The Lobster, the first English-language feature from Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, takes place in a dystopian world where single people are hunted with tranquilizer darts and, when captured, must secure a suitable mate within 45 days or be transformed into an animal. As the film opens, a paunchy, nearsighted nebbish named David (Colin Farrell), whose wife of 12 years has recently left him for another man, checks into a rural hotel that specializes in matchmaking. Accompanying him is his brother, who is now a sheepdog. “He was here a couple of years ago,” David tells the concierge. “But he didn’t make it.” Later, in David’s room, the hotel manager asks him what animal he would like to be if he doesn’t make it. David replies that he would like to be a lobster, because lobsters are cold-blooded, have hard exoskeletons, and can live up to 100 years. The hotel manager advises David that, if he is transfigured, he should stick to dating within his species. “A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus,” she tells him. “That would be absurd.”
Lanthimos and his frequent cowriter Efthymis Filippou draw heavily on the theater of the absurd in their crafting of timeless and tragicomic fables that hold up a mirror to society. Dogtooth (2009), about two parents who keep their children bizarrely cloistered from the world, attacks the idea that sheltering one’s kids from outside influences will keep them safe, as opposed to caged. Alps (2011), involving a dysfunctional group of people who role-play others’ lost loved ones, satirizes the performative aspect of the grieving process. The Lobster explodes the social construct of aspirational coupledom and the binary attitudes toward dating that are as prevalent in today’s Tinderized culture as in more stifled societies of the past and present. All three of these collaborations borrow from absurdist drama in their surrealism and existentialism, and in even more specific aspects.
The term “theater of the absurd” was coined by Hungarian dramatist Martin Esslin in a 1960 essay of that name, which dealt with the work of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco. “The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy,” he wrote in 1965. “It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it.” The absurdism of these plays, according to Esslin, typically arises from a world devoid of meaning in which people are controlled by mysterious outside forces. Absurdist plays often mix broad comedy with horror and tragedy; the dialogue is riddled with dictums and cliches; the flat or archetypal characters, stuck in meaningless routines, tend to behave like automatons; and the cyclical plots emphasize repetition and the pointlessness of existence.
True to this tradition, the characters in The Lobster are all archetypes. Except for the myopic David, each of them is named after his or her defining characteristic: the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly). The singles are told that their soulmate must share their defining characteristic for their match to be “well suited.” Otherwise, they needn’t bother looking; they’ll never find the One.
The Lobster‘s comedy, like that of so many absurdist plays, is biting and tinged with terror. The Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia, a Lanthimos regular) comes off as prickly in a humorous way—like a harmless, stone-faced villain in a Wes Anderson film—before revealing herself to be a homicidal psychopath. The quirky Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen) pesters David to become her mate and, sensing his lack of interest, blithely informs him that she’d rather throw herself out of her hotel room window than be turned into something pathetic and inhuman. When she finally makes good on her promise, the residents are mainly distracted and annoyed by the mess. “She jumped from the window of 180,” notes one woman. “There is blood and biscuits everywhere.”
The Lobster‘s dialogue is purposely ridiculous, the actors straight-faced and robotic as they utter romantic bromides. After David escapes the hotel to join a wandering rebel band called the Loners, he confronts the Limping Man, who has made a match with Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) by claiming to suffer from nosebleeds himself. “Everyone says they’re going to make it, because they’re perfectly suited,” the Lisping Man tells David. “And their child”—an adolescent daughter gifted to them by the hotel managers—”will help them get past the fighting and the arguing.”
Unfortunately for David, the Loners have rules too, which are the inverse of the larger society’s. Touching, kissing, and, above all, falling in love are verboten. But when David meets the stern Near-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), sparks fly. In voice-over narration, she describes the coded body language she and David have developed to hide their love affair from the other Loners: “When we turn our heads to the left, it means I love you more than anything in the world; and when we turn our heads to the right, it means Watch out, we’re in danger. We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up I love you more than anything in the world with Watch out, we’re in danger.”
Esslin wrote that the real challenge of absurdist drama is to persuade the viewer to “accept the human condition as it is.” An absurdist drama, if written and executed well, need not leave the audience feeling miserable. “The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful,” he wrote, “but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief . . . in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” The Lobster ends with a similar choice. Will David break the cycle by thrusting himself into an entirely new way of being—a relationship that involves compromise and sacrifice—or will he return to what is lonely and wretched, but also familiar?
Rather than present romance as a panacea, as so many other films do, The Lobster not only questions the value almost every society in the world places on procuring a mate but also rejects the notion that finding the One is the ultimate prize. Lanthimos forgoes easy sentiments about the transformative power of love; this may turn off some viewers, but there’s a certain liberation and even some relief in knowing that societal pressure to settle down can be just as cruel as loneliness. v