“The Lobster,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature, is a typically absurdist effort for the Greek director. About an alternative world in which single people are transformed into animals, it stars Colin Farrell in his hangdog (not feral) mode as David, a recently dumped schlub who has forty-five days to find a mate before being subjected to a zoological transformation. Bleary, bespectacled, and brandishing the leash of the German Shepherd formerly known as his brother, his prospects seem slim even among these sad-sack singletons named for their most prominent deficiency. There’s “Lisping Man” (John C. Reilly), “Limping Man” (Ben Whishaw), and “Heartless Woman” (Angeliki Papoulia), who proves such an unfortunate match for David that he joins the Loners roving the woods in hunted, celibate packs. But he finds their world equally rigid. When he’s drawn to fellow near-sighted loner Rachel Weisz (in this film, attraction is borne of compatible deficits, which isn’t that far from the truth), the two run into dangerous consequences given the Loner Leader’s violent opposition to sex and romance.
Like Lanthimos’s previous features “Dogtooth” (2009), “Kinetta” (2005), and “Alps” (2011), “The Lobster” adheres to strict conventions that only make sense in the world he creates. It can be described as a crossbreed of magic realism and science fiction, for we never learn how humans are converted to animals, nor are we situated in a specific time, place, or government. (It’s shot in Ireland but, with its wide range of races and accents, seems generically European or North American.) The success of this chimera can be attributed to the cast and crew’s unwavering dedication: director of photography Thimios Bakatakis’s tableaus are impeccably composed; the actors commit wholly to screenwriters Efthymis Filippou’s and Lanthimos’s straight-man dialogue; even costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop’s oddbot tailoring is of a piece. Though occasionally hilarious, this parallel world is always poker-faced and frequently grim. What’s truly absent, though, is choice. We may not know how humanity has entered such a state, but we do know no one has the bandwidth to question it.
The experience of visiting this otherworld for two hours is so harrowing and demanding that it doesn’t easily relinquish you afterward, especially as its ambiguous ending offers no clean takeaway. For days I found myself sifting through its possible meanings: Not necessarily anti-relationship, not necessarily anti-woman (though females wield – and abuse – the little power to be found here), it is anti-defining individuals by their relationship status, period. No wonder it comes wrapped in magic realism. It’s that radical a platform.
In her new book All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister studies women who have postponed or opted out of marriage, focusing most on the relatively new phenomenon of female agency. Examining the intersection of marriage, location, race, economic class, and sexuality; the presentation of single women in literature, television, film, and news media; friendship families and other less traditional forms of emotional support; and even the thorny question of loneliness both within and without relationships, she offers such a wealth of observations that, as with “The Lobster,” they’re impossible to digest in one – or even twenty – sittings. Most relevant to the questions raised by Lanthimos’s unsmiling comedy is the disruption she suggests unattached women introduce to any established social order.
To be sure, women have historically gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to nuptial bonds. Denied personhood unless attached to a man, denied freedom heretofore after, women have traditionally experienced marriage as “damned if you do/damned if you don’t.” Traister quotes one subject: “When I was young, if a girl married poor, she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealth, she became a pet and a doll. I didn’t want to be a drudge or a doll for fifty-five years.”
But the author also points out that, if single people are denied economic and social privileges (regardless of gender), married couples often experience a lonely imprisonment they feel powerless to escape. In her uncharacteristically breathy conclusion, Traister suggests we’re poised for a new era of equal partnership and singleton rights. Her vision is downright utopian, especially in contrast to Lanthimos’s deadpan dystopia, but I believe there’s a more profound revolution that lurks as the elephant in both works.
Imagine a world in which romantic love, sex, and marriage do not overlap by any social, financial, or legal compunction. Imagine a world in which we are not defined by our relationship status. For that matter, imagine a world in which there is no “Ms.” and there is no “Mrs.” (No ma’am, either!) It is a world worth imagining, if only because nothing else has systemically worked.
This originally appeared on Signature