Dissecting The Lobster
James Napoli explores the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Lobster, and reveals its surprisingly traditional elements.
Note that this article about The Lobster contains major plot spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film yet, we recommend that you watch it first, then return to this article!
What makes a screenplay non-traditional?
The parameters for such a distinction can be as simple as putting more effort into character development than your average superhero movie does, or as complex as leaving an audience to puzzle over a screenplay’s meaning, and indeed whether or not it had any meaning at all.
Not that the latter category is included as a condemnation, either. David Lynch, modern cinema’s granddaddy of the obtuse, often creates dreamlike landscapes of pure feeling that defy analysis yet get under our skin like, well, the very dreams his work seem rooted in. As such, what Mulholland Drive, recently named the Best Movie of the 21st Century so far by BBC Culture “means” is scarcely the point. So perhaps an elusive meaning is another hallmark of something more aggressively non-traditional than other independent minded work.
At first glance, Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthimis Filippou’s screenplay for The Lobster bears the hallmarks of a film project that is about as aggressively non-traditional as one can get. For shock value alone, it features the murder of a dog, a couple whom we learn had their lips cut with razor blades, and, in its final, unnerving image, a man who may be about to blind himself with a steak knife.
Some films would use such blood-curdling moments as a lazy shorthand for edgy independence. This is an easy pitfall for screenwriters to fall into: the idea that “if I pointedly include something repulsive, it means I’m hard core.” The Lobster, on the other hand, makes sure that each of these shudder-inducing ideas has a place in the structure and flow of what turns out to be an incredibly well-crafted story.
The Lobster is not a traditional film. But it does rely on a deceptive amount of traditional structural techniques to achieve the utter weirdness that underlies its premise–and its deadpan, matter-of-fact vision of a truly nightmarish alternative, dystopian milieu.
The premise is science fiction, and, like all good science fiction (at least the kind with its influence gleaned from the genre’s literary roots), it turns a jaundiced eye onto our supposed progress as a society.
Science fiction is a unique movie genre, in that it is often more about the concept than about a traditional character arc. And because the concepts are often so mind-bending, they are able to bear the weight of audience connection in a way that a straight drama cannot achieve without relying on something more, yes, traditional, in terms of the growth and change of its characters.
Sure, Deckard has to confront certain truths about who he is in Blade Runner. But it is the notion of the replicants, and of the dauntingly corporate-fueled society that wants them destroyed, that remain with us at story’s end.
Similarly, while it is tempting to label The Lobster a character study, its characters’ story arcs really serve only to bear the weight of the story’s allegorical elements, and generally avoid leading to any new-found inner understanding.
Indeed, if such a resolution were to occur in a morality tale such as this, an audience would process the story’s meaning through what the hero was able to inwardly do, instead of coming away contemplating the implications of the world to which they have just borne witness.
And that startlingly original world, as devised by Lanthimos and Filippou, is one that makes an achingly eloquent commentary on our society’s mania for companionship, and the stigma put on those who do not fit into the expectations of coupledom.
In The Lobster, David (played by Colin Farrell) is single again, having found out his mate of almost twelve years has been unfaithful. This immediately places him in a strange, coolly clinical hotel-like institution, in which residents have a fixed amount of time (45 days) to meet another suitable mate, or be turned into an animal of their choice. David wants to be a lobster if he doesn’t make it, hence the title.
One of the reasons the screenplay is so effective is that it keeps exploring the ramifications of this premise. With its dead-on satire of our often crippling fear of being without a mate, the screenplay might well have rested on the laurels of this thought-provoking idea alone. But it is here, within the “rules” of the script’s meticulous world-building, that the authors’ innate sense of solid story progression takes wing—right in the midst of the weirdness.
Indeed, each additional piece of information about the operations of The Lobster’s hotel and spa provide jumping-off points for key plot developments. Even as the stilted nature of the tone seems to be carrying the day (and providing the permeating sense of utter non-traditionalism), this is a screenplay with an exemplary approach to rising action that can stand as a textbook case of raising the stakes alongside a run-for-your-life thriller.
Two of the first things we learn about The Lobster’s world are:
- Some people escape from the institution and live in the woods—residents can attain points by hunting these “Loners” down with tranquilizer guns and returning them to the hotel; and
- Humans have reached a point of superficiality in society wherein their criteria for a perfect life companion is based on the most surface-level similarities. Never mind worldview, political stance or spirituality: if you are, like your potential mate, prone to nosebleeds, have a limp or are nearsighted, that’s chemistry. (This kind of resigned stance on the meaninglessness of the connections in a society hell-bent on hooking people up, is the biggest source of the script’s hysterically unsettling humor.)
