Over the next few weeks, I will be releasing a series of 10 essays about my top 10 films of the 2010s. These will not be comprehensive, lengthy essays about every aspect of each of the films, but will instead by shorter essays about single elements that I found worth discussing or interesting. These essays will not necessarily spoil every part of the film but they will be spoiling elements fairly freely. Obviously I recommend you see each of these films.
#5: The Lobster
One of the strangest comments I heard about Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster was that it loses steam in the second half. It’s not a take I agree with (I think the second half is where it acquires its power) but it’s one that I think I understand. The world of The Lobster (in which single people are sent to a hotel, where they have 45 days to find a match or be turned into an animal, and where they can extend their stay by hunting down unmatched people, so called Loners, in the surrounding woods) is so instantly absurd, and presented so matter-of-factly, that it can only be satirical. So it’s only natural that people instantly begin searching for what the film is satirizing.
At that point the immediate place you’ll start looking is the way in which the film satirizes the way romance is often forced down our throats in modern culture. And it could be taken, (for the first half at least) as a vicious satire of the way romance is presented in culture. But that is a surface level reading, and when you take the film as a whole, the film ceases to merely be about romance and becomes about systems of oppression.
The first sign is not just a satire of romance is the fact that romance is not just rigidly enforced, it is enforced in the context of intensely narrow and incredibly arbitrary methods of classification. From the opening moments at the hotel, when our protagonist is told that he can’t register as bisexual, he has to choose heterosexual and homosexual (and lest you mistake that for an uncritical moment of biphobia, moments later he is informed that he can’t have a shoe size 44 ½, he must choose 44 or 45) the film is hammering home that this world shoves people into absurd boxes. People don’t only need to find someone they can relate to, they must have the same defining characteristic. David is short sighted, so he must find someone short sighted. Another man, John, has a limp and thus must find a woman with a limp.
This system is rigidly forced outside the hotel (later in the film when David leaves the hotel he finds that people that shop without their significant other are questioned by police for being alone) but also backed up by absurdist cruelty within it; David (and presumably other men) are sexually teased daily but forbidden from masturbating on pain of having their hand shoved in a toaster. Even once a couple is formed, they have to room together for 14 days and then stay on a boat together for another 14, and if they are found to be arguing too much, they are assigned a new child to care for. The child, you see, stops the couple from arguing.
This could be fertile ground for a dark satire of how we attach so much worth to external elements or the way society prioritizes relationships, but the film has grander ambitions than that. Because not only have these absurd boxes been so internalized by the characters that they can’t see outside of them, but they become desperate to fit into these boxes. John, upon meeting a woman who has nosebleeds as her defining characteristic begins hitting his face against things to get nosebleeds, and begins a relationship with her. But what makes this absurd isn’t that he’s lying, it’s that on some level, everyone knows that he’s lying; He announced upon his arrival that his “Defining characteristic” was a limp. There’s many hints that the hotel staff surveil the “Guests” constantly. His partner and the hotel staff are only unaware that he’s lying because they want to be. It doesn’t matter that he’s lying about the box he fits into, so long as he works to fit into the box.
But what makes it this critique especially meaningful, what makes the film pitch into real intense darkness, is that once David leaves the hotel (after an aborted attempt to lie to partner up with woman who is supposedly heartless and is clearly using the hotel as an extended excuse to act out her violent impulses) and joins the Loners, he does not find a group of rebels who want to throw off the shackles of the brutal system. He just finds another box he has to fit into.
The Loners are not interested in permitting people to live as they please; They have their own rigid set of rules (romantic interactions and even basic assistance is not tolerated) and their own atrocities to enforce them (flirting is punished by facial mutilation and sexual intercourse by even more horrific mutilation). The Loners may oppose the constraints of the main society, but only by creating their own constraints.
As the film continues to explore the world of the Loners, it becomes clear that the Loners are not interested in overthrowing the system and may, in fact, be controlled opposition. The Loners stage a raid on the Hotel but rather than work to dismantle the system and everything it stands for, they simply engage in petty acts designed to sabotage individual relationships. A scene towards the end of the film shows that the hotel’s bus shuttle is still running fine, nothing has changed. Later when the Loner leader discovers that David and a woman known as the Short Sighted Woman have begun a relationship, she is able to arrange not only for the Short Sighted Woman to have laser eye surgery at the drop of a hat, but for the surgery to blind her with no questions asked. The two systems need each other; The Loners have no identity except opposition to the system and the Hotel relies on hunting the Loners for guests to extend their stay, and always manage to find them effortlessly…
As the film descends towards its conclusion, it comes to the ending it was always aimed for, the final reveal; That despite the absurdity of the system in place, despite repeatedly showing that it is not working for anyone (multiple interactions at the hotel hammer this home, from a man who is clearly more interested in forming friendships, to a woman who is in love with her best friend but can’t make a move as both have registered as straight), none of the characters can see a way out of the system. The system has so thoroughly controlled them, so thoroughly hammered them into their boxes that they can’t even perceive that there could exist a world outside those boxes.
After discovering David and the Short Sighted Woman’s relationship, the Loner Leader blinds the Short Sighted Woman, destroying their similar trait. Despite the fact that she and David still clearly care for one another, neither can envision a relationship without a common trait, David desperately searching their personal life for something to be a common trait. And so, David comes to the absurd conclusion that the only way for them to be together, is for him to blind himself, giving them back their common defining trait.
And so, the movie ends where the system would want it to end; Not with David throwing off the constraints of the system, but with him standing in a bathroom, working up the courage to blind himself with a steak knife, ready to exchange one box for another.