Successful speculative fiction is essentially sociology. It’s grounded not in the details of the alternate reality it concocts, but in investigating how societies and individuals would react to different structures and opportunities. The best speculative fiction isn’t inspired by spaceships or wizardry; rather, it’s impelled by an overriding interest in human nature – a considered, critical reflection on what makes us do what we do and how we would react when familiar social constructs are dissolved. It’s not about our world; it’s about how we live in it.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language debut, The Lobster, is a phenomenally successful example of such speculation, a dark satire that reveals the ubiquitous, constrictive tyranny of social conventions. Where most speculative fiction is driven a dramatic renovation of everyday life, it’s testament to the genius of Lanthimos’ outlandish concept – a world where romantic coupling is strictly enforced – that his film requires the smallest of changes to the world we recognise.
The systems imposed in The Lobster are more extreme than anything we experience, admittedly. We are not shipped off to a place called ‘The Hotel’ the moment our relationships end; we can recover from a relationship without the pressure of a 45 day deadline until you are gruesomely deconstructed and sutured into an animal of your choosing. (Colin Farrell’s sadsack protagonist, David – sent to The Hotel after his wife of eight years leaves him – selects the titular lobster because of its longevity, its “aristocratic” blue blood and his love of the sea.)
Nonetheless, The Hotel – with its awkward rows of single tables contrasted with the joyful chatter of the couples’ tables, and its awkward rituals reinforcing the necessity of coupledom (if you eat alone, you might choke to death!) – is scarcely different from the commonplace constructs of our society. Restaurants that would never think to set a table with only one seat; who would ever eat alone? Cars built with a pair of seats in the front for the adult couple, a trio of sets in the back for their 2.5 children. Even when I watched the film, I felt the subtle social shame of being the only single person in the theatre … though at least I had my wedding ring as a token, a sign that I “belong” to this cabal of couples who do everything together.
The Lobster’s first half centres – relentlessly and hilariously – on the externalisation of such social pressures, providing explicit explanations for the implicit assumptions that drive ‘normal’ life. Individuals are expected to pair up with a “match” – someone who shares a seemingly-irrelevant ‘defining trait’ – and prove the integrity of their relationship before they can be released. The system is not perfect. The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), for instance, fakes a bloody nose by dashing his head against hard surfaces in order to forge a bond with Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden). When their relationship proves strained, they’re given a pubescent child to take care of. (“That tends to help,” explains Olivia Coleman’s Hotel Manager.)
These rituals are ridiculous. They’re intended to be. (Per the screenplay: “Think about it. It’s absurd.”) Lanthimos’ direction cleverly exacerbates this, adopting the same über-artificial, Brechtian aesthetic that defined his breakthrough, Dogtooth. He stages an absurd theatre where every performance is consciously stilted, where every stylistic choice – the monochromatic, antique Hotel setting, the drab uniforms, the sumptuous slow motion – reinforces the sense of distance between the audience and the characters. What we’re watching is a charade (and a very funny one), but in recognising its falsity our attention is drawn to the ridiculousness of our own society.
I say “we” and “our” but I am, of course, talking about myself (with apologies to Conor and The Swimmer). In that vein, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my first relationship watching The Lobster. It was in my first year of university. I was a nerd, and so was she: we bonded over anime and Magic: the Gathering in IRC channels. We dated for a little under a year, but it became increasingly clear that – to pluck an old chestnut – we wanted different things. I had an unexamined expectation of a monogamous, heteronormative life: get married, have kids, buy a house, etcetera. Despite a conservative upbringing (in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s home town), she had other ideas – no interest in kids, a limited interest in monogamy.
Perhaps this is just testament to how intensely ‘normal’ (and boring) I am, but even at the age of 18 I’d never really considered the possibility of, you know, not doing all the things my parents did. I’m not alone in this. We internalise all these pressures and expectations – the happy families on TV, the dinner parties that marginalise single people whether they mean to or not – and find ourselves reinforcing behaviour that we might never have stopped to actually think about. (Last I heard, my ex-girlfriend was dating her flatmate and a 50 year-old playwright at the same time.)
This overriding pressure to couple up might be the primary focus of The Lobster’s satire – and what resonated most strongly with me – but it’s more broadly motivated by an interrogation of our social hegemony: the banality of polite conversation, the performativity of friendship – and love – and the hypocrisy of rebellion. After a disastrous attempt at a relationship with the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), David flees into the woods surrounding The Hotel and is taken in by a group called the ‘loners’, a subversive group with their own strictly enforced dogma – romance is expressly forbidden, met with gruesome punishment.
I’ve seen many viewers comment that they found the second half of The Lobster less compelling than its first, and my initial reaction was somewhere along these lines. While I appreciated the change of setting – disrupting the expected narrative enlivens the film – the woods seemed less interesting, both visually and thematically. When David falls in love with the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) – a love built on optical inadequacy and trapped rabbits – the film assumes what appears to a conventional rebellion narrative, where the distinction between the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is blurred by ideological complexity.
That’s part of it, certainly. David’s inability to successfully adapt to either the culture or the counterculture resonates, while the loners’ establishing themselves as the polar opposites of the principles of the presiding culture while unquestioningly adopting the violence inherent in their methods of enforcement is an effective, if familiar, satire of how such rebellions tend to operate. They’re driven by a rejection of the norm, rather than a true interrogation of such standards. We’ve heard this story before though, and the real story Lanthimos wants to tell is about how the inexplicable rules and aching banality of human social interaction deadens our ability to enact such interrogation.
Late in the film, the loners return to the hotel in an elaborate insurrection, strategised by Léa Seydoux’s stony-faced leader. The specifics of the rebellion are intentionally obscured, but it’s essentially designed to destabilise The Hotel community’s faith in the integrity of their all-important relationships – the Hotel Manager’s husband, for instance, is forced at gunpoint to choose between his own life and his wife’s. David visits The Limping Man and Nosebleed Woman, living on a yacht as part of the final ‘test’ of their relationship, interrupting their dinner to reveal The Limping Man’s ongoing deception.
It’s the conversation that occurs before David that enters the yacht that I found especially illuminating. The Limping Man and Nosebleed Woman’s dinner table discussion is preposterously boring; he explains, carefully, that a basketball weighs between 450 and 500 g (it’s different for women’s games), and then asks if they’d be interested to know the weight of a netball. It’s hilarious – the film often is, if you’ve got the right sense of humour – while operating as a pitch-perfect parody of the banality of everyday conversation. The Hotel inhabitants’ direct language makes some kind of sense; as Joanna Di Mattia argues, “what time is there for flirting or fumbling when a ticking clock governs your remaining days as a human.” The facilness of such sportsball-centric conversations can’t be so easily explained away.
Everyday, we whittle away our lives talking about bullshit. How many of the conversations we have are about things that matter – philosophy, or solving problems – compared to the vast number that do little but pass the time? We share anecdotes about sporting matches you’ve both seen, try to recall which actor played the main role in a film from a decade ago, repeatedly ask our co-workers about their plans for the weekend. This is an autistic view of human interaction, but that’s the perspective offered by The Lobster – a perspective that elucidates the pointlessness of this conversations beyond trying to find some kind of human bond, to establish our own pack in our roving animalian crowd. Lanthimos regards our social interactions as desperate attempts to find the wolves for our wolf, the penguins for our penguin, the lobsters for our lobster. Think about it. It’s absurd.