The Lobster: Authoritarian Body Horror

How exactly do you feel about housecats killing birds? Is this fine by you, or are you ardently opposed? And, if a train were hurtling toward a bus stuck on the tracks with seventeen people trapped inside, and you had control of a lever that would divert this train onto an alternate rail, this one containing a single member of your family stuck on the track, would you do nothing or divert it? Apparently, based on my answers, if and when fortune turns its back on me, my choices are three: owl, lion, or deer. A lion would be the obvious choice, right—“king of the jungle: enough said.” Deer on the other hand, are “usually shy and sensitive”; that’s intriguing. Yet, they are known to “become very aggressive when they are horny and can be found violently thrashing their antlers on undeserving trees”—not very becoming. If I end up alone, I’ll be an owl: “Wise and inquisitive, owls like to stretch, preen and get good views of things. They have an amazing 270 degree range of head rotation and are monogamous (but do get divorced).” What animal will you be when you end up alone?

In the movies, animal transformation is the stuff of nightmares. It’s pure, allegorically-rich body horror through and through. These are exercises in the return of the repressed. Deviant identity manifests in a transformed body. It’s often violent and stomach-churning as deep urges lying in wait manifest physically, turning fragile bodies inside-out. It sets up a dichotomy between civilized, human society and the primordial world. These worlds coexist side-by-side but can never coalesce. We maintain a symbiosis with the animal world, but when these creatures elude our control, they become threatening. The proverbial “Other,” psychoanalyticly speaking, “the monster,” such as it is—though, perspective is key—is suppressed: that which society cannot accept and therefore must tamp or annihilate.

In the dystopian near-future of The Lobster, the newly-single—detritus of the world by course of fate or maladaptive antisocial personality malady—have 45 days to secure a mate. If they run through the stilted banquets, human-hunts, shame-therapy, one-act plays, and the like, and fail to fall in love, the tenants-cum-prisoners are turned into an animal of their choosing. The mechanisms that keep animal instincts and urges under control—basic repression—and a culture’s censorship—surplus repression—are likewise thrown out of whack in The Lobster, the latest by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos to burn through the independent scene in the States. Though, this flick’s metaphor amalgamation is on its head. In The Lobster, animal metamorphosis is State-mandated, and ironically, it is imposed when humans fail to fulfill their biological, “natural” function. Fascinatingly, this inverts the whole monster-mash genre. The state is Dr. Frankenstein, but the monsters, such as they are, are just normal critters. Eyed transitively, humans are the threat, and the beasts are the subdued populace, former people fully discarded.

Humans have an innate God-complex. Animals were made for our amusement and consumption, and we hold dominion over them in ways that run the gamut from cruel, to compassionate, to absurd. Humans reinforcing the delicate balance of the food chain is a pretty perverse exercise of totalitarian authority. It also throws choice into the gears of ecosystem equilibrium: More often than not, the condemned go exotic (wish-fulfillment) or safe (self-aware personality reinforcement)—the world is littered with flamingos, and peacocks, and camels, and an overwhelming number of dogs. Rarely is our hubris so literal; manifesting creatures and determining fate by slotting citizens into the pecking-order does have a certain ugly resonance. It’s a fitting conflation, like Animal Farm pulled back out of the looking-glass.

It’s easy to imagine The Lobster as a project that emerged from the rubble of a nasty split—not knowing if this is in fact its genesis. It follows a particularly linear line of human logic in the wake of disaffection: linear in the sense that it is traceable but inherently cricked. In response to institutional apathy: “Fuck love; it’s an archaic, prescribed institution!” The world is conspiring to keep social morays alive, even when they are patently unnatural and laborious—everyone else is finding happiness and companionship, even as the world crumbles; venturing forward feels impossible. The world is paralyzed, emotions are vestigial. So, unplug: reject it all and head into the wild. On the other hand, tossing the baby out with the bathwater proves equally ineffective and the pendulum swings. The wild is forbidding and restrictive, so reject its constrictions and work your way back into the civilized world. The film is split in twain, formulating: the only commonality is rebellion; it’s the core of humanity but it’s typically misguided and self-destructive. Any institution, bureaucracy, what have you, is made to be thwarted. All the while, identity becomes harder to square, and embrace of the artificial betrays the desperation that results from endless meaning-making and constant, untethered psychic agitation.

