As we progress as a species, questions surround the evolutionary vision of human existence. Probably, many of our answers have a lot to do with sex, the unbridled biological instinct that fulfills the necessary dives to procreate and bond. This meaning, humans may be programmed to maximize their genes’ chances of survival, unbeknownst of how highly strategic and rational the natural selection is. Up to this day, the invention of euphemisms and censorship has offered us a conviction that the ritualized love named couplehood is a supreme institution that distinguishes us from beasts. Then, does sex without “why” spells the end of civilization? At this point, The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015), a movie that navigates the horrors of government-mandated love, figures whether symbiotic love can exist without perilous sacrifices to one’s sense of self. With Christmas, a.k.a. the season for the love birds, coming up soon, The Lobster has come to desecrate it. The Argus delves into the details this film holds onto—perhaps, a new story that predicts how we might have sex in the near-future.
Loner-hating society: Marriage is a true order of humanity
In a somewhat futuristic dystopia, humans are tasked to be in relationship or else they are considered to be unworthy as a human and animalized ungently. Obviously, surgical procedure precedes the supposed transformation, with surgeons peeling back human skin, removing the heart and the brain, and bleeding the corpse for blood to be given to the city’s hospital. The singles are true outcasts in the city, a big brother police state where officers demand marriage certificate from passerby. While there are pairs who meet certain criteria, there also is a group of renegade “loners” living in celibate packs in the nearby forest, who have fled from the enforced monogamy of the social order. In the middle, there stands a government-run resort that rounds up those who end up being single whether by design or accident— widowers, divorcees, and those who could not find a good match — to register as a temporary resident. The place rehabilitates singles in order to return them to the city re-coupled and resume their lives within the system. These three recognizable, but quirky settings are deployed in the course of the film to champion the idolization of a marriage for good health and physical safety.
The lust, infatuation, and even true love have been made clinical as, nothing more than secondary emotion that should be edited out accordingly to guard the so called “authentic personhood.” The relentless pursuit of our aspirations to be the paragon of animals adheres to the everyday rules this alternate world portrays. Especially, the situation facing our protagonist David— the only man who bears an actual name in the film —as a divorcee is heartbreaking. His wife went off for another man, and he is assigned to be one of those enervated singles that are imprisoned in rehabilitation institution: the couple-making hotel. Two men dressed as waiters ring the doorbell and ask his wife, “Which of these two gentlemen is the one you are breaking up with?” Fallen from the system’s good graces, David and his fellow hotel guests need to participate in peculiar check-in rituals that strips off anything that can make them an individual. They sit slumped in off-white underwear, waiting to be assigned a room.
Receptionist: Well, sir, you said you have never been on your own before, correct?
David: No, never.
Receptionist: Are you allergic to any foods?
Receptionist: Your last relationship lasted how many years?
David: Around twelve.
Receptionist: Do you remember how long exactly?
David: Eleven years and seven months.
Receptionist: Sexual preference?
David: Women. However, I had one homosexual experience… in the past, in college. Is there bisexual option available?
Receptionist: No, sir, this option is no longer available since about last summer...due to several operational problems. I am afraid you have to decide right now, if you want to be registered as homosexual or heterosexual
David: I think I should be registered as heterosexual.
Receptionist: Any children?
Receptionist: And the dog?
David: My brother. He was here a couple of years ago but he did not make it. You might remember him. Medium build, 48 years old, bald patch, blond.
Receptionist: I am afraid not, sir. (…) Shoe size, please.
David: 44 and a half.
Receptionist: 44 or 45? There is no half size.
Among the information David is asked to specify, there lies a binary structure that prefers to fit the residents into the either/or category than the both/and. This is a world that is open to any kind of partnership, gay or straight—a true moment of ambivalence. Here, being heterosexual is not compulsory, but it is compulsory to be sexual. It is even more eye-catching to notice there are no half-size shoes in the hotel. Everything must be evened out. All of them are given identical, nondescript dress codes according to their gender and are asked of their choice of animal that they will be turned into should they fail to match with anyone. The hotel enforce rules that contradict with David’s feelings.
Couple Making Hotel: We help residents to humanize their sexual desire
Residents are allowed only by a finite number of days, 45, to find a suitable life mate. Single rooms are provided. Every morning, you should wake up to an announcement of how many days you have left. At night, you may buy oneself some time to stay by participating in daily-dart hunting expedition of the “loners,” who has chosen a single life in the wilderness. With each kill, an extra day is added.
