Love as a totalitarian institution in Lanthimos’s “The Lobster”
Lanthimos’ 2015 film, “The Lobster” depicts a dystopian society in which one ought to find their mate in a span of 45 days or meet the consequence of being turned into an animal of their choice for the rest of their living years. However, the movie does more than just this. “The Lobster” is an attempt to open up a discourse about one of the oldest emotions with regard to humanity: love. The commentary does not limit itself to how and why one should fall in love with another person and choose them as a partner but goes beyond these notions, in actuality, to counter the process of institutionalization of a human emotion. The movie represents love, not through the usually romanticized angle, but through the point of view of what it actually is made to become in today’s reality. The element of dystopia, ironically emerges into the movie, through the depiction of the reality that is actually being lived under the farce of normalcy. The movie refuses to be subtle in its arguments, It elevates the dystopian nature of love and society, by presenting a commentary on that which normalcy today condones, and stretching the other end of what could just as easily be normative, to extremism. It is a dark satirical commentary on the nature of the need for societal intervention in the innermost and innate emotions with regard to human existence and how it gradually dictates the expression, feeling and even the practice of such an emotion, by transforming it into something other than itself: transforming it into an institution.
“The Lobster” establishes the institutionalized character of love from the very beginning. In the aftermath of his breakup, David checks into a facility that is designed for single people to find a mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choice. There is no representation of any unusual elements around this act, it is the norm, it is the rule of this society. David moves into this facility almost as if it is the next obvious step. The mechanical nature of this progression is what introduces the dystopian character of this society. The automated lifestyle and the automated following of the same are used to emphasize and introduce the new normal. There is a strong emphasis on the immediacy of finding a mate or a partner after turning single that is indicative of the rules of this dystopian setting. The most important one: couples are privileged and preferred. The institutionalization of love is made apparent through the layers that unravel throughout the movie, for instance, the time limit given to single people within which they are allowed to find a partner. It is also seen in the fanatic emphasis on the element of compatibility between two people. The commentary turns twisted when we see David trying to be cruel and heartless as to become compatible with the heartless woman, out of sheer haste and ironically, not love at all. The limping man strikes himself every day, making his nose bleed, in order to become compatible with the girl who gets nosebleeds. Lanthimos’ emphasis on the process of ‘becoming’ compatible with people and the lack of the actuality of being compatible innately is a strong comment on the normative aspects of the institution of love in our reality. The characters’ fanaticism on being similar, on being like each other, or having things in common, and creating a relationship on the basis of these aspects is not only an attempt to highlight the fickle nature of institutionalized love but is also a comment on the very process of institutionalization of love. Love, which was once an emotion, has now transcended into the sphere of governance. It is the law, and it is outside the law to be unloved. Love ascribes a regulatory essence and becomes a tool of control and organization.
It is the facility that has autonomy over what can constitute as love and what cannot. There is no space for ambiguity, everything is predefined. It is made evident that the space is only available and accustomed to heterosexual people. The receptionist informs David, upon his arrival that homosexual relationships and partnerships have caused confusion and hence that option is not available. Everything is controlled and ruled out. In order to further heighten the immediacy of finding a partner and make single people make haste into the process, they are not allowed to masturbate. Masturbation is treated as a punishable offense. Sexual compatibility is tested, very much like a health examination. In the scene in which the girl who is part of the staff of the facility grinds against David in order to check how sexually compatible and active he can be, is not only cruel because the single people are not allowed to pleasure themselves, but also because when they are granted this fleeting sense of eroticism, it is taken away from them on the basis of the fact that it is merely an examination of sorts. The facility takes the face of a prison, in its own way, and this element becomes a comment on the institution of love and the normalization of such an institution. It is a discursive argumentative stance on the processes that societal normative standards concretize, and appropriate and how that which falls outside the pre-decided patterns of normative is simply ostracised. In this case, single people are ostracized through extremism, which does not allow them to retain their human form. They are made to transform into an animal of their choice, almost as if positing the idea that being single is animalistic and uncivilized.
