The Lobster (2015): Institutionalising Love; by Julia Tan

Published: 20 September 2018

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead

Meet David – a middle-aged architect whose wife has left him for another man.

Without a moment to spare, he is unresistingly whisked away to a hotel where other singles like him reside and is told that he must find a romantic partner within 45 days.

The premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist black comedy The Lobster (2015) almost sounds like a reality show. Except it isn’t, because here is the catch: failure to do so will result in one transforming into an animal.

Evidently, the stakes to find love are high in this world as society goes all-out in ensuring that individuals pair-up, pushing forth the ideal that two is better than one.

This is not far-fetched from the reality we live in today, where the media and government constantly pressure us to find love and settle down. Singlehood, on the other hand, is seen as something to despair over.

During the 2015 legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US, Justice Anthony Kennedy included in his opinion that “marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”

While singles continue to receive such stigma in the real world, The Lobster goes a step further to portray them as failures. This is to the extent where they are dehumanised, cruelly transformed into worthless animals that are considered ‘pathetic’ when their time at the hotel is up. Guests are even given the chance to extend their stay by catching and tranquilising single people – called “loners” – who have escaped conformity in a nearby forest.

The only consolation is that individuals can decide what they would like to become – and this is where we find out the significance of the film’s title for David’s choice of animal is a lobster.

The hotel in the film, thus, becomes an effective satire of society’s fixation on love and marriage. It institutionalises love, fraught with rules and systems overseen by the hotel manager to not only indoctrinate guests into believing the importance of having a romantic partner, but control the very way they choose one.

To remind them that sexual pleasure is best achieved with a lover, masturbation is prohibited while sexual stimulation from the hotel maid is provided. They are also made to sit in on propaganda skits which emphasise how the individual is insufficient alone: a man chokes to death on his meal without a partner to resuscitate him; a woman gets harassed without a man by her side.

In a society where having a romantic partner is the law, love isn’t bound to come by naturally. This is made more difficult by the fact that one can only get together with somebody who shares their defining characteristic.

David’s distinguishing trait is his short-sightedness, while his friends Robert and John have a lisp and limp respectively.

We see these characters struggle to conform to the rules of love that have been created by their society. David’s attempts to court a woman with beautiful hair is refuted as he may become bald, whereas John is unable to court a woman who has a limp as it is from an injury that will heal.

The audience is reminded again of society’s absurdity in thinking that common interests or characteristics are key to the success of one’s relationships. It is thereby unsurprising that the film’s obsession over matching traits draws comparisons to dating apps and websites that match individuals based on their compatibility.

Lanthimos is a genius in highlighting how the seemingly inconsequential rules that society places on love can be hurtful in forming natural, healthy relationships. He does so by taking these expectations and exaggerating them tenfold such that love becomes an institution in the film.

As time runs out, characters resort to extreme measures to fit themselves into another’s mould, as seen from how John feigns nosebleeds through self-inflicted injury, allowing him to win the affection of a woman who often nosebleeds.

Likewise, David fakes having no emotions and is thus able to enter a relationship with a heartless woman.

It becomes clear here that it is impossible to house something as intangible as love within the confines of an institution. Each relationship progresses differently, and every couple has different ways to solve their problems (in the film, feuding couples are assigned children with the belief that they will stop arguing).

As a result, the formulaic approach to love taken by society in this film criticises what love in our modern age has become. It laments the people who change themselves just to impress others, and provides a cynical outlook on the structures that encourage such behaviour and perpetuate the fear of being single.

This way of life is shown to be unsustainable when David is finally unable to conceal his emotions from the Heartless Woman, prompting him to escape from the hotel and join the loners in the forest.

For the first time in the film, David – who has been passively accepting society’s rules – engages in an act of rebellion. By joining the loners, he believes that he has gotten rid of his shackles and is now free to live out his own will as an individual against the institution.

However, being with the loners comes with its own set of regulations: any form of romance or flirtation is punishable by mutilation. Perhaps they view the choice of spending the rest of their lives alone as the ultimate rebellion against a society that forces love unto them.

Still, it is ironic that the loners escaped society as individuals only to submit themselves to yet another set of rules and practices when they are together. It raises the question of whether humans can achieve complete freedom, since there is a constant tension between individuals resisting control and society’s natural gravitation towards it.

No longer pressured to be in a relationship, David finds himself falling in love with a fellow loner – a woman who is short-sighted like him. They have little choice but to keep their relationship a secret, feeling oppressed in an environment they previously thought would be freeing.

The lovers ultimately plan to leave the loners and return to the city. However, it is foiled when the leader of their group discovers this and blinds the short-sighted woman, not only ridding her of the ability to see, but also destroying the one trait she had in common with David.

Carrying out a final act of rebellion, the couple successfully manage to escape, with the conclusion finding them sitting opposite each other at a diner. Here, David needs to decide if he will follow through with blinding himself so that he can share his lover’s trait, and the film ends on an ambiguous note.

Through this, it is evident that David remains trapped within the mindset that society has conditioned him to adopt. The fact that he practices aiming a knife to his eye shows that he continues to see love in black-and-white, believing there to be a right and wrong way to go about a relationship.

David fails to realise that the two societies he has encountered represent opposite extremes, and that in fact, love is not meant to be governed by any set of rules. He needs to discover what love means for himself instead of letting society dictate it – because love is flawed, and love looks beyond the superficial. It holds on even in the face of differences.

Some may view the film’s ending as meaningless since David has merely gone full circle, still a prisoner to social constructs. But the day David understands this and finds a middle ground, will be the day that he finally stands up for himself as an individual in the face of society.