I knew I had read literature that fell into the genre of magical realism, but it wasn’t until I read One Hundred Years of Solitude the summer of 2004 and followed that up with a ravenous consumption of Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction that really came to understand, and in turn fall in love with, the genre. Magical realism is a style of storytelling that presents a normal world where there are extraordinary occurrences that the populace views as simply mundane. This is often used as an extended metaphor to be dissected and explored,usually a commentary on our own perspectives of the world. There are many everyday practices that to alien eyes would pop out as bizarre and unreal, but for us it’s simply life.
The Lobster falls strongly into the category of magic realism, without it become a “cute” gimmick. The film tells the story of David (Colin Ferrell), a divorced man who must stay in a hotel for singles for 45 days and find a partner. If he is unable to find a partner he’ll be transformed into the animal of his choice. In David’s case, he chooses a lobster (They stay fertile their entire lives). There is an eclectic cast of characters that we watch interact, with moments of brilliant dark comedy and painful heartrending tragedy. The film has a very defined split as David makes a drastic decision about his place in the Hotel as well as the society midway through.
This is the second film I’ve viewed from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director. His breakout film, Dogtooth, explores the nature of family units focused on a couple who have kept their adult children locked up on the property for their entire lives. It balances the same comedic tones and horrific violence, but I think The Lobster elevates that to a masterful level. It also continues the director’s work examining the cultural norms of Western society, in this instance the concept of falling in love in the modern era.
Personality is absent from every character in the film. Conversations are monotonous and devoid of emotion. A character is violently punished for self-pleasure and his reaction is fairly muted for what happens. Characters fall in love and barely crack a smile. Characters die and are killed and everyone essentially walks away with a shrug. There’s no room for sentimentality in the world, dating, marriage, and having children are like business transactions. It is expected and frankly demanded of everyone in the world of the film. David is faced with a choice of severe sentimentality at the film’s conclusion and as I simmered on it afterwards it struck me that by not committing this act he would show the strongest sense of individualism in the entire film. So while, the culture around him is unsentimental he would possibly conform to it in the end.
What is most interesting are the “rebel” group in the woods, whose leader (Lea Seydoux) imposes a system of rules between the other loners, especially no physical or romantic contact. We see the bloody results of a simple kiss and worse is implied. While the Leader believes she is shirking the status quo of required relationships, she is actually creating a parallel system of dogmatic social norms that are punished with the most extreme methods. This leaves us to wonder if individualism is even a workable concept in this world.
The couples that do end up together are driven by the requirement of a match up of defining characteristics. David is nearsighted and seeks out a partner who shares that trait. Another character is saddled with a limp (the result of trying to find his mother who was turned into a wolf after a failed matchmaking attempt). Yet more characters present themselves this way: She has chronic nosebleeds, he has a pronounced lisp, she is emotionally distant, she loves butter cookies. Even in the film’s credits a multitude of characters are named by their defining trait. Almost the way, when filling out an online profile for a dating service, you would highlight aspects of yourself that you want to present, aspects that are intended to provide others with a definition of you.
Lanthimos is exploring the way people form romantic relationships in our current era. If you look at the business of matchmaking, whether it is OKCupid or speed dating or Match.com, people are boiled down to their essentials. Personality is near imperceptible and a person’s true nature is impossible to convey through these methods. But Lanthimos isn’t happy to simply comment on technology’s relationship to our relationships, he goes deeper, to the very core of why anyone ends up with anyone else. Characters lie about their defining trait in desperation to end up with someone else. The Hotel guests routinely arm themselves with tranquilizer guns and hunt the band of guerrilla Loners in the surrounding forest. And the Loners in turn sneer at those foolish guests who stupidly pursue companionship. All of these characters are deluded and define themselves based on cultural expectations, whether in conformity or opposition to. The Lobster ends on a suspended note, blatantly letting us stew on what happens next. Is their any way to succeed in this world, or is the best you can hope for to become a lobster?