On my 25th consecutive Valentine’s Day alone, I decided to finally sit down and devote a couple of hours to the absurdist dystopian black comedy, The Lobster, that had been sitting in my Netflix queue the past few weeks. The premise of the film, as I understood it going in, having seen it recommended by one of my favourite film critics/analysts, Kyle Kallgren (of Brows Held High, Between The Lines, Summer of Shakespeare, etc.), was of a society where to not be romantically involved with someone is (as far as can be deduced) illegal. Single people, or rather ‘loners’ as they are dubbed, are taken to a retreat, where they have 45 days in which to find a suitable partner and fall in love. In the case that they fail to do so, they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. What I was expecting to be a fairly straightforward commentary on societal pressures when it comes to love, relationships, romance, and performative heteronormativity was nothing like as blunt or as easy to consume as I had initially assumed (or even hoped).
Everything about the film was bizarre – a key or two removed from a Black Mirror scenario, but without even attempting to purport to be a potential near future. This dystopian society was one where it seemed practically all emotion, not only love, lust, and affection, were either conditioned out of the population, or had never been present at all. Except that the trappings of romance exist in its universe, so it follows that the routine that they follow, the motions they go through, are mimicking the most superficial elements of courtship and romance, as if they are love stories written by an outside observer of the human race, and not a close observer at that.
The filming reflects this too, with a frequent and unnerving absence of people on screen; one hears their dialogue, but it is played over a shot of an empty room or landscape, hanging too long to be comfortable. This discomfort could be characterised as ‘the uncanny’, what Freud described as a fear of what is repressed, be it memories or the animalistic traits of the Id, which manifests itself in that which is unnervingly familiar. It threatens to reveal what is forgotten and repressed. The awkwardly framed shots, often conspicuously cutting off people’s heads, and the frequent use of repetition, of music, motifs, footage, dialogue, and costumes, together give one a distinct impression of madness. Not a descent into madness, mind you, just a steady background noise of insanity from the very first scene when a woman, seemingly unprovoked, gets out of her car and shoots and kills a donkey in the middle of a field.
The feeling of a lack of humanity is not only in the filming and production of it, but in the acting and direction. All of the characters speak in an unnaturally stilted and emotionless way. Their conversations too bear little resemblance to those in the real world. There is no room here for personality or creativity, when grounds for compatibility seem to be determined purely by shared ‘defects’ (we’re both short-sighted, we both limp). Being dull or cruel or selfish has no bearing on your romance prospects, what matters is obeying the rules and fitting in nicely (no half-sizes in footwear, no bisexuals). The lengths to which people are willing to go, changing themselves and compromising to the point that it is unclear whether anyone had a self to change in the first place, are expected, if not implicitly encouraged by the threat that awaits those who remain ‘loners’.
This grey, dispassionate world conjured up by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, reminiscent, to my mind, of satires of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Stepford Wives, or even But I’m a Cheerleader in terms of the blunt parodies of real world gender roles and the sheer joylessness of it all, focusing on the performance of romance, performed, that is, for others. Conveyed through the grotesque, the unsettling, and the nonsensical, the message of the film, as far as I can tell, is a critique of the grotesque, the unsettling, and the nonsensical of our very expectations of ourselves and of each other, and the demands we make in the name of comfortably fitting a prescriptive narrative of so-called romance.
It’s a commentary fit for any age, but with the onset of courtship via algorithms and questionnaires, the argument could be made that romance, now more than ever, is about ticking and fitting into boxes. (Except that might be condoning some journalist tutting gleefully at my generation’s use of dating apps, and I am loathe to fuel their smug little treatises on the downfall of society at the swipe of our thumbs.)
The rules of the universe of The Lobster, like the rules of romance or of fairy-tales, are cruel, arbitrary, and largely unchallenged. They are told the alternative to finding a partner is literal dehumanisation. We are told we ought to want sex, romance, and the nuclear family to be considered ‘normal’. The beast will die unless he makes someone fall in love with him. They are accepted because not to do so would bring about strife, existential crises, and political radicalisation.
And if you think I’ve arrived at this conclusion because I’m bitter and alone, the joke’s on you, because I’d be bitter even if I weren’t alone. That said, The Lobster is probably ideal watching