As I assume is true of many, if not most, of the people who see The Lobster, I’m not sure quite what to make of this movie.
It has elements of science fiction, but in the end I don’t think it fits in that genre, unless you’re inclined to say that the kind of surreal world that Kafka’s characters inhabit is a science fiction one.
Certainly there are elements intended to elicit laughter, but it feels like no more than partly a comedy.
Let’s say it’s an absurdist allegory that asks us to think about certain social phenomena by greatly exaggerating them and placing them in an unfamiliar context so as to make them stand out more.
To describe it as an unconventional movie is an understatement. I’m fine with its being so far out there; all else being equal, a movie tends to score points with me insofar as it’s unconventional.
Actually I do sometimes react negatively to movies that are highly unconventional in structure, where it’s difficult or impossible to know what the heck is going on. That kind of postmodern filmmaking or whatever you want to call it is hit or miss for me, mostly miss. Thankfully, The Lobster isn’t incomprehensible in that sense. Its story has many, many weird elements to it—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the world in which it is set has many, many weird elements to it—but it has a beginning, middle, and end, is in chronological order, and isn’t unusually hard to follow if you pay attention.
I’m sure there is a great deal of symbolism in the movie that went over my head, but certainly I get the main theme, which is that we tend to put too much pressure on people—and on ourselves—to find a mate for life or be considered a failure, but that it’s also possible to go too far in the direction of an ideal of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism and to undervalue having someone to share your life with and depend on.
The Lobster is set in a dystopian future. Being coupled up is not only the norm but mandatory. Any adults who find themselves partnerless, whether through their own fault or not (i.e., it includes not just those who refuse to settle down or whatever, but also people who are dumped, widowed, etc.), are rounded up and given 45 days to become part of a couple or be killed. (Actually, various of their body parts are removed and placed into an animal of their choice, so that they in some sense become an animal rather than being out-and-out killed.)
This 45 day period is spent at a hotel which permanently runs a kind of singles gathering from Hell. The guests spend most of their time there socializing and hopefully finding a suitable partner to fall in love with, but they also regularly are given tranquilizer guns and taken out to hunt down any single people (called “loners”) still roaming free so that they can be turned into animals as punishment for their lifestyle. Any such captures they succeed in making extend the time they have to couple up with a partner by one additional day. One particularly skilled huntress, for example, has been at the hotel for hundreds of days already, because while she may not have what it takes to attract a partner, she keeps shooting enough loners to stay one step ahead of the game.
One would think people would couple up quite easily in such circumstances, given the alternative, but for no clear reason they don’t. (No reason beyond that the people making the movie wanted it to be at least as challenging to find a suitable life partner in this bizarre world as it is in real life, whether that makes sense in the context they’ve created or not.)
People certainly make some effort to connect with a partner, but for the most part no more than people do when on a singles cruise or whatever in our world.
There seems to be a rule that you have to have at least one key thing in common with a potential partner, but really that shouldn’t be any impediment at all since it turns out that that can be virtually anything. (Examples include things like having the same blood type, having the same medical condition, speaking the same foreign language, or playing the same musical instrument. It’s hard to imagine there could be two people who don’t have anything at all of that kind in common.)
One thing making it tough is that evidently it doesn’t count if you fake having feelings for someone. Not only do the authorities enforce this but the single people themselves enforce it on each other, even though it makes no sense for them to do so since exposing someone for this and breaking off an involvement with them just reinstates your own death sentence.
But in the context of this allegory, not every element is supposed to make sense. I think we’re just expected to accept as a premise of the story that in this world, finding or not finding a life partner is roughly comparable to real life in terms of the likelihood of it happening, the kinds of factors that go into whether it will happen, etc., even though the consequences of failing to do so are vastly more severe.
The protagonist of the story is David, a single man whom we follow from his arrival at the hotel through the various misadventures he and his fellow guests experience trying to find a mate.
But then he escapes, and finds himself amongst the loners who live out in the woods, who agree to take him in.
Their lives seem not as treacherous as one would think—it’s kind of like an extended camping trip where everyone has plenty to eat and such—except that they are in constant danger of being hunted down.
