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‘The Lobster’ wrangles with conformity, individuality, personal power

“The Lobster” (2015 production, 2016 release). Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Léa Seydoux, Jessica Barden, Ashley Jensen, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Garry Mountaine, Anthony Dougall, Emma O’Shea, Michael Smiley. Director: Yorgos Lanthimos. Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou. Web site. Trailer.

Courting rituals in the 21st Century certainly aren’t what they used to be, but they could be a lot worse. What if being coupled were mandatory, regardless of one’s desire for it, putting pressure on singles to become partnered at all costs? To facilitate this, what if the unattached were encouraged to seek compatibility with others based on the most superficial of qualities? But what would the imposition of such conditions mean for issues like conformity, individuality and the employment of personal power? And, under such compulsory circumstances, what would it mean to love someone (if that were even possible)? Those are just some of the questions raised in the new offbeat, thought-provoking comedy-drama, “The Lobster.”

When a middle-aged architect (Colin Farrell) suddenly finds himself single, he’s whisked off to a special “hotel” where he’s given 45 days to find a new mate from among the other guests. The circumstances are far from ideal, mainly because the guests are largely dispassionate, mechanically going through the motions of dating, looking for anything to latch onto that might hint at potential instant compatibility. Singles who mutually possess seemingly insignificant traits, like walking with a limp (Ben Whishaw), an affinity for breakfast biscuits (Ashley Jensen), lisping (John C. Reilly) or being prone to spontaneous nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), gleefully view these mundane attributes as possible foundations for romantic kismet.

Finding that amorous magic is important, too, considering that the price of failure is being turned into an animal (of the guest’s choice, of course). The thinking is that, if people can’t find love as humans, then they’ll at least have an opportunity to do so in a new set of skin. And, from the film’s title, viewers can probably guess which animal the architect has chosen for himself should he fail in his mating quest.

If all that weren’t bad enough, hotel guests must be particularly careful not to do anything that smacks of individuality for fear of being labeled “loners,” relationship scofflaws who militantly lead lives on their own in the wilds of nature but who also run the risk of being hunted down (literally) for their antisocial lifestyle. Guests who engage in even the simplest expressions of individuality, like acts of self-love, risk harsh reprimands for such heinous crimes, their punishments coldly and methodically doled out by the hotel’s staff, including the facility’s icy manager (Olivia Colman) and her perfunctory minions (Ariane Labed, Garry Mountaine, Anthony Dougall).

With his days running short and his prospects of finding a mate dwindling, the architect desperately attempts coupling with a woman who has a reputation for being heartless (Angeliki Papoulia). But, when that doomed arrangement doesn’t work out, he makes his escape from the hotel, finding his way to a loosely organized community of loners who live in the nearby woods. Once there, however, he finds life among these radical individualists almost as dogmatic as what he fled, with community members forced into obeying the dictates of the group’s Napoleonic leader (Léa Seydoux). Anything that even remotely hints at being coupled is severely punished, a circumstance that becomes quite problematic for the architect when he meets a fellow loner who proves to be a genuine romantic interest (Rachel Weisz). In attempting to navigate these two polarized worlds, he’s increasingly faced with a dilemma of “damned if you do, and damned if you do.”

As we seek our place in the world, one of the fundamental issues we often face concerns the question of conformity versus individuality. When do we assert one of these notions over the other? Is one of them inherently preferable? Or is a well-considered balance of the two what we should strive for? And, if so, how do we achieve that? As in any undertaking we tackle in life, it comes down to our beliefs, the foundation of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience.

Conformity and individuality are clearly put on trial in this film, but each definitely has its place. Conformity, for example, is integral to the smooth functioning of an organized, mutually beneficial society. When it incorporates elements and calls for behaviors that are reasonable, most will concur that conformity is a worthwhile proposition. Indeed, there’s much to be said for an agreeably conceived, harmoniously functioning co-created mass materialization such as this.

