye.

What lingers is that David’s attempt to salvage the relationship may ultimately be its demise. If both of them are newly blind, he and the formerly Short Sighted Woman will not be able to navigate the world or their new life as outlaws—from two societies, no less—very successfully. If David would only maintain his eyesight, they would stand a far better chance of evading capture and building a new life together somewhere far away. Once again, it seems that David will suffer because of his rigid adherence to absurd norms (i.e. the belief that love equals a composite of characteristics).

What David fails to see is that he and the Short Sighted Woman share a genuine connection that has nothing to do with myopia. Their courtship is the first and only instance of romance in the film. While attraction was nowhere to be found at The Hotel, David and this woman are clearly attracted to one another from the moment they meet. They steal glances at each other, sync their Walkmans to secretly dance together in The Woods, and on the rare opportunities they can touch each other, they can’t help stroking and kissing one another passionately. There exists an undeniable, magnetic, genuine connection between the two of them. Ultimately, it’s an ineffable connection, because love is beyond explanation. It cannot be forced. It happens of its own accord. That is what The Hotel and David fail to recognize.

And so, as this post is my own attempt to extract meaning from this complex, thought-provoking movie, maybe more than an eschewal of rules and dictatorships, this film is a meditation on the ethereality of love. As we scroll through Tinder assessing people’s attractiveness or scour OkCupid for people who share enough interests with us, we may inadvertently overlook the person we could love the most, because love, genuine connection, people with whom we become our best and most honest selves, cannot be extracted from a formula or a checklist of prerequisites we create for the people we date.

Quite possibly, love only strikes when we least expect it, as it did for our protagonist. But this is by no means a case for love at first sight. The point, rather, is that when we conjure an image of our ideal partner and compare it to everyone we date, we create expectations too high for any extant human to possibly meet. Love may develop slowly and unexpectedly; we just have to give it the chance to do so.

So maybe what we can take away is this:  if we go looking for love, we’ll fail, because the very expectation for love precludes it. But if love passes us by, know that that’s okay, too. If you don’t mangle yourself in an attempt to obtain it, you’ll not only survive, you can be happy.

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