“A wolf and a penguin could never live together” – Dissecting the rules of attraction in The Lobster

Not long after his arrival at the luxurious Hotel in which the first half of The Lobster unfolds, David (a wonderfully squidgy, vulnerable Colin Farrell) is subjected to an exercise devised to show him how much easier life is when there are two of something. One of his hands is tied behind his back, limiting his ability to perform many simple tasks. Of course he struggles, this is guaranteed. And somewhere between trying to undo his pants and going to the toilet, the lesson is supposed to seep in, that being single is undesirable, difficult, and even potentially detrimental to life and health.

The Lobster, the first English language film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Alps, 2011, Dogtooth, 2009), is a blackly comic, complex exploration of the shallow mechanics of romance in the modern age. Lanthimos creates a dystopian, yet recognisable world, governed by extreme and exacting rules for how coupling must take place. Those who flout or break the rules or deviate from the script or fail entirely must face the consequences and severe punishments. The Hotel is like a prison – it exists to reinforce dominant social and sexual values, what is considered normal, by repressing whatever might exacerbate angst, such as actual attraction or desire or choice. In a world where being single is posited as a problem to be solved, the Hotel and its management offers a heavily structured, fiercely policed solution.

David (Colin Farrell) checks in at the Hotel
David (Colin Farrell) checks in at the Hotel

It’s an unforgiving world, brutal in its rigidity. It’s a world fixated on coupledom as a measure of success. In other words, it’s a world not unlike our own.

Just imagine living in a world where if you failed to couple up it was decreed, by the state, that you’d forfeited your humanity? There are some days when I feel like I live there. Sounds inflated I know, but as a single woman of a certain age, a day rarely goes by when I don’t, in some way, receive a reminder that I’m not ‘succeeding’ at life because I’m on my own. Society simply prefers couples and sometimes it feels like I’m constantly on the outside looking in at the ‘real world.’ If I eat at a café on my own I can feel it in the looks of other patrons noting my otherness between sips of their caffe lattes. I can hear it in politician’s repeated bombast about ‘working families.’ I see it everywhere on television and in advertising. Up close and personal too. A married friend frequently talks about the circumscribed nature of his life, yet asks me why I’ve never had kids, as if despite his own gloom this would automatically guarantee me nirvana. At lunch with another friend who has recently had a baby, I sensed something close to pity in her voice, that all this wasn’t mine, that I’d been left withering like overripe fruit on the vine, without ever asking, if that is even a narrative I want any part of. There may be a myriad of reasons why I am single (and childless) if people ever bothered to really talk to me about it instead of assuming some ugly defect in my design. And deeper than that, the problem seems to be that it’s assumed that coupling equals happiness equals success (all intertwined in the dominant hetetornormative cultural script), and that a fulfilling life has to look the same for all of us. Despite the diversity of our society today, this rhetoric and the social pressure it propagates remains a forceful and debilitating one.

Importantly, Lanthimos also addresses these pressures. For all its dark humour, The Lobster is a film constructed on a very real emotional terrain – the muddy anxiety of loneliness and isolation, that feeling of being outside society, looking in. He poses the question of how far a person is willing to go to avoid this, to find that idealised entity known as ‘the one,’ by taking it to its logical extreme within the boundaries of a world in which being single is literally presented as a fate worse than death.

David is recently divorced. In this warped world he’s barely given time to deal with his emotional trauma before he’s brought to the Hotel. His wife left him for a man quite similar to him (he also wears glasses) and it’s David’s first time on his own, as he tells the receptionist who takes down his vital statistics and begins to induct him into the Hotel’s rules. David’s informed that many areas of the Hotel are off limits to singles. Couples live by a different set of rules; they have more privileges so they can move around more freely.

In The Lobster, singles are allowed to mingle by the pool
In The Lobster, singles are allowed to mingle by the pool

Once David’s settled in his room, the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) and her partner visit to emphasize the parameters of his stay. Like the other singles, David has 45 days to “fall in love” or receive the mandatory punishment – he will be transformed into an animal of his choosing and released into the wild. David is at least partly aware of all this. He’s brought his brother Bob along, now a dog, after he failed to pair up during his own stay at the Hotel. But even when turned into an animal there are strict rules to be observed, as the Hotel Manager reminds him: “A wolf and a penguin could never live together. That would be absurd.” Sameness is prized. David’s given it some thought and decided that if and when the time comes he wants to be a lobster. As he explains, he’s chosen a lobster because it can live for 100 years, stays fertile, has blue blood like an aristocrat, and finally, because he genuinely likes the sea.