These details about how The Lobster’s society functions are essential to what “happens” in the scene-by-scene work of the script.
First to find love is “Limping Man” (Ben Whishaw), who smashes his own face in in order to induce the nosebleeds he will need to court the young woman who actually has nosebleeds (Jessica Barden). This ruse not only pays off in a wonderfully unexpected way at the start of the third act, when David joins the loners to raid the hotel and expose Ben’s fraud, but prefigures David himself going through a similar set of circumstances, which in turn form the building blocks for more twists and turns in the story.
David attempts to mate with “Heartless Woman” (Angeliki Papoulia) by pretending to be heartless himself, but is exposed when she kills his dog (David’s brother, who was transformed after he failed to find a mate himself). She outs him as feeling badly about the loss. This leads to the hotel maid (Ariane Labed) taking pity on David, and helping him take revenge on The Heartless Woman then flee to the rebel underground of Loners. There David meets Shortsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), who, like him is nearsighted, prompting both of them to realize it’s a match made in heaven.
The fact that Shortsighted Woman does not enter the story until more than halfway through could be considered another broken screenplay rule that makes The Lobster non-traditional. But the writers have anticipated this by assigning to her the role of narrator. Her occasional observations about what is going on with David are a feature throughout the film, and so in a sense she has been in the story from the beginning.
But even if the late appearance of Shortsighted Woman might be seen as an unorthodox use of a supporting character, she is arrived at so elegantly and is so connected by the events that came before, that her arrival, and the arrival of the entirely new society of forest-dwelling Loners (with its own set of rules that will propel the story further) hits us with an exciting shot of storytelling adrenaline. Yes, we had reference to these Loners in an earlier scene in which the hotel residents hunted them, but we were not expecting them to become the second act!
In the Loner’s society, the group’s leader (Lea Seydoux) has decided that no Loners are allowed to be in any way physically intimate. Punishments for developing Loner romances are not pretty (razor-bladed lips among them).
This ingenious shadow-premise puts the budding relationship between David and Shortsighted Woman into sharp relief, and forces them to hide their feelings from the rebel encampment.
This leads to heightened tension during the rebels’ undercover visits to the City, when David and Shortsighted Woman are required to pretend to be a couple. The City provides the final piece of the world-building puzzle, and in one economical moment, where David is stopped by a policeman at a shopping mall and ordered to produce papers proving he is part of a couple, the film tells us all we need to know about what the Loners are fighting against.
When the Loners finally discover the romance in their midst, they blind Shortsighted Woman, removing her surface-level connection with David and paying off the premise in a frightening way: without the superficial similarity of nearsightedness, the couple has no foundation.
David searches in vain for other small commonalities that might make their union viable, but with no success. And this culminates in the story’s final did-he-or-didn’t-he moment, as David debates whether or not to blind himself.
Whether he does or not is scarcely the point. The questions that the film asks of us is how did the people in the story get to this point, and how close are we to joining them?
Which brings us to perhaps the screenplay’s most non-traditional and, in the context of how finessed the plotline is afterwards, vexing moment: its prologue.
In this scene, an unidentified woman steps out of her car in the rain and shoots a donkey dead in a field. Who is this woman? Who was the person who became the donkey and what did he or she mean to her?
Although David’s brother, the dog, meets an untimely end later in the tale, we really have no precedent for what looks like a crime of passion visited upon one of the animals. The moment is enigmatic, and, perhaps more so than any of the rest of the story to follow, marks out The Lobster as unconventional in its approach.
When a work is so carefully thought-out as The Lobster, it certainly bears not only plenty of “what did it all mean?” discussion afterwards, but invites scrutiny into its construction.
To that end, it is worth mentioning that the first words spoken in the script are “I’m really sorry” (David’s wife admitting to her affair with another nearsighted man), and the last words spoken in the script are “Thank you very much” (Shortsighted Woman acknowledging the waiter in the diner).
Though the effect is ephemeral, these two phrases seem entirely emblematic of relationships, polite society and the ultimate emptiness of words. A fitting piece of symbolism in a screenplay about the utter ridiculousness of our insatiable need to fit in, and, by so doing, find a partner, whether or not they are in fact suitable.
Featured image: Colin Farrell as David and Rachel Weisz as Short Sighted Woman in The Lobster. Photo by Despina Spyrou