There are a lot of movies that qualify as “bad date movies.” There are the films that make women seem scary, like Gone Girl and Fatal Attraction. There are films that you should never, ever see while in a long-distance relationship, like Like Crazy. There are countless films about loveless marriages: Blue Valentine, Little Children, Revolutionary Road. There are films that simply make you want to swear off sex altogether, like Antichrist or The Human Centipede.
And then there is Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster.
To be clear, The Lobster is not a misandrist revenge fable, nor a bittersweet anti-rom-com. While it has its share of body horror, there are no asses being sewn onto mouths. Rather, The Lobster takes the most seemingly natural of human behaviors — romance, coupling, the need for companionship — and makes them deeply unfamiliar, in ways that unsettled me to my core. I’m just glad my boyfriend didn’t decide to come to the film with me, lest we both decide we’d be better off giving up and living as crustaceans.
The Lobster came out on Friday, but it has been gaining steady buzz on the film festival circuit for almost a year, in part because its premise is impossible to shake once you’ve heard it. Colin Farrell — pallid, paunchy, impressively unfuckable — stars as David, a middle-aged architect whose wife has left him. You think your breakup was bad? His was worse. David, along with other singles, is forced to check into a sprawling coastal hotel (as drab and charmless as an airport convention center, despite the views), where everyone has 45 days to find a mate, or else be transformed into the animal of his or her choice.
David, as you may have guessed, goes with the lobster, because “they live for over 100 years, they are blue-blooded like aristocrats, they are fertile all their lives, and I like the sea.” (Most people in the movie choose to become dogs, which is why “the world is full of dogs.” The movie is very funny, by the way, in addition to being horrifying.)
When they aren’t busy engaging in the world’s most soul-crushing round of speed dating, the hotel guests are taken to the woods to hunt “loners”: runaway rebels who reject society’s mandatory coupledom. About halfway through the film, David flees the hotel and joins the band in the forest. Turns out the singles are just as regimented and screwed up as the society they oppose, forbidding flirtation or any form of romance, and devising Westerosian punishments for those who transgress (you don’t want to know what a “red kiss” is).
At the most obvious level, the hotel is a satire of the extremism of swipe-right dating culture, one that prizes expediency and superficial matchmaking over real connection. It turns dating into the most drab and formulaic of rituals: devoid of passion, undercut by urgency. Everyone in the film speaks in a staccato monotone, like bad actors reading off a script, or bots reading text messages out loud. Life in the hotel is rigorously ordered: You can be straight or gay, but not bisexual (“this option is no longer available”), and guests must give themselves a “defining characteristic,” like having a limp or getting frequent nosebleeds, with the ultimate goal of finding a similar match. When hotel guest John (Ben Whishaw) wants to woo nosebleed girl, he smashes his face against a wall repeatedly to give himself a similar affliction. As he puts it: “What’s worse? To die of cold and hunger in the woods, to become an animal that will be killed and eaten by some big animal, or to have a nosebleed from time to time?” It’s a line of thinking that we hear variations of all the time: Sure, I have to starve myself and/or slather myself in makeup and/or conceal aspects of my personality to be desirable, but isn’t it better than being alone?
But, more than making me really glad to be missing Peak Tinder, The Lobster also raises questions that niggle at everyone, no matter your relationship status. As empowered as I feel holding my copy of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, the thought of one day being alone still scares me. The Lobster pushes the stigmatization of single people to its most chilling extreme, and makes you consider just how far you would go to avoid being by yourself. It makes you think about what it means to settle, especially as age encroaches, and how what we want can change as options are closed to us. How might my standards change when I’m 30, or 50, or when I have 45 days before being turned into a moose? We may not have laws about coupling, but sometimes it can feel that way, especially as a woman. And amid this unbearable pressure — the pressure to shack up, the pressure to have kids, the pressure to be happy — what does it actually mean when we say we’ve found somebody that we want to spend our lives with?
Not to give too much away, but David eventually falls in “love” with another outcast in the forest: “the short-sighted woman,” played by Rachel Weisz. And yet, much like everything else in the film, theirs is a strange love, devoid of anything that resembles real happiness. Because loners are prohibited from flirting, they develop a code — turning their heads to the left means “I love you more than anything in the world” — the real-life equivalent of transmitting our most complex longings via an emoji heart. As the film builds to its stunning conclusion, I was engulfed by an overwhelming sense of futility: What hope is there for this fragile little union to survive? What are we really looking for when we seek love out? Is love ever truly selfless, or is it always fundamentally an act of self-protection, or conformity, or simply fear? The Lobster doesn’t offer any clear answers, but it sure does raise a lot of questions that I don’t want to discuss on a date night — or perhaps ever, outside the confines of my therapist’s office.
Anyway, if you think you can handle it, you should see it. Just don’t bring a Tinder date.