It’s hard out there for a single person. Our societal preoccupation with couplehood can produce frustration and befuddlement for those who aren’t in a relationship. Particularly in the church, where one of the first stories we’re taught is of Adam and Eve — the couple literally made for each other — there can be constant pressure to quickly settle down and have kids, and unnecessary anxiety over ending up alone when that doesn’t work out.
In his latest film, The Lobster, Greek surrealist director Yorgos Lanthimos takes the alienating feeling of single life in a world of couples to its absurdist extreme. The film is a pitch-black satire about relationships and the unrealistic expectations modern society imposes about how they should work. Importantly, Lanthimos isn’t hating on the institution of marriage, but instead suggests we should be more mindful of the weight we give to traditional relationship models.
In the film, single people — whether they’re widowed, divorced, or simply unattached — are sent to the Hotel, a government-sanctioned couples resort from hell, where they are given a predetermined number of days to find a mate. Those who don’t pair up by the end of their stay are turned into an animal of their choosing, and remain that way for the rest of their lives.
Our entry into this world is the soft-spoken, schlubby David (Colin Farrell) who goes through the ritual of life at the Hotel and, after failing to make himself fit, falls in with the Loners, a group of militantly single outlaws living in the woods. After meeting and having a forbidden affair with another Loner called The Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), David and his new partner go on the run to create a new life for themselves.
Domestic partnership as portrayed in The Lobster is a cold, clinical affair that has nothing to do with love, but everything to do with fear. In the Hotel, single people are kept separate from couples. Daily activities include shooting, with paper targets shaped like single people; and awkward, joyless dances that resemble awkward middle school formals. Random exotic critters, presumably former guests, wander in and out of the frame, a constant reminder of the fate that awaits the singles should they fail to find a match.
At the other end of the spectrum, Lanthimos gives us the Loners, a group that’s ironically unified by its rejection of relationships of any kind. They celebrate with silent-disco dance parties, with each member listening to electronic music on their own set of headphones. They dig their own graves to save others having to bury them when they die. The group’s leader (Lea Seydoux) violently punishes members who break the rules and pair up, though that doesn’t prevent it from happening.
Neither of these extremes is healthy. The relationship between David and the Short-Sighted Woman, however, is an example of a functional relationship. They enjoy serving each other’s needs, and even develop a visual code reminiscent of the synchronicity real-life couples display. There is, however, a strong question of whether their tradition-obsessed culture has robbed them of the tools they need to face adversity — a question the film won’t answer for us.
The Lobster tells us, in its blunt and surreal way, that setting up a one-size-fits-all relationship model isn’t a reasonable expectation of people, nor is it productive to close ourselves off from relationships entirely. It’s both natural and necessary for us to be with other people. The film wisely posits that while marriage is fine in general, perhaps we should question whether our culture forces the institution too much. Whether our connections to others have secular or spiritual roots, they need to develop naturally, and in their own time, in order to work.