The movie brings out aspects of cruelty with regard to the institution of love, and the violence that the subjects of society inflict on themselves and others to attain love. The compulsion that is present in the process of procuring love, and the deep-rooted sense of self in this procurement highlights something very close to our normative societal-structure with regard to love. The lengths people go to in order to remain in a relationship, to base happiness and a sense of fulfillment on the fact that they are not single and alone, terms that become interchangeable over time, is one dimension of the aspect of cruelty we inflict upon ourselves in the name of love. It is one of the darkest elements of irony in the movie that a society that highlights the absolutist idea of finding a partner and falling in love with them, is completely devoid of emotion. From the very beginning, David is seen as someone inexpressive when it comes to his breakup, he does not show or perhaps even feel sadness for it. The exchanges between the people who claim to be in love at the facility are very much transactional, almost as if everyone wants to be with each other merely out of the fear of being outcast. The only time we see David’s emotional burst is when the heartless woman kills his dog. On his failed attempt to conceal his pain, he begins to cry. This instance is rather interesting by virtue of the object of these emotions: an animal. The only raw emotion of affection in the movie is directed towards David’s dog. Every other expression of affection or establishment of a connection is solely based on the transaction between the two people: the transaction that neither of them are alone and hence won’t be turned into animals. That seems to be enough for the people in this society: being not alone. Single lives are dispensable and those that are situated in the space of the forest are used as currency to extend the span of the people’s stay in the facility. The more people you shoot on the hunting trips, the more days you are granted to find yourself a partner.
The movie depicts love as a totalitarian absolutism. It is not about finding love, the process of finding a partner, in actuality is about survival. This demented Darwinistic commentary in actuality, comments on the aspect of the absence of conventional legal systems in order for totalitarianism to prevail. It seems as though Lanthimos is trying to highlight the ever-present fascistic nature of subtle institutions such as love and marriage, that find legitimacy in the confines of their prescribed behavioral and social scripts, might as well be a type of fascism that can blow up to the extremes. Love that is propaganda today, with the underlying purposiveness of surplus-value, in various industries such as films, music, advertisements, etc are nothing but forms of dictum, appropriating a list of behaviors and rejecting another. The difference between David’s reality and ours is a blurred line. If one fails to survive, they are reduced to the being of an animal, who is allowed to remain alone. Lanthimos’s brilliance is in the unearthing of the cruelty present in the normalcy of our reality which is not very far away from this dystopian world of absolutist compulsive partnership. The attempts to become right for each other, altering the self in order to fit into the category of compatible for the partner of your choice, is also a type of cruelty.
David’s escape into the woods is merely an uprooting of himself from one institution into another. Here in the forest, the band of humans he meets categorize themselves as “Loners” and they are free. However, freedom is also institutionalized in the movie, much like love. There are rules in the forest, just as there are rules in the facility. This utter automatization of simpler aspects of normalcy like love and freedom of existence on one’s own terms is taken by Lanthimos and made into institutions in order to open a discourse around that which can easily be looked at, as beyond governance, but through the movie, Lanthimos asks the question of whether governance is necessary for a predigested totalitarian form of existence to prevail. The purest of emotions like love becomes the darkest of realities when it turns into a system. A system that clearly maps out behavioral patterns. The forest then becomes another totalitarian institution where love is forbidden.
It is as ironic as it is satirical that David finds companionship in the forest and now has to survive by hiding it. Love is now a punishable offense, like being single once was in another spatial context. Lanthimos’ does not rest with his film until he has dismantled every little aspect of institutionalization. He adapts the narrative that he creates and takes to an extreme end that which he notices in his own reality: the propaganda around love, the commodification of love through days like Valentine’s day and the compulsive need to celebrate it in particular pre-decided patterns practiced into normalcy, and most importantly, a system that dictates how to love. The irony of the entire social structure that is based on this absolutism of partnership and love is that it is entirely and utterly loveless.