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FILM
Reinterpreting 'The Lobster' as a Cautionary Tale About Online Dating
Misa Shikuma

 CREDIT: COURTESY OF CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

CREDIT: COURTESY OF CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

“Now, the fact that you’ll turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you or get you down.” - Hotel Manager

The premise of Yorgos Lanithmos’ 2015 film is simple: people who don’t find a long-term partner are turned into the animal of their choice, allegedly offering a second chance at companionship, though the hotel where the majority of the story takes place offers a rigidly structured opportunity to avoid that fate. It’s ludicrous enough to be widely billed as dystopian, yet contains multitudes of uncomfortable truths that resonate with anyone who has engaged in contemporary, tech-driven dating rituals.

As someone who has struggled to find an eligible partner in Silicon Valley where, I might add, the gender ratio is seriously tipped in my favor, The Lobster has been haunting me like a specter since I first saw it in theaters. It has become my go-to reference point in conversations about how much I have come to hate dating because, above all else, it is a fable about and a critique of modern love and relationships.

The film begins with David’s (Colin Farrell) wife leaving him, leading to his involuntary stay at the hotel, where guests are allotted forty-five days to partner up before being taken to the Transformation Room. David chooses the lobster, “Because [they] live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.” I would be a panda - they have no natural or human predators, relatively short gestation periods, and spend literally all of their time either eating or sleeping.

The check-in process is like being admitted to prison; all guests are stripped of their personal effects and issued uniforms (khakis and long sleeve button-downs in blue and white for men; floral dresses and cardigans for women), and are referred to by hotel staff by room number rather than by name. The system is streamlined, mechanical, and impersonal - just like online dating. (When OkCupid transitioned from usernames to requiring real names, it caused a minor uproar that I still don’t understand: if the point is to meet people IRL why shouldn’t others know your name?) The only thing that David is allowed to keep is his dog, which is really his brother who had previously stayed at the hotel but “didn’t make it.”

Couples graduate from the standard-issue single rooms to doubles and, if all goes well, to the final ordeal: fifteen days of vacation alone as a couple spent on a yacht. Those who pass are released back into society. However, “If you encounter any problems, any tensions, any arguing that you cannot resolve yourselves,” according to the hotel manager, “You will be assigned children. That usually helps. A lot.”

The conflation of partnership with success and being single with failure is reinforced to the guests at every turn, as in the skits put on by the staff including “Man Eats Alone” (he chokes and dies) versus “Man Eats with Woman” (she saves him with the Heimlich maneuver), and “Woman Walks Alone” (she gets assaulted) versus “Woman Walks with Man” (the would-be attacker stays away). Or, during outdoor target practice, when a staff member says, “It’s no coincidence that the targets are shaped like single people and not couples.”

I’m happy for my engaged and married friends if those relationships are truly supportive and fulfilling, but I fail to see the need to congratulate them as if they’ve earned a promotion or completed a graduate degree, when really what they’ve done is entered into an agreement with another consenting adult. But society, both our own and that depicted in the film, present marriage as an accomplishment, and those who do not achieve it as somehow inadequate.

All guests participate in The Hunt during which, armed with shotguns full of tranquilizer darts, they descend upon the nearby forest to capture loners - a contingent of partner-less rebels who reject society’s rules and live as outcasts. Guests receive one additional day to their stay for each loner struck. In the real world, us loners are not physically hunted, but we still get singled out in other ways by well-meaning relatives and nosy co-workers.

At a recent family brunch I happened to be wearing a flashy ring on my left middle finger. A relative, all of whose children are near my age and married or close to it, clocked it and came very close to going down a very awkward line of questioning, but thankfully caught herself just in time. I am as close to being engaged as Donald Trump is to tweeting anything that is factually sound. My family is pretty good about not prying into my personal life (or lack thereof), but I have no doubt that certain relatives are just waiting for the year that I stop rolling up to Easter and Thanksgiving solo.

David quickly befriends John (Ben Whishaw), who has a limp, and Robert (John C. Reilly), who has a lisp. In his self-introduction to the others, John refers to his gait as his Defining Characteristic, and actively seeks out women at the hotel who also have a limp. His single-minded determination to find someone who shares his Defining Characteristic represents one of the main problems in reducing a human being to words on a screen:  it leads to a focus on superficial things that ultimately  mean nothing. Sure, having common interests and hobbies is great, but liking the same band or third wave coffee shop doesn’t equate to compatibility nor chemistry -- not even close. This is particularly true when the majority of available options, at least based on dating profiles, are incredibly homogenous.

Let me present the typical single Bay Area millennial male, starting with the photos: at the top of Half Dome, on the rope swing at that one park, bouldering, running a marathon, riding an expensive bike, posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge if he recently moved to SF from somewhere else, at Machu Picchu, Iceland or comparable international destination both trendy and exotic, and at least one group photo in which it isn’t immediately obvious which one is him. (Posing with sedated tigers in Southeast Asia or with children in third world countries is very 2014). Job title: a Mad Libs of tech industry buzzwords, or simply “entrepreneur” if he’s currently unemployed. Hobbies: bouldering, biking, hiking and other outdoor activities, drinking craft beer, binge watching popular series, traveling and, my personal favorite, “sometimes staying in and watching Netflix and sometimes going out.” (I, too, occasionally leave my apartment other than for work!) Self-summary/personal description: extroverted introvert or other contradictory phrase like “driven but chill,” ambitious, spontaneous, insert Myers Briggs type.

