(Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Lobster.)
Movies can be fairly easy to categorize and label. Writers and directors in the movie biz often stay warm and cozy in their lucrative little genre homes. Quentin Tarantino has a pulpy, revenge story mansion, JJ Abrams has a few old sci-fi homes that he’s flipped using lens flare and M. Night Shyamalan owns a little horror cabin that constantly drips "twists" from its ceiling into a little bucket. Though these creators are masters of their genres, (and even stray outside of them from time to time), we as audience members perpetuate the constant categorization of this visual medium. Filmmakers may set out to make a genre specific flick, but in most cases they are just creating something and we as the audience try to make sense of it by shoving it into various boxes. Every once in a while there are films that come along that are deep and complex, taking from multiple genres that cannot necessarily be put into just one box. Usually for those we label the flick as a “drama” and throw an Oscar at it. In the case of a little darling called The Lobster, this is a film that maybe fits into many genre boxes, as well as none of them at all.
The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is a story that follows the newly single David, played by Colin Farrell, as he is sent to a hotel where if you don’t find a suitable mate by the end of your forty-five day stay, you are turned into an animal of your choosing. The film’s world is a strange future or side step from our own. The way characters speak to each other is dry and monotone, devoid of exclamations or emotion. They usually state exactly how they feel, not having the luxury of being coy. These characters are not self-aware. No one questions the strange logic of, “Well, if you can’t fall in love you should probably be a horse or something.” They all appear to understand this consequence as a necessary evil, regardless of some character’s rejection of the hotel and its practices. Value isn’t something that can be achieved by the individual; instead you are only deemed fit for society once you are coupled with another person. The film has a cruel caste system of only two classes: humans and animals. Humanity isn’t something you’re entitled to, and the most humane way to deal with those who can’t be rehabilitated from bachelor life is to turn them into animals.
One of the many genres attached to this film is that of a “dystopia.” Though the film never indicates any big fallout of the previous society or explanation of how things became the way they are, the film’s IMDB page states the synopsis as, “In a dystopian near future…” However, there are references to our actual world. On the eve of a character’s last day in the hotel, she is asked what she’d like to do, and she responds, “I want to watch the movie Stand by Me.” Her logic being that she won’t be able to watch it as an animal. The ingredients of your sci-fi dystopia are all there. Scenes in the world’s major city, only ominously referred to as The City, feature a police force whose sole purpose is to find single citizens and ask if they have their relationship status papers. In the beginning of the film we see David being screened before getting sent to The Hotel. They ask him questions like: how long was his last relationship, clothing size and sexual preference. In this scene, we learn there are no half steps. David asks if they have his shoe size in a half size, or if he could choose a bisexual option before getting sent to the hotel, and we learn that he cannot; he must make choices and choose binaries. Clearly there is some kind of regime in this film. And what kind of dystopia would it be if we didn’t have a rebel sect? The Loners, escapees from The Hotel who live in the woods, are the other major “faction” in this film. Hotel guests are forced to hunt these Loners with tranquilizer rifles, and for every Loner they catch, they earn an extra day’s stay at The Hotel. David eventually defects to The Loners, only to learn that love is simply not allowed within their little community. These characters are also dry and emotionless. They just don’t want to be turned into animals and this is literally their only other choice. The Loner’s leader, played by Lea Seydoux, seeks to not only exist outside of The Hotel, but to also play devil’s advocate to its philosophy. In the later portion of the film The Loners go on a mission to break up the various couples in The Hotel, either by revealing their harsh personal truths, or making them prove that one could live without their spouse. The world of The Lobster can be viewed as a dystopian binary where love doesn’t exist. Coupling is made efficient by the world’s regime, and those who reject that regime choose to live without coupling all together. There is no room for love or emotion in this world. Though this film can be viewed as a dystopian film, its Wikipedia summary adds an extra word to the synopsis that most accurately describes the film; the website refers to it as “an absurdist dystopia.”
Absurdism is a philosophical school of thought that began to come into existence in Post-World War II Europe. Absurdism states that humanity’s inherent search for meaning is useless; there is too much unknown, making any sense of certainty impossible. This school of thought also permeated the world of theatre during the same time, and is simply referred to as, “Theatre of the Absurd.” In 1960, Martin Esslin coined, “Theatre of the Absurd” in his essay of the same name. This term was a designation for a series of plays written in the 1950’s that were considered Absurdist fiction. The authors of some of these plays are Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Their plays feature characters with no backgrounds, and dialogue that appears broken, often not achieving complete coherency. The plays are impossible to predict because they have no concrete destination. You are left with a sense of disorientation, watching a world that doesn’t make sense through the lens of characters that have no meaning. This is Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin states in his essay:
“The dissolution, devaluation, and relativization of language is, after all, also the theme of much of present-day depth psychology, which has shown what in former times was regarded as a rational expression of logically arrived at conclusions to be the mere rationalization of subconscious emotional impulses. Not everything that we say means what we intend it to mean.”
Absurdism deems language as a tool no longer able to actually express meaning. As much as Theatre of the Absurd is about the devaluation of language, The Lobster seems to be about the devaluation of love.
The film may be able to fit into another box: a love story. When characters are sent to The Hotel, the phrase “love” or “romance” doesn’t seem to be in any of the character’s vocabulary. They are instead replaced with words like “match.” During the film’s latter half, David falls for a woman in The Loner group, who is only referred to as “The Short Sighted Woman,” played by Rachel Weisz. Both she and David are short sighted, which becomes the groundwork for their love. They are the first and only characters that have any chemistry in the film. When The Loner leader catches wind of their love, she blinds The Short Sighted Woman, trying perhaps to challenge David’s love for her, or to eliminate it all together. The film ends with David leaving The Short Sighted Woman at a table in a diner to go blind himself, hopefully reestablishing their connection. The last scene of the movie we see is David never returning to the table. The Lobster is trying to say something about the way we love one another, the way we seek relationships. Love is a devalued idea in the world of this movie, if it even exists at all. At The Hotel, people are shoved into dances and romantic situations like cattle. They seek to find their mate as a survival tactic, not because they actually like the person. We view romance like puppets pantomiming the act of being in love. Even when we witness characters whom might actually love each other, (no matter what the status of their eyesight), that proves to be false. Perhaps the film is trying to tell us that love is an absurd notion all in and of itself. People search for love as much as they search for the meaning of life, and if we use the absurdist definition in the same way, then the search for love is quite the fruitless endeavor. Albert Camus, a founding father of absurdist philosophy, wrote about a figure in Greek mythology known as Sisyphus. Sisyphus is doomed to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, just for the boulder to keep rolling back down the hill. He is trapped in a loop. Camus states, “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.” Is The Lobster saying that love is a boulder we constantly attempt to push up a hill? Do we as humans get the same fulfillment searching for love rather than actually finding it? To that point, is love even real at all?
The film functions on many levels, and this is only one interpretation. It is indeed one part dystopia, one part absurd-drama. Another quote from Esslin’s article speaks to the audience of Absurdist Theatre:
“The spectators of the Theatre of the Absurd are thus confronted with a grotesquely heightened picture of their own world: A world without faith, meaning and genuine freedom of will.”
This statement rings true with how we, the audience, watch The Lobster; we are given a heightened world where the characters fight for their own agency, but even they themselves don’t fully grasp the concept. I don’t fully buy into the absurdist philosophy. I see Theatre of the Absurd and The Lobster as warnings of what our lives could become: cold and meaningless. I think it’s an admiral endeavor to search for meaning and love. So, try to live a little more like Sisyphus, because you just might actually get that boulder to the top of something.
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae