No matter your relationship status, “The Lobster” can be frightening to watch if you take it too literally. So try to remember: As dark as it is, it’s a comedy.
The film creates a dystopian world where it’s illegal to be single. Unmarried people like “The Lobster’s” divorced protagonist, David (played by Colin Farrell), can check into a hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate. Those who fail to pair off are turned into an animal of their choosing, a fact that guests are grimly told “should not upset you or get you down.” David, who checks into the hotel accompanied by a dog (his brother who was unlucky in his own quest), chooses a lobster because of their long lifespans, their lifelong fertility and because David himself likes the sea. “A lobster is an excellent choice,” the hotel manager tells David, and his search begins.
I spoke with Yorgos Lanthimos, director and co-writer of “The Lobster,” about what the film says about singlehood, coupledom and the search for love. Our conversation is edited for clarity and length.
Bonos: I saw the film last week; it was really interesting. It was right after I went through a breakup.
Lanthimos: It must have been really interesting then.
Bonos: It was not great timing.
Lanthimos: You should rewatch it after a week.
Bonos: I should. How did you and your co-writer [Efthymis Filippou] get the idea for “The Lobster?”
Lanthimos: We make observations about the way we live and organize our lives — and structure our societies — so we wanted to do something about romantic relationships and how single people are treated within society. The pressure that is on them in order to be with someone and … the pressure that they put on themselves to be with someone. What we like to do is push those situations to extremes in order to reveal the absurdity behind them, behind things that we consider normal in our everyday life.
Bonos: When you think about the pressure that society puts on people to pair off and the pressure that people put on themselves — is one stronger than the other? Do they both feed into each other?
Lanthimos: You can’t really tell where it starts or what’s stronger than the other. I’m sure it’s different on different people, and according to their personalities, and how they grew up, and how they were educated, and what they’ve been through in their life. I think they’re very interconnected, and you don’t know where one stops and the other begins.
Bonos: You’re married to Ariane Labed, an actress who’s in “The Lobster.” Did either of you feel pressure to settle down? Is that something that you felt personally?
Lanthimos: All of us have been through relationships; there have been periods of time when we’ve been single. It’s something that everyone experiences. It’s a matter of making that observation and then start to ask questions about it: Why is it like that? And why do we feel that? And why are we organized this way? Isn’t there any other way? How is it possible to feel free within that? Is there true love and how can we identify it? How can we keep it and maintain it?
Bonos: Those are all interesting questions. Do you have any answers?
Lanthimos: Of course not. That’s why we’re making the film, to ask those questions. I think it’s interesting when people stop for a second and start to ask those questions and see if they have answers … or if it’s important for them to find them. Are we going to die searching, or are we going to find it at some point? I don’t know. But I think it’s important to question some things we take as granted.
Bonos: In the film, the division between single people at the hotel and couples is very stark — if you’re single, you can’t interact with the couples and vice versa. In real life, sometimes that separation between couples and singles is that obvious, and sometimes it’s more subtle. What are the less obvious divisions between singles and couples?
Lanthimos: There are variations in real life, and it’s not exactly as it was presented in our film. That was the point of our film, to have very stark divisions and rules in order for our parallel world to work.
Bonos: I understand that your co-writer for the screenplay is single. Did the two of you learn anything about the other’s perspective while working on the film?
Lanthimos: No, because [being single or coupled] is not a permanent state. We’ve all been through everything: We’ve been through relationships — short, long, good, bad. We’ve been single. We’ve been single in various stages of our lives, different ages. Now I’m married. It’s not one person’s opinion, and it’s not permanent. It’s not like someone who has a leg and someone who hasn’t a leg exchange their opinions about it.
Bonos: In “The Lobster,” people are paired off by “defining characteristic,” a physical or personality trait that they both share. I thought about how you and your wife both work in film. Would that be your defining characteristic?
Lanthimos: I guess that would qualify.
Bonos: The matching by defining characteristic: Is that a comment on how singles might be too single-minded in their search for a mate, that they’re looking for one specific thing?
Lanthimos: I think in general it speaks to superficiality — the ways we find to initially be attracted to someone … or why we would think we might be well off with someone. And the other reason is that it’s part of a structure, like we discussed before, that needs to be strict for the world of the film to work.
Bonos: In the film, there’s a lot of co-dependency between people who are in couples. I wondered: With you and your spouse working in the same industry, are there ways that you make efforts to maintain independent lives while in a couple?
Lanthimos: Yes, just by nature of what we do. We work in different countries, in different places; then we spend time together. It’s easy, in this way of life, to keep your independent spirit and, at the same time, to find strength in being with each other.