Every few years, the major crop of movies marketed towards the largest movie-going demographic, teenagers, takes on a different theme. Most of the movie-going public has noticed that dystopian movies have become very popular in the past decade. What is it about the dystopian setting, the imagining of our world in a horrible, usually fascist future, that is so appealing? There is one common theme across the majority of dystopian movies that is essential to their success: one hero must always fight their oppressive circumstances, and win. It is obvious why this particular setup would be appealing to viewers, most notably teenagers: in movies as in all art: we seek a narrative that appeals to our sense of worth, that makes us feel powerful. As anxieties about our government’s competence and its increasing pervasiveness in our personal lives grows, the dystopian movie allows us to see our government stretched to the most evil caricature of its faults, and to see one person succeed in overpowering them. We are lead to believe, subtly, that placed in the right circumstances, we could be that hero, single-handedly overthrowing any entity that tried to control our way of life.
The 2016 dystopian arthouse movie The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, gives us that narrative, but with an ending unusual for its genre, a twist that is so beautiful and so painful because it clings more devoutly to the truth of human nature than the conventional dystopian movie’s optimistic narrative. While the characters speak in a restrained, alien tone, and their willingness to give into institutions that seek total control over their personal lives seems bizarre and frustrating, the viewer can’t help but see how similar they are to the characters, and how the external forces on the most intimate part of their lives could reasonably warp their ability to be true to their own desires and rights as human beings. It is, ultimately, a story about the corruptibility of human nature, and where real humanity ends and painful, arbitrary tradition begins.
The movie begins with the recently-divorced main character, David, checking into a hotel with a dog, where David will have to select a partner within thirty days or be turned into the animal of his choosing (David chooses the rarely-picked lobster). The dog, as it turns out, is his brother, who was unsuccessful at finding a mate during his time at the hotel. The hotel inhabitants’ environment is highly regulated by the staff, from the clothes they wear to the mandatory dances. Once a week, a bus takes them into the forest to tranquilize and capture defectors who have escaped the hotel to hide in the woods together. Over the course of his first week at the hotel, David meets and slowly befriends two other men, whom he calls by their most identifying features: the limping man and the stuttering man. It becomes clear that the partner seekers of the hotel use these quirks as the most important basis for companionship; the limping man fakes a nosebleed in order to impress a woman at the hotel with a recurrent nosebleed, and they become paired. David tries to impress an emotionless woman at the hotel by pretending to be sociopathic, and eventually they are paired. When the woman kills his brother, he cries, and she chastises him for beginning a relationship on lies. He then attacks her and, with the help of a maid, takes her to the “changing room” where he has her changed into an animal. He then runs away into the forest to live with the defectors, where they are forbidden by their leader from forming romantic bonds. David immediately falls in love with another defector, a woman who has near-sighted vision just like him, and they keep their relationship a secret. On a covert mission to the city disguised as rich married couples (where presumably only married couples are allowed to live freely), David and the near-sighted woman pretend to be married, and are so enthusiastic in their role that the gang’s leader suspects their secret.
She has the woman blinded in the city, and David cares for her in the forest. One night, the two restrain the leader in a shallow grave and run away to the city, stopping at a diner. David decides that now that his partner is blinded, he should be blind too. He goes to the bathroom with a knife, stands in front of a mirror, and poises the knife at his eyeball. The movie ends.
It is unclear how the hotel retains the authority to claim unpaired people and demand that they find spouses within a limited time frame, yet it seems that most everyone is complacent with the system; the defectors in the forest are sparse, and the hotel and city are packed with compliant people who are married or wanting to become married. The patrons of the hotel, besides the sociopathic woman, fear the punishment of not cooperating with the institution that has seized control of their personal lives and desperately want the love and intimacy of another, and are willing to eschew meaningful relationships for companionships based on surface similarities, such as physical quirks, to have that partnership. In this way, we recognize ourselves: what else would we do, how else would we act, given those circumstances?
The hotel brutally enforces the development and permanence of monogamous relationships on grounds that are never explained – we are left to assume that at some point, everyone agreed that people must be coupled and enfolded into nuclear families in a timely manner, or else didn’t deserve to live in civilized society. This is, as per the conventions of the dystopian film, our society stretched by its most evil traits into a nightmare. What is enforced in real life by social convention, and by the entanglement of government institutions into the ritual of marriage and the myriad benefits it grants, is enforced in the film by the hotel. Our hero David defects from the hotel bravely, as the viewer would expect of a dystopian movie’s protagonist, and even manages to develop an intense relationship with a woman outside of the hotel’s control. However, it is the final scene of the film that makes the viewer see how permanently the society David lives in has marked his psyche, as real human beings are: when David and his lover escape to the city and are able to stop at a diner, they remember that they must preserve their mutual physical commonality to remain partners, being unable to imagine companionship without it, and David calmly goes to the bathroom to blind himself with a butter knife.
This ending is frustrating for the viewer, who most likely expected the protagonist to, once escaping the demands of the hotel and then the forest defectors, to also slip out of the nonsensical behavior adopted by the hotel patrons to survive the hotel and become a real human being, now able to form a bond with his companion based on her personality, not her near-sightedness. And this begs the question: what is adopted behavior, behavior we are forced into by the constraints of arbitrary societal rules, and what is behavior that is true to human nature? In most dystopian films, the audience is more likely to see the protagonist escaping the bonds of his or her fascist society seamlessly, usually even toppling the offending institution or government. In The Lobster, we see an ending that is utterly true to David’s human nature: David and his lover may be free of the hotel’s control, but they will always be trapped in the partnership schema they have been taught, because it is all they know. We are forced, as viewers, to examine our frustration at David’s decision to blind himself. We are forced to examine what we know about the authenticity of our behavior, and most importantly, what our true abilities and limitations are as people in this world, as lovers, defectors, and free thinkers.