Author: Gianna Papapavlou
Architect Engineer, NTUA
Translator: Eleni Leontidou
PhD candidate, Univ. of Cambridge
“What mysterious force or mind-altering substance could compel an entire population into such total social integration without them even noticing it happening, or uttering the tiniest peep of protest? What if it could be accomplished through love?“
The failure to find a significant other constitutes a serious offence in the cynical world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, “Lobster’”. All single individuals are gathered together and transferred to a secluded hotel, where they only have 45 days to find a match, or else they will be transformed into an animal of their choice.
In order to ensure the success of the operation, the hotel management resorts to teaching rigorous seminar courses on the benefits of monogamy. Behaviours that are not considered to be compliant with the ultimate objective of “mating”, masturbation for instance, are punished.
On the opposite side of the “totalitarian” hotel, there is the “anarchist” lifestyle of the Loners. They live freely in nature, like in a herd, but, in their ranks, companionship cannot be expressed through sexual acts. Masturbation is legitimate, being a solitary act, while flirting, kissing and having sexual intercourse are criminalized.
Although the two “legal systems” are diametrically opposed, they are in both cases so extreme in their application that, in the end, they lead to the same condition: the death of desire, attraction, infatuation and love.
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Philippou examine the idea of marriage as a social construct, through an original and inventive script, which reflects on contemporary society.
The hotel in the film is an institution which functions on the basis of a ritualized programme and which requires obedience to the authority of the hotel management. The selection of the partner is based on eligibility criteria which are quite superficial. For example, a perceived defect that characterizes both persons, like a lisp or a nose that breaks easily, is sufficient proof of compatibility. Finding a partner is a tough and awkward task, as it is restricted by deadlines and requires a choice from a narrow pool sample of people: the capacity of the banquet hall in which these meetings are organized.
The product of these meetings are the new couples. If the management of the hotel gives them their approval, then they pass to the next compatibility test, which involves a two-week long isolation period on a boat. If they pass this test, then they constitute a socially acceptable couple which may continue its life in the city.
For most, these conditions may be considered far-fetched, but modern social theory regarding marriage in the modern Western world, raises issues that, frighteningly enough, correspond to issues raised through the dystopic vision of Philippou and Lanthimos.
Laura Kipnis in her book “Against Love: A Polemic” explains that our perception of love is shaped by beliefs that are promoted by Western society, where work and love are concepts intertwined and frequently talked about with the use of similar rhetoric. “When monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organised contractually (…) is this really what we mean by a ‘good relationship’?” (1) asks Kipnis, who believes that marriage in Western society has become almost mechanical that does not differ from a machine.
“Dead marriages, mechanical sex, cold husbands, and frigid wives, all going through the motions and keeping up appearances” (2), are expressions and words that characterise the contemporary married life as well as the acting idiom of the actors in the film.
Regarding the choice of partner, Robert Winch speaks of a companion sorting system, which is influenced by social norms. He coined the term “field of eligible spouse candidates” (3) to describe the range of people with whom we are “permitted” to fall in love. The processes through which societal pressures affect the choice of a partner are very similar to those depicted in the film: societies “reward people who follow the norm and punish those who deviate”, “arrange meetings between people who are judged to be suitable romantic partners” and “only after people pass through this social screening and choose a suitable partner from the field of eligibles can falling-in-love take place” (4).
In Lanthimos’ film the pursuit of sexual companionship becomes a matter of life and death. It is elevated to a matter of survival, comparable to that of foraging. The process of hunting is represented with extreme brutality in a magnificent scene in the forest: there, singles chase the “loners” who, if caught, become their loot and their trophies in order for them to prolong their life and their residency in the hotel.
The struggle for survival under these circumstances takes up so much of their lives that it basically occupies their mind completely, absorbing any thought that deviates. One can say that this “love propaganda” is a tactic utilised from the shadowy hotel management as a diversion in order to submit the individuals and keep them from thinking about other major issues.
Kipnis believes that modern societal norms enforce the creation of a similar condition. Individuals are preoccupied by so much work on both career and marriage, that it is required from them to constantly coexist in an “enclosed space for extended periods of time: in other words, domesticity. Domesticity will clearly require substantial quantities of compromise, flexibility, and adaptation simply to avoid mayhem” (5).
The hotel – institution depicted in the film constitutes a therapeutic tool of normalization for those who do not comply with the norms, or who are considered to be wrong or different. Kipnis calls the practice of “psychotherapy” a process that leads to conformity in modern society. She addresses this dismissive kind of psychotherapy, where, in case you are not satisfied with your work at your job or your work on your relationship then “you’re just going to have to ‘work harder on yourself’” (6).
Perhaps marriage structured under the aforementioned conditions could constitute the early stage of a larger social compliance? “What mysterious force or mind-altering substance could compel an entire population into such total social integration without them even noticing it happening, or uttering the tiniest peep of protest? What if it could be accomplished through love?” (7).
The exception to this rule is the existence of a forbidden love. In the film, lovers that belong with the Loners should keep their attraction hidden because a kiss is punished with the tearing of the lips, while intercourse with the tearing of the genitals. In Papua New Guinea, a culture more remote and ‘unregulated’ compared to the Western ones, “men often run to the river to slice their penis with a bamboo knife to let the contaminated blood flow from their body after a sexual experience” (8). In this community the ‘making’ of love is considered something that is sick and forbidden.
The film presents the development of strategies in order to conceal the desire for physical contact; for example illicit lovers use coded signals to communicate with one another. Such practices are used by some couples in Iran, where the physical expression of eroticism is frowned upon. Therefore, they find refuge in the Internet, which, although it is censored and closely monitored by the government, constitutes the space where couples develop their own language, physical and dialectical. “The emotions as the main substance of love relations can be conveyed by the body (or its physical contacts) and represented through language. The representations of body, its movements and gestures, are strong means of interaction between feelings, emotions, attitudes, sexual identities and human rights in various discourses of love. Moreover, language is one of the main ways that people represent their bodies” (9).
In the film, the forbidden love is punished with the blinding of the girl by the Leader of the Loners. However, the couple escapes and joins a revolutionary and anti-authoritarian movement in order to confirm their autonomy. According to Delouse, “the process of (sexual) desiring is not confined to being a personal politics because it does not enact itself in isolation; this is so not even simply because it desires (an)other, but because it involves an entire set of social codes in its process of (re)construction” (10).
But alas, Lanthimos was never particularly optimistic in his films. The couple was institutionalized for so long and with such lasting effect that they ultimately cannot refute the received social norms. They follow the rule of the identical defect that should render them a compatible couple. The man’s willful self- blinding confirms their tragic ignorance and their inability to challenge the norms and the hard-shelled love in which they are imprisoned.
- Kipnis L., (2003). “Against Love: A Polemic”. New York, Pantheon Books, p.19
2. U.s., p.21
3. Pines, A.M., (2005). “Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose”. New York, Routledge, p.75
5. Kipnis L., (2003). “Against Love: A Polemic”. New York, Pantheon Books, p.74
6. U.s., p.31
7. Mead R., (2003, August 11). “Love’s Labors: Monogamy, Marriages and other Menaces.” Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/08/11/loves-labors-2
8. Jankowiak W.R., (2008). “Intimacies: Love and sex across cultures”. Columbia University Press, p.2
9. Jabarooty M.P., (2013). “From veiled to unveiled: a look at discursive representation of body in iranian love blogs” in “Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-First Century”, ed. Ferguson A., Jonasdottir A. New York, Rutledge, p.220
10. Bose B., (1998) “In desire and in death: Erotiscism as politics in Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’” in “ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, Volume 29, issue 2”, University of Calgary, p.66