The Lobster exists squarely within a film subgenre of sorts. It’s a rom-com derivative, featuring a quirky, disaffected lead or two. The leads are vaguely middle class, heartbroken over past love. It’s set in the not-too-distant future, and technology, promising to fix the holes in our hearts, only enlarged them. It’s 2013’s Her or 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like those films, The Lobster offers observations on modern love that are fascinating and worthwhile. But, it probably wasn’t written with me in mind.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring a schlumpy Colin Farrell, the story is set in a community devoid of single people, because singleness is illegal. Relationships are the solution to all of humanity’s ills, and people like Farrell’s nebbish, bespectacled “David” receive 45 days to find a suitable mate. It’s a spa hotel except, not really, because it’s an internment camp. Those that don’t find a match turn into an animal of their choice. (David’s brother failed. He’s a border collie!) Flee the hotel and be hunted like an animal.
Given the options, most take extreme measures to discern common ground with a potential partner, what the hotel manager (shrilly, Olivia Colman) calls a “defining characteristic.” Farrell’s nameless limping friend (Ben Withsaw) can’t find a woman with a similar malady, so he woos a young woman (Jessica Barden) with chronic nosebleeds. For him, compatibility means repeatedly breaking his nose so it bleeds as much as hers. Anything for love! Lanthimos’ fiction has sucked autonomy of relationships, and thus, the full range of human experience. Though filmed in lush and colorful Dublin, Lanthimos’ use of color is likewise muted.
Farrell escapes and joins a band of renegade singles, forced to live in hiding to preserve their right to consciously decouple. It’s with the Loners where David finds his similarly shortsighted love interest (Rachel Weisz, who narrates throughout). Symbolizing the obnoxious single that without a hint of self awareness, remind marrieds of their foolish submission to a ball and chain, the gang of rebels are just as rigid as the hotel staff. Unlike the hotel, masturbation is permitted (poor John C. Reilly’s unnamed lisper suffered for his self-relief by having his hand forced into a toaster), while romance is punishable by their own Code of Hammurabi. A brief scene of the Loners at rest introduces a black man and white woman with bloodied bandages across their mouths, suggesting two things: 1. Loner leader, played by the chillingly vindictive Léa Seydoux, means business. 2. On rare occasion, black people find romance in this world. This plot is way more dystopian than I realized.
The Lobster’s funhouse mirror portrayal of western dating customs and suppression of true love is brutally on the nose. The kinds of criteria used to find matches: good hair, nearsightedness, etc. may be obviously skewed, and certainly played for laughs. But, the self-described “world’s most popular dating app”, Tinder, built a user experience rewarding rapid fire decisions on superficial criteria. (If you’re reading on your phone and disagree, you can swipe right on your browser. I won’t be mad.) Lanthimos understands that we miss something when we routinely make relationship choices based on someone’s glasses, manner of speech, or smile. Speaking of, there are, by my unofficial count, 28 words spoken by a person of color in The Lobster. She uses most of them to announce her smile as a defining characteristic.
It is not good to carry an “ax to grind” before critically assessing a work of art, so I’ve read. I only agree inasmuch as it’s possible to encounter any media from a blank slate free of past experience. But, I saw the trailer over the weekend. It prompted a cursory IMDB search, then some background on the cast, then included algorithmized movies similar to The Lobster (Her is simultaneously brilliant and white. Eternal Sunshine, too.) And thus, I visit and leave my local megaplex with uneven scales, because I’m still black when I watch good movies.
I want to judge the film on its merits, yes, but why not question the merits to which the film aspires? Are you faithfully depicting modern love if your modern lovers, for no discernible reason integral to its plot, largely look the same? Should I be satisfied with watching profound observations about the human condition in a film I know to be true to myself, knowing I still won’t actually see myself?
I enjoy a movie and subgenre celebrated for its imagination, waiting for its auteurs to imagine a compelling person of color. While I wait, I grow frustrated with my words as they drift from straightforward critique and towards a(nother) trend piece about Hollywood diversity. Like The Lobster’s dueling sides, viewers like me are forced into an unfortunate binary. Enjoy the film for what it is and accept the brand for all its warts — or ignore the movie as much as that movie ignored you.