The Hotel enforces a program of socialization that might best be called single aversion therapy. Residents sit through instructional demonstrations designed to socialize them properly and reinforce the dominant narrative that two is better than one. In the first demonstration, a man eats alone, chokes and dies. In the second, a man eats with a woman, chokes and is saved. Lanthimos intercuts this scene with the enforcement of other regulations. The Maid (Ariane Labed) visits David in his room. Her duties include rubbing herself all over his crotch until he becomes erect. This curbing of desire is supposed to make it easier for him to find his perfect match, free from distractions of the flesh. Meanwhile we see another instructional demonstration. A woman walks alone and is raped. Lanthimos then cuts to Robert (John C. Reilly), a lisper, who has been found repeatedly masturbating. He’s publicly punished, at breakfast, by having the offending hand placed inside a functioning toaster. The camera then returns to a woman walking with a man and the rapist ignoring her.

Life at the Hotel is a series of tests with punishments and rewards. What does it take to pass and be released back into the City? Once a ‘perfect match’ is made, couples move to a couple’s suite for two weeks. Passing this obstacle of compatibility, they spend a further two weeks together on a yacht. Some are given a child to help iron out any problems that might exist between them. Only then can they be released, as fully-fledged members of society, as proper human beings. But what have they lost in pursuit of this reward?

When they arrive at the Hotel, residents are stripped of their individuality and reduced to their ‘defining characteristic.’ A person’s personality and uniqueness is ultimately minimised. They strip down to their underwear and receive a new set of clothes. All the men dress the same, as do all the women. The overall effect is to emphasise their sameness so that their one defining characteristic can stand out. And rather than looking for what makes a person extraordinary, it’s their deficiencies that are most attractive. Most characters, other than David, are known by their ‘flaw’ – as ‘Limping Man’ (Ben Whishaw), ‘Lisping Man,’ ‘Nosebleed Woman’ (Jessica Barden), ‘Biscuit Woman’ (Ashley Jensen) and ‘Heartless Woman’ (Angeliki Papoulia). Like the users of online dating sites, the Hotel demands that its residents fixate on marking off likes and dislikes so that ‘perfect matches’ are inevitably founded on superficial qualities in common.

At the Hotel, romance is an industry. There’s no time or place for icky emotions. While David is encouraged to “fall in love” in his initial meeting with the Hotel Manager, only elusive ‘perfect matches’ are valued (you can fall in and out of love but a perfect match is almost scientific in its certainty, right). The Hotel stages ‘dances’ in the middle of the day (curtains blocking the light, creating the illusion of evening), where identically dressed men and women are encouraged to mingle under the watchful eyes of the administration (the Hotel Manager and her Partner take on performance duties with a hilarious rendition of ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’). Here, David dances with Biscuit Woman – who will later offer biscuits and then herself to him sexually, if he’ll have her – but finds her needy desperation to pair up too cloying, so fakes a sore leg to escape.

Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and David, awkward in the face of enforced socialising and socialisation
Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and David, awkward in the face of enforced socialising and socialisation
Socialisation also occurs via instructional demonstrations on the dangers of being alone
Man eats with woman – socialisation also occurs via instructional demonstrations on the dangers of being alone

Lanthimos’ characters are forced to extremes to avoid being discarded and left behind. Nights are reserved for the hunt. Here, the residents have the chance to buy themselves more time beyond the 45 days assigned to couple. They head into the woods where they hunt down Loners – a group of militant renegades who have rejected the strict rules at the Hotel but can’t return to the City because being single is effectively illegal. For each Loner taken out with a tranquilliser gun the residents gain one extra day at the Hotel. Those focused on coupling earn privileges at the expense of those who are not.

Lanthimos shoots the first hunt in quite an extraordinary way, with slowed down balletic movements, as human pursues human, in a false attempt to restore order to the world. Choreographed to a slow and sensual, torchy Greek love song, it’s a scene finely attuned by Lanthimos to capture the contradictions of the action unfolding; magnifying that fine line between sentiment and brutality that are at play in the game of love.

Other forms of violence are employed to maintain the status quo. Limping Man decides he wants Nosebleed Woman as his mate, so in the swimming pool he bangs his head to induce a nosebleed of his own. He lies to her when she sees the crimson leak, “This happens to me all the time.” David witnesses the deception and later confronts him. Limping Man asks what’s worse: to die cold and alone in the woods; to be hunted and eaten by a bigger animal; or to fake the occasional nosebleed. Within this logic, the choice is simple.

Connections are built on half-truths and out-and-out lies. The environment inhibits conversations between residents – there’s no emotion, little room for exploration or discovery. People talk in purely functional ways – what time is there for flirting or fumbling when a ticking clock governs your remaining days as a human. For others this has deadly results. Pushed to the edge by her failure to couple and connect or to capture enough Loners to extend her chances, Biscuit Woman throws herself from a balcony. It’s a tragedy played right on the knife-edge of humour, but not one unexpected in this space.

