The Lobster (2015): satiric alternate reality and the tyranny of social conformity

The modern mastermind of everything surreal and absurd, the man whose  dystopian communities are one of the quirkiest satirical commentaries to our dysfunctional modern world, is finally back. His Bunuelian sense of surrealism first sparked my interest when I saw his critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film Dogtooth in 2009, and he’s been making the weirdest, most bizarre, often uncomfortable (but ultimately very rewarding and thought-provoking) films ever since. The Lobster is his first film in English language (and with famous international cast on top of that), but since Lanthimos’s construction of satiric alternate reality seems to work just as well in English as it would in Greek, this didn’t make the story any less weird or unconventional.

tumblr_nzhkfnwDNt1sktobto4_1280The story follows a recently divorced David (an outstanding Colin Farrell, who gained a considerable amount of weight for the role), who, due to his single status, has to check into the Hotel in order to find a new life companion. You see, he lives in a world where being single is illegal. People are meant to live in couples and whether your spouse left you or just recently died – you’re obliged to check into a Hotel where you have 45 days to fall in love. If you fail to start a relationship with someone in this time period, it means you failed as a human being and you get to be turned into an animal of your choosing.

“That’s absurd!” someone might say. But is it really? Think about it. Of course, Lanthimos drove the whole situation to the most humours extreme, but there’s our own reality hidden in there somewhere. Don’t we ourselves live in a world where single people are constantly judged, stigmatized even? Where a person of a certain age is expected to get married and have children, where most people don’t even think of choosing a different life path? Where people, in a hurry to start their own family, consider it to be by their own free will, rarely realizing they’re just following the social norm, something they have internalized while growing up? If I just look at some of my single friends who are constantly dating, swiping right and left on Tinder, trying to meet THE guy, but at the same time willing to jump into the first (however dysfunctional) relationship because they feel they’ve reached a certain age where being single is no longer acceptable. And when they fail to connect, when they fail to build a relationship that would last more that a couple of months, they feel as if they somehow failed. As women, as human beings. “There’s probably something wrong with me,” is the sentence I hear all too often. No, it’s not. There’s something wrong with this society that’s letting you think that being alone is a crime. True, our society doesn’t turn you into an animal, but it’s doing something that’s probably even worse: instead of turning you into a lobster (or, you know, whatever animal you like), it lets you punish yourself. By letting you believe that your life is not yet complete, not fully lived, because you need a partner, “your better half” to be considered a normal, fully functioning member of our society. And by letting you know it’s time to stop kidding around and start living a normal life. Tick tock. The clock is ticking.

tumblr_nzn46c7CYS1uwat82o4_1280The clock is ticking for David, too, as he checks into the Hotel, some kind of a singles resort that could easily be called a Prison, since the only way of getting out is by finding your “soul-mate” and starting a relationship. And just as in real life, you have a limited time to do that. Which is why most people, desperate to get out in their human form, start to fake their habits, their (dis)abilities, even their personality, in order to become interesting to another single guest of the Hotel. The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) starts to fake his nosebleeds in order to get closer with the Nosebleed Woman, and it’s not long before David also changes his whole personality in order to start dating the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). Things don’t go as planned, though, since she chooses to put his psychopathic tendencies to a test by killing his dog/brother. Blinded by anger and grief, he chooses to revenge his brother’s death by turning her into an animal and escaping from the Hotel – only to discover that he’s not the first person who chose to run from the tyranny of social conformity. The forest is full of other dissidents – but they’re far from living in complete freedom. The Loners may have abandoned social rules of the majority, but their merciless leader, Léa Seydoux, came up with a whole set of different rules (everything that is required to do in couples is strictly forbidden, or as she explains: “We dance alone. That’s why we only play electronic music.“), which is why they end up being no less rigid or intolerant than the society they chose to escape from. The way they function is reminiscent to a religious cult, but I would go even further than that: if the world outside of the forest represents a totalitarian regime in an alternate reality, the forest represents freedom that most of the former communist countries imagined when they thought of the word democracy. However, things didn’t turned all that great as one might expect once the era of communism ended and an era of democracy (and with that, capitalism) began – because people essentially stayed the same. What Lanthimos therefore tries to say is that we can change the system – but as long as we, the people, don’t change, until we’re equally hungry for power and incapable of solidarity or empathy towards other human being, the ideological package that surrounds us doesn’t really matter. For there is always going to be someone who will try to gain power by disabling anyone who won’t play by their rules in the process. Of course, there are going to be different methods for achieving this goal (one system will kill your human form and the other will blind you while pretending to help), but the end result will essentially be the same.

Even though the film delivers quite a strong message, this is by no means a political film. It’s a love story more than anything else, and not just that: it’s a story about forbidden love, a modern Romeo and Juliet of sorts, even though none of the lovers dies at the end. Instead of death we get a very typical Lanthimos ending, not much different from the self-mutilating bathroom scene in Dogtooth.

tumblr_nzhkfnwDNt1sktobto7_1280Lanthimos, always ready to perform an artistic surgery on social stigmas and taboos, chose to address the stigmatization of single people in the way he knows best: in a satirical love story, full of mechanical dialogue (that’s slowly becoming his trademark), dark humour and absurd situations. His filmmaking sure isn’t for everyone’s taste – but if you’re willing to see through the absurd of our everyday life, this is going to be one of the best movie experiences you’ve come across this year.

“People follow completely absurd rules. You get used to it because you’re educated in a certain way. Many years can go by and people don’t question. That’s how it’s done. That’s the way it is. But if you distance yourself from it, you can realize how absurd some of the things that we consider normal are.” (Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Basics:
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Angeliki Papoulia
Running Time: 118 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9

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11 thoughts on “The Lobster (2015): satiric alternate reality and the tyranny of social conformity”

  1. Another great read 🙂 This film is my favourite from 2015, I laughed A LOT and the film says so much, as you’ve said. And its not preachy either. Such a great film! I must check out Dogtooth and his other films

    1. No, it’s not preachy one bit! It just pokes fun at the way we live – in the most original way possible. 🙂 It’s one of my favourites from 2015 too. And you really must check out Dogtooth – I was just fresh out of high school when I saw it and I don’t remember any film blowing my mind quite as much as this one. I went for a beer with my friends afterwards and we just sat in silence for an hour, everyone was too shocked/impressed by what we just saw.

  2. A wonderful and beautifully written review, Veronika 🙂

    I saw this film yesterday and I have to say I found it insufferable. I have no patience for the surreal. Whilst I wish more filmmakers would be as daring as Lanthimos, ‘The Lobster’, for me, was too flamboyant and excessive with the weird – it threw me out of the film so many times.

    1. Thank you, James!
      Yes, I totally understand – I don’t think there’s possible to stay completely indifferent by this film and you either love it or you hate it. I happen to love surreal films, but I can understand how this may ruin someone’s movie experience. It all comes down to one’s personal taste, I guess.

  3. Marvellous review. This has been on my list for some time. It sounds like something I could really get into. After reading this, I think I’m going to have to bump it up the list now.

    1. Thank you! This film is definitely an unusual experience, but I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s weird, funny, sad, disturbing, intelligent and thought-provoking… It’s everything I like in a film. 🙂

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