On my second date with my wife, we went to comedy club. The headlining comedian had a joke about the difference between living with a roommate and living with a romantic partner that went something like this: “Why is it that if you forget to do the dishes like your roommate asked, he calls you an asshole and that’s the end of it, but when it’s your girlfriend, it’s not really about the dishes?” (For the record, this isn’t really my type of humor; my taste is a littler edgier, like Louis CK or Nathan Fielder.) But after nine years of marriage, I’ve come to realize there’s a certain truth to that joke. Now imagine that corny joke as a bizarre dystopian future, and you have some inkling of what The Lobster is about.
The premise of the film is simple: you can either be in a relationship (with or without children, depending on how much you argue) and happy or alone and literally in fear of your life. Single people have 45 days to find a mate or they are transformed into an animal of their choice. Mates are paired off by having something very specific in common such as nosebleeds, limps, or nearsightedness (several offers of sex are rebuffed due to lack of nearsightedness). There is an option to live the rest of your life on the run with other “loners,” but their rules are completely opposite if equally strict. This may seem like a lot to digest, but it’s better you watch The Lobster knowing the rules – otherwise, you’ll spend a good portion of it reacting to the ridiculous things you’re hearing as ridiculous things, rather than the everyday concerns of the characters. In other words, it’s definitely funnier to watch them consider whether or not to register as hetero or homosexual as if it were the same as choosing a window or an aisle seat than play catch up with “Wait, how do they get turned into animals again?”
The Lobster has a lot of talent in it, both in front of and behind the camera. Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Wishaw, and Olivia Colman (nice to see her not looking nearly as frazzled as she does on Broadchurch and The Night Manager) are all excellent. Likewise the overall production design, which features an elegant, minimalist future reminiscent of Gattaca. But this isn’t a movie about performances and technical details, as good as they are – it’s about the concept.
I imagine that most people will either find this one of the funnier and more subversive films of the past few years, or they’ll be completely non-plussed by it. (I was the former, my wife the latter.) While I’ve never seen his other films, writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has a reputation for exposing the hypocrisy or sheer ridiculousness of everyday life. So forget the high-concept animal transformation element and just think about what relationships would be like if all the subtext were stripped away. “Am I walking at a suitable pace?” “Yes, but you’re holding my hand too tightly and my palm is sweaty.” Every couple has had that conversation, but it’s never been that straightforward. More everyday situations are presented as bizarre performance art. Conversations about being in love become hilarious when delivered in a affectless monotone, or followed by a complete non-sequitur. Likewise social conventions, as a passionate but cringe-worthy make out session in front of a friend’s parents demonstrate.
But what really made me laugh was how little Lanthimos had to tweak our world to make it seem completely ludicrous. And I don’t think The Lobster’s world is that far off the mark. A few years ago, I had to take a Myers-Briggs personality test for work. After stumbling across a Myers-Briggs compatibility web site – yes, such a thing exists – I asked my wife to take the test as well. Before she did, however, I guessed her personality type and was relieved to find out that we were pretty compatible (at least according to this web site). It turns out I had guessed her type wrong, but it also turns out that my type was still very compatible with her actual type. And every other type. With so many rules out there for dating or marriage that people follow without question, with so many conversations between couples not really about doing the dishes or one’s walking pace, and with so many convoluted ways we convince ourselves that it’s important to “have something in common,” Lanthimos seems to be asking why animal transformation is the crazy part of this film.