Review by Emmet O’Cuana
“I think I could turn and live with the animals” – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
A man sits alone on a couch. He wear glasses, has a pronounced paunch and looks extremely sad. A voice off-screen, a woman and clearly the man’s partner, identifies him as David, apologising for the break-up of their relationship. The man, played by Colin Farrell, asks his wife if the man she is leaving him for has glasses also. Contacts, she replies.
Then David is taken from his home by uniformed attendants and transported to The Hotel, where he has a limited amount of time to find another partner. If he fails he will be transformed into an animal.
Absurd as the film’s premise is, director Yorgos Lanthimos has constructed an artful and compelling story about the value we place on relationships. In The Lobster, married couples are granted the right to live and work in The City. Singles are forced to compete for couplehood in The Hotel, or risk transformation. Olivia Colman’s Manager explains to David after his arrival that he could still find a partner as an animal, so he should be careful which species he would like to be. The film’s title reflects his choice, made on the basis that lobsters live for a long time and he likes the sea.
Not only is this Kafkaesque metamorphosis as punishment for singledom a mandatory rule that everyone abides by – a society of terrified Gregor Samsas in potentia, desperate not to offend anyone in case they are turned – the people David meets seem stripped of all personality. First, no one else appears to have a name. Colman’s character is defined by her function and hence she is The Manager. David befriends two men played by John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw. They are identified as Lisping Man and Limping Man.
Because relationships are assumed to be based on traits people have in common, the residents of The Hotel are convinced they are single due to their own particular flaws or characteristics. Whishaw’s Limping Man hopes to meet another woman who has a limp. We learn he was brought to The Hotel after his wife died. She had a limp.
David at first attempts to form a relationship with Angeliki Papoulia’s Heartless Woman by pretending to be equally as cruel to the fellow residents of The Hotel. When that fails, he escapes into the forests surrounding the grounds and meets the Loners, a group of singles under the command of Léa Seydoux’s Loner Leader.
While they claim to be free, David discovers the forest escapees exist as an inversion of the residents he has just fled from. They, too, do not have names and the Loner Leader proves to be as canny a dictator as Colman’s officious Manager, ensuring the Loners remain purely single and refrain from any form of intimacy at all.
The two sides exist in a state of perpetual conflict with one another, with residents of The Hotel led out on hunts targeting the Loners. For each Loner they shoot with a tranquiliser gun they are granted a stay of execution on their transformation into an animal, and more time to find a suitable partner. In this manner the would-be future couples are taught to hate and fear the single Loners in the forest – and vice versa.
This is all executed with a wryly surreal logic. The characters, divorced from any recognisable identities that we live by, speak in an oddly affected, robotic way. Lanthimos suggests that our humanity is dependent on our connections with others by removing any sense of security in personal relationships. Unable to genuinely connect and terrified of causing offence to their chosen partners for fear of being transformed into an animal, the characters live a meaningless life of pretense and ceremony. David’s growing obsession with his eyesight is clearly predicated on his belief that his marriage failed because he wears glasses – not considering the quality of the relationship itself.
What is surprising is how systematised these behaviours are. There is no obvious external authority, with The Manager and the Loner Leader acting as functions of their respective groups. The story takes place in a vaguely identified European locale, but there are no references to a government, or even religion. There is no conspiracy, or signs of obvious dictatorship. Everyone, even David despite his small rebellions, acts as if all this is normal.
Lanthimos has delivered a bemusing allegory on the value we place on relationships and what it means to be a partnered with someone or live alone. That absent any civil authority, it is still our connections to other people that determine our actions. This is a potentially baffling piece of cinema for some viewers, but has a consistent and compelling internal logic all of its own.