Do you feel bad about being single? Well, Colin Farrell’s new movie, The Lobster, which debuted at Cannes this morning, takes the culture’s anti-singlehood feelings to their logical extreme. The English-language debut of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps) imagines a future in which the law decrees you must couple up or be faced with a choice of either being turned into an animal, or having to take a vow of celibacy, live in the woods as a “loner,” and be hunted down by those desperate singles trying to get themselves another day as a human.
I happen to be single, perpetually so. That was a fun way to start the morning.
It was, truthfully. The movie itself has a hilarious deadpan absurdity that makes the experience of watching it less bleak than the premise would have you believe. You might wind up hating smug couples, too! That’s a win, right?
The Lobster begins with Colin Farrell’s character David — rocking a dadbod, mustache, greased hair, and glasses — discovering that his wife of 12 years has left him for another man. So he’s remanded to a kind of last-chance hotel where he has 45 days to find a mate before being turned into the animal of his choice. (David’s thought about this a lot and he’d like to be a lobster.) The hotel’s owner, played in deliciously loathsome fashion by Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman, tells David that the most common choice of animal is dog, which is why there are so many dogs in the world. The principles of compatibility and coupling don’t go away in the non-human world, either. A wolf and a penguin cannot live together, the hotel’s owner declares, “because that would be absurd.”
(Asked at the press conference what he’d choose to become, Farrell said he’d be some kind of bird. “I’ve always wanted to fly,” he said. “Only a lobster if he’s being thrown a long distance into a pot by John C. Reilly. He always does love a lobster boil.” Reilly plays a Lisping Man — that’s his character’s name — whom David befriends at the Hotel, along with Ben Whishaw’s character, the Limping Man, and he actually did cook lobster for the cast.)
The rules of the Hotel are many and make clear sense in the universe of the film. One must declare a sexuality, hetero or homo (bisexuality has been removed as an option), before entering the premises. Singles get the worst rooms and are restricted to sporting activities they can do alone, like swimming or squash. Masturbation is strictly forbidden and punished in severe fashion, and just to make sure David doesn’t slip up his first night, his hand is handcuffed to his belt, which is padlocked. All men wear the same button-down shirts and blazers, while the women have identical white floral dresses. At night, the newbies must stand onstage and tell the other residents the defining characteristics that have led them to be single, or must watch demonstrations on why being alone will kill you. For instance: A man, dining alone, chokes on his food and dies. Dining with a woman, though, he’s saved when she gives him the Heimlich Maneuver.
Couples get the best rooms in the hotel, then get to live on yachts, and if they have any tensions they can’t resolve, are granted children. There’s a glorious moment in the movie when a newly coupled friend is telling her single girlfriend that everything will work out for her and maybe the fact that she’s about to have four legs is all for the best, and then the single girl punches her in the face.
Each night the single residents head out to hunt down loners. Kill enough loners, as one coldhearted woman has, and you can stay in the hotel indefinitely. It sounds like The Hunger Games, but Lanthimos doesn’t use CGI, and instead chooses to make this wackadoo idea play out in the most generic and mundane of buildings, attached to the gorgeous landscapes of Southwestern Ireland. Rachel Weisz, who plays a loner in the film, said during the press conference that the film makes her think of narcissism, this idea that “you have to fall in love with somebody that has similar qualities as yourself. But love can be a bit narcissistic.” It also seems like a pretty clear dig on our current obsession for accepting or rejecting potential mates on online dating on the basis of whether the other person likes burritos as much as we do.
The irony of the film is that life among the loners isn’t any less regimented. Absolutely no flirting or romantic communication is allowed, under threat of punishment. You won’t be turned into an animal, but you will be left to fend for yourself if, say, you get caught in a bear trap. A truly wild and free existence is not in that forest, but out in society, facing down the insane pressure to partner by both choosing whom to love and whether to love at all — as long as you have papers to prove you’re part of a couple, or someone willing to lie for you.
“I didn’t understand it. And I’m still not sure that I do,” said Farrell about the movie. But for those of us who feel our ovaries drying up by the day, The Lobster may be a reminder that the pressures we put on ourselves or are being put upon us are indeed absurd. And if a future like that ever comes, take this bit of advice about what animal to become: one that eats the others.