As the leader of the loners explains to him when they accept him into their group, the one thing that will absolutely not be tolerated is coupling up with anyone. As a mirror image to the society he has just escaped from, punishment up to torture and death is visited upon anyone who flirts, anyone who shows any romantic or sexual interest in anyone else.
(I’d last all of half a second with this group before I violated that rule by the way, since the leader doing the explaining is the very sexy French actress Léa Seydoux. Obviously there are really beautiful women from pretty much every country in the world, but in recent years since I’ve been watching so many more foreign and indie films I’ve been struck by just how amazing some of these French actresses in particular are. I guess I’m developing quite the fetish for French women. It’s the accent—it’s everything. I Googled Seydoux to see more, and actually when she’s all made up in a conventional big shot movie star manner she’s just “regular” attractive to me. But when she has a more natural look, she has one of those really beautiful and interesting faces that I find mesmerizing.)
The loners delight in launching terrorist attacks of a sort against mainstream society. They don’t actually kill anybody or take hostages or anything; they just seek to subvert relationships so couples will break up.
Ultimately we’re given a “love conquers all” happy ending of sorts as the heroes find the happy medium between the absurdly pro-couples attitude and the absurdly anti-couples attitude, but given the nature of the film it’s no surprise that this is handled in a quite bizarre, disturbing manner.
One of the unconventional things about the film is that almost all the characters speak and act in a kind of wooden, robotic, deadpan manner, certainly including the protagonist. Everyone speaks very literally; there’s no irony, sarcasm, subtlety, etc. Things like laughter and even smiling are almost unheard of (at least in a spontaneous sense; people do things like demonstrate how they smile, which only draws more attention to the fact that no one seems to do so for real). I’m not sure what the symbolic import of this is, but it does make this futuristic world even more absurd and comical.
Like I say, the film is kind of a hodgepodge of different genres, different agendas. And for me it doesn’t fully succeed in any of them.
It doesn’t create a believable world in a science fiction sense.
It’s somewhat more successful as a comedy, though I wouldn’t rank it real high there either. (Granted, it has its moments. Among the best laughs for me were multiple scenes with the heartless woman. Actually the line that generated the most laughs in the theater where I saw the movie was when the leader of the loners remarks that because they cannot allow anything that would encourage passion or forbidden romantic or sexual interaction the only music they listen to and dance to—alone—is electronic music. I didn’t get it, but I was in a theater that shows mostly indie films and is located in kind of a hipster area, and from the guffaws of the audience I infer that they were aware of why it would be appropriate and funny to reference electronic music in that way.)
But what about as thoughtful and incisive social commentary? I think that’s the sense in which the film would most want to be taken seriously, and it does indeed raise an interesting issue worth thinking about. Are we guilty of exaggerating the appeal of conventional coupling and family life, and of putting too much emphasis on seeking that? Do people who fail to achieve it sometimes swing too far to the opposite extreme in condemning it as not something they’re interested in anyway?
But when you get right down to it, I don’t know that raising this topic via an absurdist comedy movie provokes me to any better or deeper thought on it than if someone simply said to me, “Here’s something I think is worth pondering,” and then read the last two sentences of the paragraph immediately before this one.
I remember when I thought and wrote about Anomalisa right after seeing it, I had the sense that while initially I had only experienced that movie as pretty good, my assessment of it was already becoming noticeably more favorable and was likely to continue improving that way in retrospect the more I allowed it to sink in. And that has indeed happened; I now regard Anomalisa as one of the better movies I’ve seen recently.
I can see something similar happening with The Lobster, though it started off and will likely end up a bit below Anomalisa for me. Think of this as a poor man’s Charlie Kaufman-type surrealism. In terms of how much I enjoyed it while I was sitting in the theater watching it, I’d probably rank it somewhere around 55th to 60th out of the last hundred movies I’ve seen. But already as I think back on it I’m inclined to bump it up to somewhere in the 40s, and I suspect as it sinks in more it’ll rank no worse than in the 30s.
Except for people who have a decided aversion to really unconventional, weird movies, I think The Lobster is worth checking out.