The 2016 edition of Cannes coincided with the much-anticipated U.S. release of one of the standout films from last year’s festival, Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language debut, The Lobster. The film, in which “guests at a grand, old-fashioned hotel are given 45 days to find love or face being turned into animals” (A. O. Scott), has been warmly praised by critics, including Francine Prose at The New York Review of Books:
Lanthimos’s approach to sex and dance, as with so many elements in his films, make us feel that he is stripping away the familiar conventions of filmmaking (the gauzy love scene, the seemingly effortless grace of Fred Astaire) to show us something at once familiar and entirely new. Dipping into the past to borrow from Greek tragedy, picturing the future as a surreal and horrific exaggeration of the present, The Lobster frightens and entertains, saddens and inspirits us—in this case with a final vision of self-sacrifice and devotion that ultimately transcends society’s attempts to commodify and regulate the mystery of love.
Interestingly, there hardly seems to be agreement on Prose’s last point, that the end represents the triumph of love. Yonca Talu, in Film Comment, has another, considerably darker, reading of the film’s “surreal and horrific exaggeration”:
That unsentimental quality can also alienate the viewer; in the end, David remains as much a stranger to us as he does to himself and his lover. Crushed by the violently tragic predicament in which his would-be companion finds herself, he retreats to his existential bubble and becomes ghostly, un-readable, and almost devoid of emotion. Lanthimos leaves us with a feeling of cosmic loneliness, and the idea that, even between lovers, there are insurmountable rifts—a void that can never be filled.
That’s a sharp difference—is the inevitable love’s triumph or its doom?—but readings of an ambiguous ending will always differ. What makes this particular variance noteworthy is that it points to a more fundamental question about The Lobster: is this a film about institutional oppression or individual failure? Kate Taylor, writing at The Globe and Mail, offers a representative reading of the film as a critique of institutions:
The hotel itself is a highly effective and amusing satire of society’s insistence on pair bonding and its privileging of marriage. (Non-heterosexual unions are dealt with briefly at the start; they are off in some other location, and the bisexual option has been closed due to operational difficulties.) As we move into the woods, the satire grows darker and closer to the bone – after all, there are many real societies held captive by a puritanical ban on sex – and so the dramatic weight of Dave’s need to escape increases exponentially. The problem, and this is one that satire often runs into, is that it is hard for an audience to give its full sympathy to characters who are played as pawns in a symbolic game.
Satire aimed at broad societal perils is the basis of dystopia, and it is in the sweeping political critique of dystopian fiction that we often expect to find the triumph of the individual (or of love) described by Prose. Yet when you go looking, The Lobster seems awfully short on meaningful political critique. For Richard Brody, at The New Yorker, that’s an irritating dereliction:
Lanthimos’s lachrymose lament for a world centered on couples and a subworld centered on solitaires betrays a cranky, dyspeptic sense of sexual and romantic dysphoria, not a lament for the state of society or of the human condition but an airing of his own petty complaints. The infinitesimally mild satire of the hotel’s blandly and dogmatically romantic pop culture is matched by the movie’s ultimate benediction of—surprise, surprise—the redemptive power of true love. It’s a self-satisfied film about an issue that’s not an issue, depicting a dystopia that’s utterly apolitical.
I would submit that the reason The Lobster is “utterly apolitical” is that it’s not intended to be; it’s not, in other words, dystopia. (Not only does it lack institutional politics, there’s also not really any basis to claim that it’s set in the future. To the contrary, even, characters listen to portable CD players.) What it is, on the other hand, is a study of (exaggerated) human behavior almost anthropological in its specificity, as Sheila O’Malley argues at RogerEbert.com:
Lanthimos is interested, here and in his other films, in the sometimes pathological human need for systems. Why wait for a totalitarian government to institute rules from the top-down when human beings submit to atomization of every aspect of their lives all on their own? If this “need” is wired into the human race, then where does that leave the individual? An individual who doesn't “go along” becomes a renegade, an outlaw, an unwelcome reminder that the system doesn't work for everyone.
Fiction that points to a truth of human behavior is usually called fable, and it so happens, of course, that fable, like The Lobster, often deals with animals—a detail of this story that’s difficult to make sense of otherwise. There are still laws in question, but rather than the laws of society, they’re the laws of human nature. It’s of these laws that Brody’s colleague, Anthony Lane, writes, “Wherever you go, Lanthimos implies, the laws entrap you.”
That is a serious charge, and, for all the pranks that he plays on our assumptions, Lanthimos is full of grave intent. No art, for a filmmaker as for a novelist, is finer or harder than that of keeping a straight face as you hold the world up to scorn. Swift managed it, and so did Buñuel, but few current directors, apart from Lanthimos and Todd Solondz, make the effort. What is more, there’s nothing paltry or cheap about the targets that Lanthimos picks. “Dogtooth” (2009), his breakout movie, sought to dismantle the family unit; “Alps” (2011) took on death, no less, and the culture of grief, with characters being hired to impersonate the deceased for the sake of the mourners; and now we have “The Lobster,” which snaps at love.
Being fable doesn’t mean that The Lobster isn’t also satire, but it is, as Lane suggests, satire of the Swiftian, rather than Orwellian, variety. It may be apolitical concerning institutions, but it is remarkable, instead, for locating in a political context what we may imagine to be free of such negotiation: namely, partnership and marriage. The failure of both halves of the film’s society—couples in the city and rogue loners in the woods—is a need for political dichotomy: the two groups merely mirror one another’s divisions. In both places, the individual is a destabilizing middle ground, easily snubbed out. The terror of the ending’s ambiguity is its meaninglessness: no matter what happens, David will remain a prisoner of categories to which he believes there is no alternative.
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.