The Lobster's central question sounds hypothetical: If you were turned into an animal because you couldn't find love, what kind of an animal would you be? David, played by a tubby Colin Farrell, knows exactly why he'd be the titular crustacean. "Because lobsters live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much."
His response is less charming when we learn that turning into a lobster is a real possibility. David is left by his wife as the film opens and promptly enters a coupling camp called The Hotel, where he will stay for 45 days in order to find another romantic partner. But he does not check in by choice. In this world, hotel occupancy is forced by the government upon surviving spouses. If they fail to find love, or something that at least passes for compatibility, they will be turned into animals of their choosing and released into the wild.
You can check out any time you like
The Hotel is a heavily regulated environment with little ambiguity: one can only be straight or gay; the concept of bisexuality is too complicated for the bureaucratic system. Men and women are given uniform, gender-appropriate clothing. All visitors are put through a series of exercises that ensure they learn the value of having a partner, sexually and otherwise. If these rules are disobeyed, a visitor may find a hand stuck into a toaster as punishment.
Despite appearances of a totalitarian lack of free will, The Lobster is not a dystopian drama. The mostly unseen government’s only apparent control is that of love, and most characters take it in stride. David is at most annoyed by the ordeal, and at least intrigued by the prospect of finding a new partner. The purpose of this rigorously enforced law is not explained, but does not at all seem to be for the sake of reproduction. The only people who rebel against government-mandated coupling are the “Loners,” a group that defected to the woods in favor of solitude, and even they operate under similarly strict policies: If caught in a romantic entanglement, a Loner faces mutilation or death.
A lack of emotional response infuses the characters of The Lobster, who seem to understand empathy, but are incapable of feeling it. One brief moment of despair is the closest we get to seeing a character possess an inner well of feelings. The film’s monotonous, staccato rhythm of speech at first seems like a device designed to create a sense of aloofness (this is also when Greek writer-director Jorgos Lanthimos seems to be drawing from Wes Anderson), but the affectation is actually a symptom of this world's stunted emotional growth. Even when characters connect and profess to love one another, it's on a physiological level. They "love" by fulfilling antiquated gender roles, or connect by having similar superficial traits such as a limp, or lisp.
The life aquatic
This detached speech pattern is what also helps keep The Lobster from succumbing to its somber themes and balances some shockingly brutal moments. The film maintains an air of Anderson-esque unpretentious whimsy, if, that is, he decided to forego pastels and symmetry to examine the miserable nature of human relationships.
The Lobster knows what it’s saying and is confident in its execution, which keeps it compelling. But the film is still two hours of vagueness, and its ultimate message remains unclear on first watch. There’s little in the way of context to determine whether the film is, perhaps, creating a commentary on the vapidity of Internet-era relationships. It could just be an exploration of our survival mechanism as there are several moments in which characters are forced to choose between the well-being of another or themselves.
We may want to (or feel obligated to) have a deep and meaningful relationship with another person, but desperation can force strange behavior. Even until the last shot, The Lobster wonders how far is too far to go for love.