Like Cat People, there are rules guiding the transformations to-and-fro, and these are bound with sex and courtship. Some warped biological clock is ticking away. The bizarre rules and rituals are gradually unfurled, the viewer slowly acclimating to the alien world, setting up the stakes, and letting them linger, the absurdity coming to a slow boil. The doings at the hotel are regimented and precise. In some respects, so are the goings on in the surrounding forest—a bunch of poncho-wearing animals practicing evasive maneuvers with droll sight gags around each corner. All the social interactions are codified, stiff, artificial, controlled, and sanctioned—“a world of pure values, where every sentence is a declarative statement” (sounds vaguely familiar). Both Dogtooth and The Lobster employ reductio ad absurdum as dystopia—social conditioning, the inconsistencies in and limitations of language, and isolation are chopped into discrete units, a concentrated medley of abuse, myopia, and complacency. Fish bowl societies eat themselves from the inside-out. Both have spikes of humor and violence. There’s a sure-fire Gilliam referent to be had in here, I’m sure of it.

This is post-culture hollow, a civilization that so ardently constructs itself around a rigid conception of natural behavior that it loses a tether to the contours of the natural world. Maybe overtime we’ve gotten more subdued and submissive, and more prone to diametric opposition. Maybe this has made us inherently antisocial or asocial. Fostering intimate relationships and seeking out companionship is a near-universal drive, but at what point does it cross the line into prerequisite? At what point does it become so culturally bound and cordoned that it ceases to be organic? Of course, a society like this is nothing if not for the intricate web of shame—human connections derived through compatible frailty, physical imperfections. Survival-impaired, culture-damaged organisms go through the motions—that this proves comical is unsurprising, that the humor is coal black is inevitable. It’s like a Kubrickian post-human exercise in measured-maniacal cold-sweat theater. Emotions invariably express themselves as their opposite: It begins with a gruesome act that in retrospect doubles as tragic compassion; and it ends on the cusp of self-mutilation that triples as delusion and reverse-engineered empathy.

The joke is that the transformation into the titular crustaceous has already largely begun. They live on rocky, sandy, or muddy bottoms from the shoreline to beyond the edge of the continental shelf—bottom feeders, you might say. They generally live singly in crevices or in burrows under rocks. When they flee, they swim backward quickly by curling and uncurling their abdomens; this is known as the caridoid escape reaction. Lobsters are invertebrates with a hard protective exoskeleton—a defensive outer layer. Like most arthropods, lobsters must molt to grow, which leaves them vulnerable. New-shell lobsters have paper-thin shells and a worse meat-to-shell ratio, but the meat is very sweet. David’ body is itself presented as soft and exposed. Add in, his stiff back in need of salve—lobster anatomy includes the cephalothorax which fuses the head and the thorax. He is near-sighted, and he banks on this—in his fleeting compatibility with both his former wife and the “short-sighted” woman in the loner pack (our monotone narrator). Lobster eyes are distinctive, having a reflective structure above a convex retina. Extrapolate and stretch the metaphor as you wish: A lobster’s brain operates from not one but several ganglia and disabling only the frontal ganglion does not usually result in death; because lobsters live in murky environments at the bottom of the ocean, they mostly use their antennae as sensors; they’re omnivores and typically eat live prey; they scavenge if necessary, and are known to resort to cannibalism in captivity.

Becoming an anthropod gives him a shot at being able to regenerate, to stay virile and relevant, and to live a pleasant solo existence, in a way that contrasts his human life—which, particularly at this moment, is defined by vulnerability, heartache, decay, and an imminent demise. Point being: The divide between human and animal is paper-thin. “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use,” you might even say. At the same time, a hard divide is imposed from above—the disparity between the reality of the situation and the framework keeping it afloat is the main idea. We bury our dead, great. We can intellectualize our demise and our place. Maybe this only takes us so far; maybe the conclusions we reach aren’t as profound as we are led to believe. At some point, it’s just hollow ritual, conducted as a stab at symmetry. An odd byproduct-cum-paradox: Getting turned into an animal is a death sentence, a grim purgatory really; it also reinforces the importance of the animal kingdom and heightens compassion for it. They fight tooth-and-nail to avoid it, but all those creatures out there may have been human once, so they are intuited differently.

It’s like morbid reincarnation. That’s not just a dog and David’s only companion after being cuckolded; it’s his brother. That woman in the cold open isn’t taking out her colossal frustration on the donkey with a pistol; she’s more than likely putting a loved one out of their misery. The living world is littered with former-equals who underwent tragedy and heartache and lost the resolve and the support to move on, and were banished by society. Find a mate or suffer the consequences; it’s not unlike La Belle et la Bête drained of its romantic sweep and embracing the bleak undercurrents. Who’s free? The poncho-ed rogues, wired on electronica and celibacy? The well-to-do depressed, widowed, and discarded given a month-and-a-half chance to turn their lives around or tumble down the evolutionary ladder? Or, the exotic transformed that roam about unremarked upon? Sure, they are in inhospitable climes, and on a middle-rung of the food-chain. But isn’t ignorance bliss?

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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