Imagine a surreal dystopia where being in a relationship is the difference between life and death. In Lanthimos’ world, it is not being gay or straight that matters most, or defines whether a person should be segregated from mainstream society as we find in some contemporary cultures; but whether a person has a partner or is alone.
The story takes place in an unnamed land, where recently uncoupled Colin Farell finds himself shipped off to a strange hotel in the middle of nowhere, and given 45 days to find a mate. The Hotel, run by Olivia Colman and her partner (whose defining, matching characteristic is a beautiful singing voice) is a halfway house for singletons, which can end in one of two ways. Every ‘guest’ has an allotted time to match with another, and must check out before their time runs out to avoid being turned into an animal. (Anyone still wondering what the title is about?)
In a vaguely sympathetic attempt to offer guests more time, the hotel takes its inmates out on hunts in the nearby forest, which has been colonised by a subculture of ‘loners’; identifiable by their green and navy rain ponchos. For every loner a guest shoots with their tranquilliser gun, they get one more day in the hotel (or one more day away from the mysterious Transformation Room, depending on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty type of person).
In this world, finding a partner becomes the be all and end all of each estranged individual’s existence, and the film raises many questions as to whether emotions - love, loss, loneliness - can be real in this strangely combative environment, or are just societal impositions.
This conundrum is played out in many ways; are the loners rebelling against the system because they refuse to choose a partner to please the establishment, or are they protecting themselves from ever feeling a connection to another person, because of loved ones they have lost?
Are the couples in the hotel’s attempts at relationships out of fear of what might happen if they don’t find love, or are they motivated by a deeper, more primal human instinct to ally with another person for survival?
Can anyone in this hellish universe really claim to have found “the one” and do they know what that really means? This last question is a biggie it seems, as Lanthimos is keen to highlight throughout the narrative that couples’ relationships are largely based on those “defining characteristics”, such as a limp or chronic nosebleeds. These trivial, tenuous similarities keep otherwise incompatible couples afloat and most importantly - away from their bestial afterlives. But how trivial are they really? Lanthimos highlights something that is not so far from the superficial way we today choose to swipe left or right on a dating app based on a person's appearance.
And what of those relationships outside of The Hotel? In The City, where those that survive are then sent, do their partnerships stand the test of time, or are all doomed to return to the ill fated Hotel once more? In a land of mistrust, where police officers have the right to interrogate anyone walking alone, and having a mate separates you from the rebels, there is a strong feeling of surveillance and suspicion looming over each and every so-called happy marriage.
The Lobster is now showing at FACT. Click here to book tickets.