Similarities are prerequisite for matching. For example, being good at math, shortsighted, having a limp, having frequent, inexplicable nose-bleeds, or a beautiful smile. You will need to find a companion who is the same type of animal as you are. A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel with a hippopotamus.
Daily activities are consisted to instruct how “everything is easier in pairs.”
ⓐ Residents should spend first twenty-four hours at the hotel with one arm tied behind one’s back, obliged to undress, and brush one’s teeth without someone’s help.
ⓑ Residents are only allowed to use the facilities for individual sports such as squash and golf. Basketball and volleyball courts are only for the couples.
ⓒ Residents should attempt a courtship like taking a stroll around the hotel, having a dinner and, attending mandatory dance parties each Saturday.
ⓓ Smoking is prohibited so that your breath should not smell when you kiss and you would be able to run longer during the hunt without getting tired.
ⓔ Sexual pleasure is prohibited. Male guests are dry-humped by the chambermaids, but teased short of orgasm. Those caught masturbating or lying about one’s affection is sadistically punished in front of the public, by putting their hands in a toaster.
ⓕ Afternoons are spent with attending instructional assembly; actors demonstrate pantomime of “the perils of solitude.” A man dines alone, choking to death on a piece of meat; the man dines with his wife, and she saves him by performing the Heimlich maneuver. A lady walks alone, and gets attacked and raped; the lady walks with her companion, and the would-be rapist passes them by.
If everything goes well, with success in coupling up with somebody else, residents are expected to complete the tests, as to judge the validity of coupledom. The new minted couples are moved to a shared bedroom with a larger wardrobe and a larger bathroom, and must last two weeks together. For further two weeks, they will be transferred to “the yacht” in the bay to enjoy a honeymoon of sorts. The course of relationship is monitored closely by the hotel staff, which will assign children to those who argue too much. That will do to shut them up for a while, as people do not usually fight in front of their children.
This regimented schedule illustrates how absurd it would be to relate our sexual desires to the actual animal breeding cycle. Humans practice Hunger Games-style hunts, have no tears for the dead ones, and conform to the norms solely for their own survival. “In The Lobster, human relationships are veiled behind the fear of the hotel, and the probability of being turned into an animal if a match is not found. These pressures result not only in catastrophic fate, but also in the characters being together alone as the relation to one another is distant, realized through the mediation of the ‘Hotel’ and the ‘Laws of the City’ instead of real physical attraction or spontaneity in dialogue,” explains Luna Hupperetz of Amsterdam University College. The impending doom likens humans to beasts, putting indelible stamp of one’s lowly origin. Humans even encourages the point of superficiality in their rigid criteria to become a perfect couple. Never mind the world view, political stance, or spirituality, but the most surface level similarities that are encoded in DNA.
Luna Hupperetz adds, “The assessment-oriented mind-set leads to an objectification of the potential partners, and it can be found in The Lobster, where the characters are simply portrayed as the short sighted woman, lisping man, nosebleed woman, the limping man and biscuit woman. The fundamental and plain nature of the characters’ identities relates to the process of reification. In Marx’s theory, the concept of reification describes a state of social consciousness in which human relationships become identified only through the mediation of objects, as a result of living in a society dominated by commodity production.” What is worse, people even start to feign the matching characteristics. The film features a man who secretly bangs his head against tables and walls to couple up with a nose-bleeding woman. This kind of resigned stance shows the meaninglessness of social connections in this hotel.
It is no wonder why some orphans are locked behind railings in a large enclosure in identical clothes. They are also the tools to get the couples to stick together, waiting to be picked as an adoptee. Guess what one child said? “Hello. My parents split up two years ago. They are both animals now. I am ten years old. I am very good at algebra and even better at geometry. If you choose me, I’m 100 percent sure you will not be disappointed.” He even pretends to be a loving child, telling the residents “I love you so much, daddy. You are so strong, stronger than any of my classmates’ dads.” It is a complete horror to hear his last shout. “If you don’t pick me, I hope you die alone and that they find your body days after you die!”
