The mind of Yorgos Lanthimos must be an unsettling place. Dogtooth and Alps were wonky, transgressive and darkly amusing allegories of our times: life reflected through warped glass. His first English language film, The Lobster, is just as wonky, and absurd, and satirical. Like looking at the world lying sideways on the floor, it’s recognisable but somehow very different. It’s also very, very funny and thought-provoking.
In this dystopian world, being single is a crime punishable by being turned into an animal of their choice if no suitable love match can be found within 45 days. Singles are sent on retreat to meet prospective partners.
The couples’ selection process is deliberately dehumanising: parodying and perverting the dating game. It’s more like an arranged marriage with “ideal” partners matched up according to a narrow set of personal characteristics (a limp, a lisp, short-sightedness). There’s also a hunt, where singles pick off their rivals with tranquiliser darts. Ruthlessness wins the game. Emotional sensitivity can be fatal.
The actors’ deliberately flat delivery of their lines reflects the lack of joy and passion, a fear of showing feelings. Biscuit Woman seems kind-hearted, but the desperation driving her is all too obvious. No-one speaks of being moved by the arts or nature, or of loving other people. The talk is all about finding true love, yet love itself is nowhere to be seen. Instead, love is fetishised, idealised, sanitised and commodified until it becomes meaningless.
There is an underground resistance movement made up of extremist singletons but this turns out to be equally harsh and oppressive. Even in the resistance, the game is being played, only this time the aim is to evade and disprove love.
Everyone constantly acts in their own interests, self-protecting and suspicious of others in this totalitarian state where partnership certificates must be shown on demand to security guards in the shopping centre. Fear of persecution creates complicity: emotionally disconnected couples stay bound together in pacts of convenience because the alternative is too scary. Even when The Lobster collects rabbits to feed Short Sighted Woman, it’s an act of self-interest. Getting the girl is socially ingrained – note that he picks her foremost because of the shared characteristic of short-sightedness – but it’s also an act of defiance to the bullying resistance leader.
One tiny altruistic gesture stands out, though. The Maid helps The Lobster create a diversion, enabling him to defeat a competitor. She already has a partner. She has no obvious gain other than that she quite likes him, as she makes clear to him later on. He fails to pick up on it, so conditioned is he to the selection process. In contrast to everything else around it, this throwaway moment seems somehow rather moving and significant. In the end, the only real expression of emotion is small and subtle, not a crowd-pleasing grandstanding gesture.
It’s a much-needed hearty poke at the potential consequences of media-dictated, mob-rule conformity; social over-policing disguised as security, and the commodification of everything, including ourselves.