I keep seeing people describe Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster as a comedy. Though many elements are undeniably comedic, The Lobster belongs first and foremost to the horror genre; a fact all the more impressive considering it never seeks to deliberately scare its audience. Instead it realizes all of the terrors of human intimacy, of the omnipresent societal demands for sexual and romantic homogeneity. In the film’s futuristic dystopia, being single is literally against the law. Single adults are shepherded to The Hotel, a resort where they are forced to find new partners in forty-five days or be transformed into animals of their choice and released into The Woods, the giant forest that seems to make up most of the countryside. Extra time at The Hotel can only be earned by successfully participating in Hunts where Loners—a community of renegade singles living in the Woods seeking escape from the oppressive government—are rounded up and captured.
David (Colin Farrell) arrives at The Hotel after the failure of his last relationship (which lasted “eleven years and one month”). Accompanied only by a dog later revealed to be his brother who had previously failed his last stay at The Hotel, David struggles to navigate the horrors of government-mandated love. When most of his days have run out, he makes one last-ditch effort to remain human by trying to seduce a “Heartless Woman” (Angeliki Papoulia) who delights in cruelty. But after failing to keep up the required facade of sociopathic detachment, he flees into The Woods and joins the Loners. But in a curious twist, instead of advocating free and open lifestyles of one’s own choosing, the Loners are equally obsessive and cruel in maintaining their own preferred sexual norm: absolute celibacy. Any form of intimacy between Loners is met with mutilation. Tragically, he almost immediately falls hopelessly in love with another Loner. Even worse: she falls for him as well.
Lanthimos’ metaphorical condemnations of real-life hypocrisies concerning love and sex hit like guided missiles. My favorite paradox: while sex in The Hotel is encouraged and guests are “serviced” by the staff every day, masturbation is strictly prohibited and brutally punished. The scene where a lisping and pathetic John C. Reilly (who continues his career as Hollywood’s modern-day Elisha Cook, Jr.) has his hand publicly roasted in a toaster for breaking this sacrosanct rule remains one of the most shocking moments of cinematic violence in recent memory.
Much like with Lanthimos’ earlier triumph Dogtooth (2009), the film’s ingenuity springs from meticulous world-building. But while Dogtooth centered on an isolated household, The Lobster focuses on an isolated country. Do not let the surrealistic bent of his films fool you: Lanthimos’ worlds are ruled by strict logic. They are so well-crafted that many of its subtleties might go unnoticed. I wonder how many people picked up on the fact that while an early scene pronounces the reigning government’s official approval of homosexual relationships, there isn’t a single homosexual couple anywhere in the film? Or how the singles only base possible compatibility with each other on mutual disabilities and flaws, not mutual strengths. Or how none of the Loners seem interested in ever leaving The Woods for a different country where they can live however they want. I suppose anything is better than the risk of living alone.