Will Being Single Ever Become Illegal?

Reflections on Lanthimos’ recent absurdist drama, “The Lobster”

Think of a future where being single is a crime. Where police interrogate and demand proof of your coupledom. Where the unmarried and divorced are sent to large, socializing hotels to secure a mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choice. Sounds like another weird, dystopic fantasy novel written for Orwellian geeks, right? Perhaps. And the metaphors here are powerful. What I love about “The Lobster,” the latest potent-blown absurdity from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, is how timeless and effective the approach is. Here’s an artist essentially holding up a mirror to society and asking, “What truth can you see hiding here? What reality are these symbols pointing to?”

Don’t be too literal-minded while watching. This weirdly intimate film seems to mock such impulses but in a really humorous, contradictory way. That is, it gives false cues to literal-minded viewers who insist on trying to “solve” movies like logical equations; and yet, the story also wants to remain aggressively deadpan and diegetically literal in its delivery. The dialogue between characters, for example, is so candid yet ridiculous that it almost seems to represent those secret, subconscious desires we have but never share with others (at least not initially when meeting them) for fear of being ridiculed. A bracing allegory of social dating games? Perhaps. And the boundary this game plays between the serious and the silly is so far effaced that the result yields a kind of “wtf theatre,” a comical dramatization that shocks viewers out of complacency and brings them face to face with uncomfortable facts and feelings about the human experience.

The humor in “The Lobster” is dark and depressing, and frankly it needs to be. I‘m not confident it wants to provoke tears of despair, but maybe laughter of liberation? I mean, you can’t watch this story unfold without musing on the mores of millennial dating, the taboos associated with singlehood, perhaps even the digitization of human relationships — be it on sites like Tinder or Match.com. Here relationships are often reduced to superficial pairing of interests and types. The characters in this film, for example, are so desperate to connect, and connect at any cost, even if it means faking commonalities to attract others. Oh, your nose bleeds? Mine, too. You have poor eyesight? Same here. You have a complete sociopathic disregard for the well-being of others? Ok, I guess I can compromise. The anxiety is sad and palpable, but it also hits home to some of the invisible social rules that people (especially singles) can feel pressured by when seeking a mate; for example, believing it is better to lie and fabricate your emotions in order to connect than to be truthful — and by extension — alone.

Whether learned from society, the film argues, “it is more difficult to pretend that you do have feelings when you don’t than to pretend you don’t have feelings when you do.” It is easier, that is, to play it cool, shield your emotions and live in a risk-free vacuum than it is to get naked — get vulnerable — with another human being. The film holds a kind of existential empathy for singles, too, as if lamenting, “The use of imagery, sound and tone management here, though bleak, is what being alone can feel like.” Whether comforting or not, Lanthimos’ use of symbolism is really thought provoking. I felt he almost wanted to humanize the angst of singles while dehumanizing those who would make them the targets of their criticism. For these reasons I‘m not surprised why my single and divorced friends have responded most favorably toward this aggressively bizarre but intimately familiar story.