I love a good alternate universe. LOVE. The first book I ever truly loved was The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. It’s a rich story with deep, complex characters and (most thrilling to my 12-year-old self) an entirely different way for humans to relate to their souls. In Pullman’s world, they existed externally to the bodies they were attached to – as animals called daemons.
When children were young, their daemons could shape-shift, for example, from a cougar one moment to a moth the next. In time, each daemon settled into an animal that represented the true character of its human. The other exhilarating feature of this soul-as-pet arrangement was that humans and their daemons could communicate exclusively with one another in an ongoing internal conversation. Physical separation from a daemon unleashed powerful energy and inflicted great pain on both sides.
So… animals, alternate universes, and the pain of separation. I realize I am free associating, but it all leads us to The Lobster, which also presents a harsh, alternate universe.
The Lobster takes us into a world where the government enforces either homo- or heterosexual partnership via marriage. Adults who find themselves decoupled for any reason are sent from The City to The Hotel (slightly reminiscent of The Shining, to be honest) and given 45 days to couple up with another single adult. If you aren’t following, this is punishment for the act of being single. If one does not successfully pair off in this amount of time, he or she faces the future as an ANIMAL of his or her choosing – i.e. she is forcibly taken into a transformation room and physically TURNED INTO an animal.
I know. Head. Explode.
Our hero, David (Colin Farrell), finding himself decoupled, arrives at The Hotel. His animal of choice is the lobster. The first half of this film explores the norms of this society through David’s eyes. I don’t want to say more because it is so unbelievable that you just have to see it.
The second half chronicles what happens when he escapes into The Woods and joins the rebel alt-society of The Loners. The Loners, led by a tyrannical woman (Léa Seydoux) who forces compliance though fear, have rejected the rules of the society and replaced them with their own: primarily that coupling is not allowed.
It’s hard to know what to make of this film. I have grappled with what to say and even with what I truly took away from it. The dystopian alt-universe and the “Could this happen?” questions certainly lend to the film’s appeal and mystery. The film’s commentary on the way we choose to structure our world and our social relationships is unsettling yet believable. It definitely had me thinking about the subtle ways that society rewards couples, from the ease of double dates to the how children make any early work-day departure magically acceptable. Even though the “coupling” enforcement is unforgiving and exaggerated, the only fantastical part of the arrangement is the animal transformation.
The way the Loners replaced one tyrannical situation with another was also disheartening; their new society is essentially as restrictive and authoritarian as the society they escaped.
The biggest concept this film takes on, however, is love, and specifically the part of it that “finds a way.” It’s really nowhere to be found throughout much of the first half. In the forced partnership and in the rejection of forced partnership, these characters are simply trying to survive. And it can be hard to love when you’re simply trying to survive.
But I think it also, paradoxically, illustrates the simultaneous truth that the act of loving can actually be the path to survival. Let me explain:
In The Woods with The Loners, David meets a woman (Rachel Weisz) who, like him, is nearsighted. (Couples tend to find each other through shared infirmities or other shared flaws.) In the second half, outside of the insanity of The Hotel, they start to lean on each other. They start to need each other. And they fall in love. Their relationship deepens as they silently and strategically break the Loner Leader’s rules. They develop a secret language of signs and symbols. They daydream about escaping to the various worlds they have escaped from. They take care of one another when the Loner Leader threatens one of their lives. They literally hold each other up. Their love, in the middle of this repressive, crazy, society-rejecting universe… is what enables them to get out.
It’s hard to capture succinctly and eloquently all this movie posits about the resilience of people and of love. And, the director leaves us hanging at the end, quite a bit. (There are many more essays that could be written about the ending of the film and the act of love we witness in its final moments. If it is one? I think it is. You must see it for yourself.) But, despite that, any time a film has me reflecting on love — not the feeling, but the sacrifice and the only way we survive this particular universe we are in—I’ll always say it’s worth seeing.
I am super curious to hear what you took away from The Lobster and would LOVE to talk about it!