I hesitate to recommend that you see The Lobster, since this romantic comedy about a man facing transformation into an arthropod is just too painfully realistic.
The Lobster, written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is brutal and hilarious, with satire so sharp it could cut your wrists. The movie is set in a world where anyone who hasn't found a “partner” is turned into an animal. But you can choose which animal, so that's comforting. A terrifying “hotel” has been set up to help singles find mates, but if you don't find your match within forty-five days—start choosing scales or feathers.
Who counts as a partner? Marriage doesn't seem to be a requirement, but romance, commitment, and sexual attraction are—a girl who comes to the hotel with her best friend is considered a “single.” No form of love other than romance is recognized by the police.
The Lobster might be a movie-length rebuke to Pixar's 2014 short “Lava,” a colorful children's fable about how only romance can free us from suicidal loneliness. What makes The Lobster so powerful is that its kooky premise is played completely straight. Every bizarre aspect of the fantasy world is treated with unflinching realism: Partners must share a “defining characteristic,” like beautiful hair or a limp, and so people mutilate themselves in order to force a match. It's like OKCupid on PCP. This rigid concept of love fits with a world where no other vocation—no form of sacrificial, devoted love other than romantic sexual union—is acknowledged.
The lonely lobster-to-be, David, is played by a schlubby and miserable Colin Farrell. You just feel so sad for him from the very first scene, where he's forced to declare a sexual orientation and taken to a room he can share with his dog, who is also his brother. (The love of your family of origin doesn't count here any more than friendship does.)
The two-hour film is full of elaborations on its central conceit, all of which fit in a kind of funhouse logic. There's a lot of violence—animals are bloodily killed, a man has his hand stuck in a toaster as punishment for masturbating—and a lot of horrifyingly antierotic sex. But the hardest scenes to watch might be the ones where the singles are forced to watch little skits meant to teach them how bad it is to be single: “Man eats alone” and chokes to death; “man eats with woman” and she performs the Heimlich maneuver, saving his life. These are stick-figure versions of the deepest fears of many unmarried people: Will I die alone?
There are brilliant bits of dialogue (don't miss the gut-punch reference to Stand By Me) and terrific acting, from people like Olivia Colman (the wife on Rev.) and Léa Seydoux. There are touching insights, like the literal interpretation of the private language so many real-life couples develop. There are deeply poignant attempts to reach that one spot in the middle of your back, the one nobody can reach alone. There are surreal moments of beauty. There is an alternative to the dictatorship of eros: a resistance movement where you can find solidarity, an almost monastic love of comrades, but sex and romance are banned. (Adding to the weirdly monastic feel, these “Loners” must dig their own graves when they join the group.) There is an actual romance, and you will root for it in spite of the film's romantic-totalitarianism setting.
The Lobster has literally only one flaw that I could find, but it's a huge one. This film has the very worst ending any film can have: the smash-cut to black before the protagonist's final decision is made. There's a scene at the hotel where a maid mechanistically, dehumanizingly arouses David, but stops before he can achieve release, so that he'll be more motivated to find a mate. This movie is that maid, but for narrative climax rather than physical.
There are intellectual arguments for this kind of ending. It forces the audience to choose: What would you do? But I want to know what the director would do! I can still make up my mind whether I'd do the same. The ending of The Lobster takes it too far into the realm of thought experiment or even personality test (what does your preferred ending say about who you are?), out of the realm of story in which it had excelled.
And I will note that the movie's final passage focuses on an urgent question—Is romance worth all you have to sacrifice for it?—but takes us away from the even more countercultural questions it raised earlier, about the forms of love we ignore in our laser focus on romance. The Lobster is a multifaceted movie, for a singleminded culture.
Eve Tushnet is a lesbian and celibate Catholic freelance writer. She studied philosophy at Yale University, where she was received into the Catholic Church in 1998. She writes from D.C., and has been published in (among others) Commonweal, First Things, The National Catholic Register, National Review, and The Washington Blade. Eve blogs at Patheos.com.