Over the next two weeks, The Atlantic will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2016. Today: Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. (The whole “And, Scene” series will appear here.)
The “choice” that forms the premise of The Lobster is like a curdled BuzzFeed quiz, or a cute personality test from the back of a magazine, that’s been placed in the hands of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. In the world of the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s fifth film (his English-language debut), anyone who isn’t married by a certain age gets turned into an animal and released into the wild. As the deadline for transformation approaches, the remaining singletons gather in a resort hotel where they’re given 45 days to find a partner. On the plus side, if they can’t, they at least get to choose what animal they want to be for the rest of their lives.
The Lobster is set in a dystopia as dense and in need of exposition as some of 2016’s biggest sci-fi franchises, and an early scene provides exactly that. The hotel’s manager (Olivia Coleman) sits down with the protagonist David (Colin Farrell) to psychologically prepare him for possibly not finding a mate. “The fact that you’ll turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you, or get you down,” she says. “Just think: As an animal, you’ll have a second chance to find a companion.”
It’s an darkly apt message for a year when apocalyptic predictions have become as common as emoji. Things may seem dire to some in the wake of a horribly divisive election, but think of the ratings! (There’s something laughably unsatisfying about such silver-lining thinking, especially in 2016.) Though the world of The Lobster has the aesthetics of a post-Soviet state, its internal logic is more reminiscent of Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, where romantic partnerships are based on superficial online personae and manic obsessing over one’s own flaws. The rules of The Lobster are clear, even if why they exist is harder to crack.
For David, the choice is clear—if he fails to find love, he wants to be a lobster. “Lobsters live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded, like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives,” he intones. “I also like the sea very much. I water-ski and swim quite well, since I was a teenager.” Farrell lists his interests with a robotic lack of feeling. His wonderful performance in the film is almost alien-like: He’s emotionally stunted as everyone else in Lanthimos’s cruel world, but nonetheless he clearly yearns for affection and partnership.
Of course, Lanthimos is satirizing the brutality and horror of searching for romance (not unlike the “dating-app fatigue” my colleague Julie Beck wrote about this year). The Lobster’s hotel is Tinder writ small, with the same singletons bumping into and rejecting each other over and over again for the littlest reasons. One guest (Ben Whishaw) obsesses over his limp, which he acquired when trying to locate his mother at a zoo (she had been turned into a wolf). Another (John C. Reilly) is doomed by his lisp. David is worried that his own brother, who now accompanies him everywhere in dog form, makes him seem doomed. Outside of the hotel, unwed folk who fled to avoid their transformations roam the grounds, a horde of non-conformists fated to live apart from society.
Lanthimos, whose stories always have a strange period tone to them, never directly analyzes the foibles of the modern world. But his films address the pernicious flaws of today’s performative culture better than anyone. In Dogtooth (2009), three adult children raised in an enclosed compound and who have never seen the outside world grow violently obsessed with a secreted pile of VHS tapes, defining their rebellion in terms of the pop culture they’re suddenly inhaling. In Alps (2011), a group starts a business where they impersonate the recently deceased to help people through the grieving process. There’s no artist who better understands the fictitious worlds and personalities we build around ourselves, whether for protection or as a weapon.
The Lobster is also incredibly, drily funny, with unmistakable visuals (just watch this “dance” sequence) and strange, flat dialogue. In the hotel of the film, being basic practically amounts to criminality, as its owner notes when she congratulates David on his unusual choice of creature in the introductory scene. “The first thing most people think of is a dog, which is why the world is full of dogs,” she says with a sigh. How better to mock the supreme superficiality of today’s online life, where people enjoy boiling themselves down to one broadly defined trope, be it a spirit animal or a Hogwarts house? The meta-textual joke came full circle when The Lobster was released. Its official website lets you take a quiz to find out what animal you’d turn into; I, of course, got a dog.
Previously: Everybody Wants Some!!
Next Up: Moonlight