Between Fiction and Reality - On the Subtle Poetry of Yorgos Lanthimos’ "The Lobster"
Yorgos Lanthimos has become an established filmmaker of what has been referred to as the “Greek Weird Wave”. He presents the spectator with eccentric, bizarre worlds, which can neither be said to be realistic nor a mere work of fiction. They rather immerse the spectator in a poetically absurd world, where nothing is necessary and everything contingent until proven otherwise. This is precisely the defining feature of Lanthimos’ work. His style relies primarily on 'keeping the spectator in the dark'. The spectator is only gradually informed about the intricate world they are experiencing, without the narrative ever reaching a final state of closure. This in turn causes a sense of constant uncertainty, which evokes curiosity.
In "The Lobster"(2015), David (Colin Farrell) is transported to a hotel in the woods, where he is meant to choose between men and women. There he makes two friends with disabilities. Robert, a man with a lisp, and John, a man with a limp. We find out that the hotel serves only one function, to pair single people, so they might return to society to live a successful life. If the guests fail to do so within 45 days, they are turned into an animal of their choice and released into the wild. It is in some instances even suggested that this is the natural origin of animals in the world. At one point, a maid explains most people choose to become dogs, which is why there are many dogs in the world.
Rather than courting, the guests engage in a sort of exchange of information, comparing their suitability to each other. The only principle they follow is that of survival, they do not seek companionship or love, but rather prefer avoiding solitude simply due to its impracticality. E.g. one of the courses they take as a part of their daily activities informs them of the advantages of companionship. Two workers at the hotel act out scenes, where the presence of another person is of use. In the case of the woman, the presence of a man prevents her rape. For the man, a woman is only of use at the dinner table, so that she may perform the 'Heimlich maneuver' should he choke on his food. Since the couples are only interested in finding rationally suited partners, anyone with a fault or an imperfection is automatically disqualified for the race to find the perfect partner. However, just as in real life, all guests have their faults and weaknesses. This practically leaves the guests no other choice but to pair up based on their imperfections. For example, John mentions his limp as his “special trait”, as he introduces himself. His late wife also had a limp. Failing to find a woman with a limp, he instead injures his nose repeatedly causing him to have frequent nosebleeds in order to gain the sympathy of a woman who suffers from chronic nosebleeds.
Similarly, David only manages to find a partner after he pretends to lack all sense of empathy and compassion to appear suitable to a sociopath. She ends up brutally murdering his brother, who had been turned into a dog. All in all, the lack of any spontaneity to the relationships and them only being of instrumental value creates a sense of animality, which foreshadows the animals the guests will become if they fail to find partners. At this point it is not surprising, that some guests are fine with becoming animals, rather than being paired up with a partner, who is of lower status to them.
The pace of the film changes when David leaves the hotel to join the rebel group of singles living in the woods, who refuse to be forced into relationships. They may masturbate as much as they want, and they are not forced to engage in activities preparing them for their married life. They are in turn set free from the institutional madness of the hotel. However, the one thing they may not do is engage in any form of intimacy. This is established as soon as David is informed about the ‘red kiss’. The punishment for any two who are caught kissing each other. Their lips as cut open and tied together. However, it is only in this setting, that David begins to develop an interest in a fellow 'loner'. Here, the identity of the narrator (Rachel Weisz) is finally revealed. Being short-sighted, brings her closer to David. Unable to display his affection publicly, he brings her some rabbits to eat, mimicking a primitive exchange in the wild. Eventually, they develop their own sign language, which enables them to communicate their feelings for each other without the other 'loners' noticing. This all ends when the leader of the 'loners' discovers their relationship and punishes them. Rather than subduing them to pain, she takes David’s lover to an ophthalmologist, who performs a blinding surgery on her without her knowing. No longer short-sighted, she has lost her main trait binding her to David. This remarkably does not bring David to leave her. Neither does he accept their difference unconditionally. To survive in society as a couple, they must be equal, they must share the same special trait. The final scene ends with David going to the bathroom and putting a piece of cloth in his mouth as he points the steak knife to his eyes. Although the deed is never shown, it is clear what David has done. To live with his lover, they must both become blind. Thus bringing the story to an end through the act of stabbing one's own eyes, therefore echoing Greek tragedy (Oedipus Rex).
The film ends with no real closure and no questions answered. Despite the constant progression from ignorance to bread crumbs concerning the nature of the portrayed world, the spectator is not invited to concern themselves with the logic of the society, where private life meets public institutions, where technology manipulates biology, where conformity is law and any rebellion is carried out in an extremist fashion; At the heart of this bizarre state between a critique of social reality and the mockery of it lies a very subtle form of poetry, which characterizes Lanthimos’ style.