The somehow not so far-fetched concept of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster centers on the love-oriented travails of David (Colin Farrell), a man whose wife falls out of love with him after twelve years, forcing him into the same hotel his brother, now a dog, had to go to in an attempt to find a mate as mandated by “the city.”
In this reality, not really so different from our own, “loners” are treated with the same regard as lepers, which is why it is the Hotel Manager’s (Olivia Colman, best known as Sophie from Peep Show) job to ensure that as many people who come to stay “in her care” for the allotted 45-day duration find a “suitable match” to prevent them from the psychological trauma that can result from transforming into an animal.
In David’s case, his desire to become a lobster if things don’t work out pleases the Hotel Manager, who has grown weary of everyone saying they want to become a dog. Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) and Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), the first friends David makes at the hotel, seem far more hopeful about the prospect of finding a match, while David possesses the sort of resignation that tends to befall someone who has been jilted by love. Still, he makes feeble attempts to flirt with the available women, including Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), a chronic nose bleeder.
Part of the daily rituals of the hotel guests include having sex with hotel staff members (without the benefit of orgasming) in order to stay in practice and going to the woods to hunt loners. For every loner captured, the hotel guest can buy an extra day to their stay, allowing more time to find a partner. The very real analogies presented in Lanthimos’ film highlight the discrimination and separation that exists between couples and singles, the latter category being looked at as pathetic scourges on the earth. One supposes this is why David finally gives in to the system by honing in on the sociopathic lady at the hotel, known as the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). By pretending to be as heartless as her (he ignores her when she mimes choking on an olive, which instantly attracts her attention), David tricks the Hotel Manager into thinking they’re a match, thereby securing a double room on the couples side of the hotel. But when the Heartless Woman starts suspecting he’s not really apathetic at all, she puts him to the test by kicking his dog/brother to death. When she catches David crying over it, she demands to take him to the Hotel Manager so he can receive the proper punishment of being turned into “the animal no one wants to be”–what this could be is entirely subjective.
As the film’s narrator, the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), is finally introduced around this point, David begins the second chapter of his journey after seeking refuge in the woods amid the loners. The Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) insists that David can stay as long as he likes with the sole caveat that he doesn’t exhibit any romantic or sexual preferences toward anyone. Relieved for a time of the burden of having to feel the pressure to “find a mate,” David starts to think that perhaps he was destined to be a loner. That is, until the Short Sighted Woman rescues him from being shot by the Lisping Man–on the hunt to secure more time at the hotel. The Short Sighted Woman asks David to catch her a rabbit in exchange, as it’s her favorite food to eat.
While the two grapple with the dangerous implications of falling in love in a colony for loners, they seize the opportunity to kiss and touch one another when the Loner Leader takes them to “the city” with her to visit her parents. “The city” is a place where only couples are allowed to live–those caught without a marriage certificate are arrested, as David nearly is when approached by an officer at the mall.
The Loner Leader begins to suspect David and the Short Sighted Woman of having a relationship, continuing her crusade against coupling and proving it’s a sham by infiltrating the hotel in the middle of the night and asking the Hotel Manager’s husband who he thinks would be able to live better on his own. When he insists it is he who could stand to live without her, the Loner Leader gives him the gun she’s holding and tells him to shoot the Hotel Manager. He pulls the trigger to discover the gun isn’t loaded. Thus, the Loner Leader iterates the point that so many people in this sham society are feigning the so-called happiness of being in love just to spare themselves the uncomfortableness of being ostracized.
But then, of course, there are David and the Short Sighted Woman, two people truly in love, which is a notion the Loner Leader despises. After they develop an elaborate code of signals and visual cues to communicate amorous thoughts to each other without being found out, the Loner Leader takes the Short Sighted Woman to an eye doctor under the guise of wanting to fix her short-sightedness. Reluctant to do so because this frailty bonds her further to David, who is also short sighted, the Short Sighted Woman is forced to go through with it so as not to arouse the suspicion of the Loner Leader. When the procedure is finished, the Short Sighted Woman finds she’s been blinded. Enraged, she tries to kill the Loner Leader but fails, and is then escorted back to the camp by her.
Embarrassed to confess her visual impairment to David, she at first tries to act as though nothing is different, soon after admitting what has happened and that they’ll have to stop “seeing” one another. Undeterred, David comes up with a plan which he tells the Short Sighted Woman about by describing it in the way they once would have communicated in code. After he buries the Loner Leader alive and leaves her face uncovered to be eaten by wild dogs, he takes the Short Sighted Woman away. It is now that he must go through with the decision to blind himself in order to be on the same level as his love.
While sitting at a restaurant with her, he asks for a fork and steak knife, which he then takes to the bathroom so he can gouge out his eyes. Standing there with the knife positioned toward his forehead, David seems to have some sort of epiphany. Lanthimos then cuts to the Short Sighted Woman patiently waiting for David to return. We are left wondering what it is David could have realized–was it that no love is worth weakening yourself for another or that becoming weaker is the price of love? Either way, David would end up being pierced in the head, just like a lobster.