Near the end of his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear — which chronicles his excitement and apprehension about being a newlywed — Father John Misty (a.k.a. Josh Tillman) sings, “Love is just an institution based on human frailty.” Might seem like an odd statement coming from a guy besotted with his new bride, but Tillman speaks to a universal suspicion that many enamoured people feel from time to time: Have I really, truly found my soulmate? Or is that just something I’m telling myself because I’m afraid to be alone?
Yorgos Lanthimos’ terrific new film, The Lobster, examines those fears with satiric delight — presenting a deeply cynical look at love and relationships. In the movie’s dark, futuristic world, it’s hard to know who has it worse: the characters who have someone to love or the characters who don’t.
Lanthimos, who was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his demented 2009 family comedy Dogtooth, imagines a civilization in which single people are shipped off to a hotel on the outskirts of town in order to find a new mate. As the film opens, the pudgy sad sack David (Colin Farrell) has just moved to the hotel — his wife recently left him for another man — and he’s informed that he has 45 days to select a partner within the hotel’s walls. If he doesn’t, he’ll be turned into an animal. This is not a shock to David or any of the other tenants — theirs is a society in which being paired off is the law.
In Dogtooth, Lanthimos mocked conventional family life by crafting a bizarre scenario in which a mother and father trick their children into believing that the outside world is a frightening hellscape, stunting their development and warping their minds in the process. (The film’s sick joke was that, in reality, all parents unintentionally do a number on their kids.) With The Lobster, his English-language debut, Lanthimos explodes another institution, marriage, criticizing how society pressures us into finding a lover, settling down and becoming domesticated. In ways large and small, we’ve all been conditioned to believe that romantic commitment is the only way to find true happiness and prove our value. The Lobster takes that emphasis on coupling to its most outlandish extreme, making it a matter of life and death.
Lanthimos’ fictional future world is one in which emotion is absent — cold pragmatism outweighs passion when the stakes are so high. David quickly falls into the hotel’s daily routine: Alongside other single men, played by John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, he engages in hopeful yet dry small talk with the female tenants. (Adding to this world’s lack of humanity, David’s name is the only one we know in the movie.) Nobody at the hotel is wooing anyone with romance — everyone’s just trying to negotiate for a partner, hoping that a shared characteristic (like a limp or a lisp) will be enough to forge a mutually advantageous relationship. Ain’t love grand?
Though the setup sounds horrifying, The Lobster’s deadpan tone makes the critique biting, even hilarious. But the film’s chilly approach also adds extra shock to the story’s sudden bursts of violence. There are brutal consequences if you’re caught masturbating. And some desperate tenants go to ridiculous lengths to fake their compatibility. (One character sits back placidly while his potential new bride kills his beloved dog — he’s too afraid he might lose her if he objects.) The Lobster methodically details what a farce the coupling ritual is, from unreasonable compromises to feigned proclamations of true love. In the real world, we don’t fear being turned into an animal if we’re single, but the anxiety of being shunned by society can sometimes feel just as potent.
The Lobster lulls viewers into feeling smug: Well, aren’t you happy to be unattached and to have rejected the cultural mania to domesticate? It’s then that Lanthimos throws a curveball. Eventually, David escapes the hotel, befriending a guerrilla outfit known as the Loners who operate outside the law, proudly refusing to settle down with partners. Because of their rebel stance, they must hide out in the woods, but Loner leader Léa Seydoux touts this as freedom. But that freedom comes at a price: If you fall in love with someone in the group, the consequences can be as severe as those meted out by the hotel administrators. Sure enough, David finds himself drawn to a beautiful, shy Loner (Rachel Weisz), and the couple keeps their burgeoning attraction secret lest they be punished. Ironically, it’s only when the Loners go on undercover missions in “conventional society,” where they must pretend to be paired up to avoid suspicion, that David and Weisz’s Loner get a chance to express their affection without scrutiny.
What is Lanthimos after in this mid-film course correction? He’s suggesting that the societal pressure to pair up can be stifling — but, in its own way, a knee-jerk rejection of relationships as corrupt bourgeois constructions can be just as toxic. It’s akin to Father John Misty warning us that “Love is just an institution based on human frailty”: Neither man believes the sentiment, yet both understand how those on the outside can view a happy couple skeptically, assuming that those in love are sheeple.
Anyone who’s found his soulmate has probably had that moment when he wonders if he can trust the fortune that’s fallen into his lap. There are so many reasons why love doesn’t last that we’ve become trained to suspect it won’t — to be dubious of ourselves (and others) when it seems that it might actually work out. That niggling paranoia courses throughout The Lobster. In Lanthimos’ alternate reality, love is always presented as a sham, an unromantic negotiation, something you’re probably doing wrong or, very rarely, a wonderful secret you need to protect from the outside world.
Just don’t expect any happy endings in The Lobster: They rarely occur in the real world, so it’s not a surprise that Lanthimos resists providing one. Appropriate to a story about the pitfalls of opening your heart, The Lobster leaves us wondering if being in love is akin to poking your eyes out — and whether it’s better to walk through the world blind.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.