The Lobster is a strange dystopian look at a future where the social contract requires people to be coupled up. If they are not, they are relegated to an outsider’s existence as loners who can be hunted down for rewards. Beware the spoilers.
Colin Farrell plays David, one of very few characters with a name. His partner dies. The rules of society are that he must leave The City and go to The Hotel. There he must find a new partner within 45 days or he will be turned into an animal. He takes his brother Bob with him. Bob didn’t make it out of The Hotel and is now a dog. David chooses to be a lobster if he doesn’t make it.
Olivia Colman plays The Hotel Manager. She lays out the rules of life for David and gives him a tranquilizer gun. If he can shoot and capture escaped loners in the woods around The Hotel, he earns more days in which to find a partner. He’s terrible at this. When in the woods he spots Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Oh, oh – there might be an emotional interest there. That’s strictly forbidden.
All the actors play their parts with flat affect. Emotion is hidden. Partners are chosen based on a defining characteristic. For example Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) must find a partner with a limp. Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) must find a partner with a lisp. Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen) must find another biscuit eater.
David pretends to be heartless so he can partner with Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). His partnership with Heartless Woman doesn’t work well. She’s heartless about Bob. David isn’t. The Maid (Ariane Labed) helps him escape into the woods where he’s a loner.
Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) lays out the rules for loners. No sex, no flirting. The punishment is death. As soon as a loner arrives in the woods, they are required to dig their own grave. It’s an interesting turn that The Maid and Loner Leader cooperate in dealing with events both in the woods and in The Hotel. One might think there was an emotional connection between them, but of course that is impossible.
David and Short Sighted Woman fall in love. They think this is allowed, because they are both short sighted. When Loner Leader realizes what’s going on between them, she takes Short Sighted Woman into The City and has her blinded.
David and Short Sighted Woman no longer share a defining characteristic. They can’t be together. They search thoroughly for some characteristic they share in common. They can’t find one.
David and Short Sighted Woman run. They go into The City. David is ready to take a desperate action to give himself and Short Sighted Woman a common defining characteristic. Does he love her enough to go through with it?
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos directed this dark allegory. One theme running through the story is the power and meaning of love. When people become partners, they swear they love each other. But do they? And is love an irrepressible human emotion, no matter what the dictates of society demand?
With The Maid’s help, Loner Leader sneaks into The Hotel at night and puts partners and their love to the test. When put to the test, as the Hotel Manager’s Partner (Garry Mountaine) is, they often choose themselves over their partner. In the final moments of The Lobster, David faces a self-imposed test of his love for Short Sighted Woman. Will he choose love or his own ease?
Another theme is the way outsiders, the less-than, the discarded, the unloved, are treated by society. The standard that lets you fit in is an artificial construct. The standard for fitting in – a partner with a matching defining characteristic – suggests the horrors raised by our own social constructs for defining characteristics: race, religion, nation, gender, sexuality. We decide who to trust, who to love, who to accept, and who to reject based on a set of characteristics as arbitrary as those in the film.
Yorgos Lanthimos is urging us to look at and question our own social organization. The subtle prodding in the story of The Lobster does provoke thought and reflection. The film is odd and strange in many ways, but the message is powerful.