Although I don’t think there is a screen (laptop, tablet, phone or otherwise) anywhere within The Lobster’s mise en scène, it is very much a film for how we live now. When Limping Man and Nosebleed Woman couple up, it’s announced and celebrated in front of all the residents. Just like many do on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, it’s not enough to find ‘love’ you have to show and tell everyone about it; you have to prove it, you have to perform happiness publicly to validate it and make it real. Ours is a society in which looking for love now takes place more and more frequently in these public, virtual spaces – where sophisticated algorithms claim they can find our ‘perfect match,’ where dating apps let us casually swipe away faces we don’t like the look of, where we are not really considered happy or content unless we can share proof of this publicly, and where television shows are made up of preternaturally attractive men and women competing for a chance at true love within the polished confection of a modern day fairy tale.

But what happens when you are looking for romance, sex or love with someone but don’t want to do it within the conventions that are currently de rigueur? What and who is left for you? Within the world of The Lobster there is the opportunity for escape but it is limited by its own design.

The Lobster shifts in its second act after David’s attempt to couple with the Heartless Woman violently and spectacularly falls apart and he decides he no longer wants any part of the life demarcated by the Hotel. He escapes into the woods where he takes up living with the Loners. While the Loners have escaped the restrictions of the Hotel and the City, their lives are ultimately no freer. They’ve broken away from the enforced monogamy of these spaces only to live under their own strict directives when it comes to sex and romance – they are militantly, almost fanatically, single.

Until this point in The Lobster, Rachel Weisz has provided the film’s droll narration. But when she enters the film as a Loner, named only in the credits as ‘Short-Sighted Woman,’ the satire shifts from darkness to warmth. David has been heading towards her all along, and as she explains, his arrival in the woods “was the start of his new life.”

Rachel Weisz is the Short-Sighted Woman who helps David to see the possibility of a different life
Rachel Weisz is the Short-Sighted Woman who helps David to see the possibility of a different life

Before too long, David and Weisz’s Short-Sighted Woman fall in love. Until their meeting, true romance is a presence in The Lobster solely by virtue of its absence. But in pursuit of love, they push against convention. Neither found the life mapped out for them at the Hotel acceptable. And eventually life in the woods is severely limiting and dehumanizing too. They both understand how much it hurts to be alone. They are sensitive and compassionate with each other. They need each other; the sadness they each carry reveals that no rules or regulations can suppress the very real yearning for a genuine connection.

David’s happy to find out that Weisz’s character is short-sighted like he is, that they have this similar characteristic. But rather than this being a guarantee at success like it would have been at the Hotel, it’s a foundation to build on. Their relationship escalates from there. David catches rabbits for her (they are her favourite food), and delivers them like a bouquet of red roses. They clandestinely share headphones so they can dance together. She rubs his sore back with balm in the places he can’t reach. Lanthimos presents these as deeply romantic gestures in a culture where romance is not allowed.

What David and the Short-Sighted Woman are doing is carving out a space of their own in a world they cannot tolerate. They don’t like the rules they have to live under so they create their own rules. And within that, they create their own language – an elaborate code of head moves and elbow taps – so that the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) doesn’t know that they have broken all her rules (flirting, kissing, sex). As the Short-Sighted Woman tells us, the code grows and grows as time goes by so that they can talk about almost anything without ever opening their mouths.

David and the Short-Sighted Woman prepare to get closer
David and the Short-Sighted Woman prepare to get closer

But as The Lobster’s finale makes clear, lonely people are indeed fragile people. David and the Short-Sighted Woman have been conditioned to believe that certain things are necessary to make a relationship successful. One of these is a similar characteristic, and when theirs is compromised, they struggle to find another identical feature to build their relationship on. Despite their romantic rebellion, the socially reinforced lessons they have absorbed prove difficult to exorcise. In this design, loving each other and enjoying being together is not going to be enough and they find they are more wolf and penguin than wolf and wolf or penguin and penguin.

If we believe that differences in relationships can’t be tolerated then we are doomed. Some of those unknowns are what keep life interesting, evolving, surprising. Compatibility is a profound concept that can’t be based solely on ticking boxes of superficial similarity. It is, realistically, something you immediately have with another person, that draws you together, but it’s also something that develops over time through respect, compromise, and generosity.

“We love each other and we suit each other and that’s the reason we’ve decided to leave and live together in the city,” the Short-Sighted Woman declares as she and David make plans for their future. There’s a profound tenderness in their reliance on and craving for one another. They’ve found real love with each other and Lanthimos asks, how far are they willing to go to hold onto it? Here, The Lobster explodes into a full-blown love story almost in spite of itself. The Short-Sighted Woman’s decree offers words to live by, if the weight of the world doesn’t crush you first.

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