Runaway Singles: We forbid any type of romantic relationship
As his deadline nears, David escapes from the hotel into the woods. Contrary to the hotel’s restriction, the “loner” community is autonomous and there is no time limit at being one. However, they turn out to be as intolerant as the hotel managers. Amorous liaisons are gruesomely punished, given the “Red Kiss, Red Sex.” Those caught kissing get their lips slashed off with a razor, and are forced to kiss each other bleeding. So long as there is no touching or flirting, conversations are allowed. They dance alone wearing headphones, which is why they only play electronic music and not the blues. The loners even dig their own graves, and the loner leader instructs them to go straight to one’s grave when they are expected to die from bleeding. She leads these refugee dissidents to raids against the hotel, to prove couple relationships are founded on lies and deceit. The leader tricks the hotel manager’s husband into shooting his wife to save himself, but the gun is not loaded. She then leaves those two alone.
Loner leader: Do you love her?
Hotel manager’s husband: With all my heart
Loner leader: How much do you love her? On the scale of 1 to 15
Hotel manager’s husband: …14
Loner leader: 14 is a very impressive score. Who will be able to live on their own better? If this woman dies, do you think you manage on you own? Or will you get involve with someone else?
Hotel manager’s husband: No. I can live alone, but she cannot. I am on my own for hours while she is at the pool or at the bar. I like sitting in the room, it relaxes me, calms me, I like it a lot. I think you should kill her. I will not disappoint you.
Loner leader: (Handing a gun,) Take it, shoot her!
These survival instincts have formed a community that forcibly injects emotion or banishes it and numbs the individual. “The dominant model of coupling is spread thus through the mimesis of desire, but as René Girard has shown, this is fraught with animosity. Girard writes: ‘In human relationships words like sameness and similarity evoke an image of harmony. If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along.’ The problem emerges, however, when we share the same desires. It is desire for being that informs the mimetic structure and a perception that others have what we lack to make us happy: ‘The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being.’ With a societal structure in which everyone is required to be part of a couple comes the concomitant desire to be in one, to want what everyone else has, shown through the example of their desire. In The Lobster there is occasional rivalry for the same love object: David suspects that another loner likes his soul mate at one point and challenges him, going to great lengths to establish whether he is short-sighted or not,” says Sarah Cooper, a professor of Film Studies at King’s College, London.
As Dr. Cooper tells us above, David did meet his mate— a short-sighted woman who shares similarities with him— and discreetly falls in love with each other (or believes he does). The unexpected bond brings them a chance to live up as a real couple in the city. Hence, they plan to escape, but the leader detects their affair and has the short-sighted woman blinded under the guise of an operation to cure her short-sightedness. In revenge, David kills the leader and manages to reach the city with his lover. They stop by a restaurant where the audience learns that he prepares to blind himself for his mate. In the last scene, David heads toward the restroom and stands in front of the mirror. He hesitantly holds a steak knife in order to gouge his eyes out, but the screen goes black with no subsequent scenes.
Can this relationship really be a complete fairy tale? In the first place, if the short-sighted woman loved David one hundred percent, she would not have erased her short-sightedness for David. How astonishing is it to see her faulting the loner leader for not having picked David to be blinded? What would you do if you were David? First option: the romantic. You may go into the bathroom and blind yourself to be with the blind woman rest of your life, to live happily ever after. Second option: the cynic. You may sneak out of the restaurant through a window as she cannot see and grab a taxi to run away. Last option: love is blind. You come out of the bathroom and pretend to be blind. The woman cannot tell whether he shares the commonality with her or not.
Is human sexuality really no animal sexuality? The human life that The Lobster portrays has nothing to differ from what any other animal life may be. We survived as a species for the root of social ties lies in the loneliness, as the pain of being alone motivates us to seek the safety of companionship. Why struggle not to submit to zoological conversion, when in fact, you are already an animal? As anyone might have guessed, the movie gets its title from the animal choice David has made, The Lobster. “Lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much. I water ski and swim quite well, since I was a teenager.” Even as an animal, David still want a life mate, bothers social position, and desires to be immortal. Maybe he is too humane. Look at your lover (or imagine one). Do you love them for love, or is it just instinct? Can you say for sure that you love them for their humanity, or are you just another animal, looking to mate? The Argus asks: Will humans ever be liberated from this upward struggle, the relentless pursuit of our aspirations? Does this mundane dystopia severely differ to our modern world?
By Kwak Hyun-jeong
Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section