John ultimately gives up on finding a woman with a limp, and self-inflicts injury in order to pair up with a woman who suffers from chronic nosebleeds. When David broaches the subject, John asks, “What’s worse: to die of cold and hunger in the woods, to become an animal that will be killed and eaten by some bigger animal, or to have a nosebleed from time to time?” Determined not to be alone, he settles for a relationship built on a lie. David attempts to do the same, later moving into a double room with a woman described at the outset as “absolutely heartless.” She kicks his dog to death to see if he’s as emotionless as he pretends to be; he escapes the hotel and joins the loners.

The leader of the loners, played by a dispassionate Lea Seydoux, occasionally takes small groups into the city (in pairs pretending to be couples, of course) to get supplies and visit her parents, who are blissfully unaware of their daughter’s choice to live on the fringes of society. They wouldn’t understand the truth if they knew, just as I don’t think that my family members from older generations or friends fortunate enough to have met their spouses and partners in high school or college fully grasp the barren wasteland that is millennial online dating. My war stories are just a form of entertainment for them. Simply put, dating apps are where any lingering childhood fairytale romanticism goes to die.

Regarding the time pressure that the characters face before their lives change irrevocably, there is little difference between that and being a woman. As much as I despise the term “biological clock,” for women like me in our late twenties who may want to have children without IVF and scientific intervention, there is immense pressure to find a partner. Did you know that after age 35, if a woman is with child, it’s medically deemed a geriatric pregnancy? Geriatric, like my 90 year old grandfather. Then, of course, there’s the blatant double standard: it is socially acceptable for men to be sexy bachelors up through middle age, like pre-Amal George Clooney, whereas single women past a certain point are regarded as spinsters, or maybe closet lesbians. When I first started using the apps, and they were new and I had little experience in dating, it was fun and exciting. Now it just feels like a rat race.

Considering Lanithmos’ oeuvre, his preferred acting style appears to be one of rather flat and stiff delivery of lines, which in The Lobster lends itself particularly well to the context of the story. If you’ve ever been on a dismal date completely lacking in chemistry, forcing small talk like you’re extracting teeth, you’ll relate. But also, the tacit rules of contemporary courtship are to never seem too eager - not to respond to anything too quickly or make too many plans. It would be optimistic to the point of foolishness to behave otherwise, because dating apps foster a mentality of always holding out for someone “better.” Why be exclusive with someone when you could keep swiping indefinitely? In other words, it’s like a competition to see who cares the least.

A couple of years ago, while searching for Christmas decorations, my mom and my uncle (her younger brother) unearthed a box of handwritten notes that their parents exchanged while dating as undergrads. I was astounded - mind-blown even - given that these days it feels like a minor accomplishment to get someone to answer a measly text in a timely fashion. (Not to mention most people my age probably haven’t touched a pen to paper since grade school.)

As David learns the ins and outs of the loner lifestyle (training to avoid being hunted; literally digging your own grave in preparation for the worst case scenario; only listening to electronic music because it’s impossible to dance to with a partner), he meets and falls for Rachel Weisz’s character, credited only as “short-sighted woman.” (David, obviously, is also short-sighted). Flirting and having any sort of romantic relationship is strictly prohibited amongst loners, so when the leader finds out she takes short-sighted woman to the city under the pretext of having corrective eyesight surgery, but has the doctor blind her instead. Despite having lost their common defining characteristic, David and the now-blind woman make a plan to escape together. The film ends with them at a restaurant, him in the bathroom preparing to blind himself as she waits at their table.

The conclusion leaves much to be interpreted by the viewer, but for me the biggest question that remains is: Can you ever truly opt out of a system comprised of social constructs? In all of The Lobster’s satirical glory Lanithmos presents two possible outcomes: a marriage predicated upon falsehood, or contrived loneliness. (Or three, if you count getting turned into an animal). Love is a concept that remains largely unaddressed, as relationships in the filmmaker’s world are derived from convenience and necessity. Or, perhaps, love is simply a luxury the characters cannot afford when their lives are at stake.

If there’s a lesson to be learned it’s that we should move past the apparent defining characteristics and superficial small talk, although it’s difficult when the tools we’re given (the apps and their UIs, our smart phones and social media accounts) encourage the opposite. Maybe, as much as we like to think that we can understand and control our environments, the systems we build in an attempt to quantify human behavior and engineer interpersonal connection are doomed to fail. Dating apps are so dumbed down at this point, relying on snap judgements based on bad photos and a smattering of emojis and the aforementioned keywords, that it’s difficult to imagine what the next logical progression would be. A solution? Get offline. Let’s all just go the woods, put our headphones on and dance to EDM alone, but together.


Misa Shikuma is a pastry cook and freelance writer based in San Francisco. You can find more of her musings on travel, film and kitchen life at misashikuma.com, and on Instagram @the_misadventurist.