But how far should we take it? At what point does the push for conformity become overly intrusive? What happens to concepts like choice, free will and personal liberty? Pressuring individuals to follow spurious rules – especially those set down by a select few for the alleged benefit of the many – can have seriously deleterious effects, a variety of which are depicted here: social tyranny, capitulation and apathy, as well as the contrary responses they sometimes spawn, such as rebelliousness, violence and even anarchy.

Individuality, by contrast, is what makes each of us who we are, what distinguishes each of us as readily identifiable beings. It plays a huge role in personal satisfaction and fulfillment, even what makes life worth living. When tempered by such considerations as concern for others, respect of individual sovereignty and the well-being of the collective, it enables meaningful self-expression while protecting the welfare of the masses.

But, again, how far should we take it? When does the push for unrestrained individuality undercut the mutual concerns of the group? What happens to notions like cooperation, social harmony and joint ventures? Unreasonably imposing the wants of the individual on the concordance of the collective threatens to derail the efficient functioning of such well-crafted co-creations. When allowed to get out of hand, it can lead to the rise of self-centeredness, a lack of concern for others and callousness, which, in turn, can provoke chaos and discord, qualities that can subsequently prompt such overwrought reactions as intolerance, oppression and despotism in an effort to get things back on track.

So what’s the answer? This is where striking a balance comes into play. But that won’t happen unless carefully considered beliefs supporting it are put into place. And, given that a mutually acceptable solution requires the belief input of the masses, everyone involved must cooperate to reach the necessary concurrence.

“The Lobster” aptly illustrates what happens when that balance is lost and matters get out of hand on both ends of the spectrum. The hotel guests, for instance, have generally bought into conformity without reservation: They’ve gone along with the mandatory partnering requirement, embraced the rules, sanctions and trappings of the hotel (right down to the unimaginative, outdated, standardized clothing supplied to them), and willingly subjected themselves to the transformation process for failure to find a mate. They barely even identify with their own names, instead recognizing one another by their distinguishing physical traits, personal habits or behavioral quirks. In many ways, they’re barely a cut above walking zombies (only without the cravings for human flesh).

The loners, by comparison, have embraced individuality to such an extent that they rarely care about anyone else except when their dogma is being violated. Their acts of defiance against socially sanctioned partnering have led to narcissism on steroids. Self-preservation and self-service are paramount in virtually everything they do. Loners are even free to masturbate whenever and wherever they want, but they don’t dare consider intercourse out of fear of an unimaginable punishment for such an unthinkable transgression. They’re walking embodiments of self-importance and conceit, unconcerned with the needs and welfare of others except for what it gets them in the end.

The architect, meanwhile, sees each community for what it is and does whatever he can to mitigate their respective pitfalls. His escape from the hotel shows his disdain for mainstream society, while his pursuit of romance with a fellow loner reflects his rejection of the individualists’ manifesto. He thus seeks to strike his own form of balance in the face of the oppressive conditions confronting him from both sides. He accomplishes this by employing manifesting beliefs that make it possible, specifically those associated with asserting his personal power. He rejects the nanny state run amok imposed by mainstream society and the dictates of the self-absorbed anarchists who surround him. He has managed to retain a semblance of self-awareness that others in both camps have abandoned, forgotten or lost sight of. His existence may not be an easy one, but at least it’s one where he calls the shots. He stays true to his own self and his own brand of personal integrity to stay afloat.

The empowerment the architect exercises serves as an inspiring example to anyone who needs to find or to rediscover this capability, one of our basic birthrights. That’s important, because it carries implications related to such matters as our power of choice and our ability to change, fundamental elements that factor into the healthy functioning of the conscious creation process. His peers in both camps no longer make use of this ability, because they’ve allowed themselves to be dumbed down and/or numbed by their circumstances, which, in turn, has prompted them to forsake this personal attribute (and even to formulate the beliefs required to make use of it). The hotel guests in particular have abrogated their awareness and deployment of this trait to such a degree that they diligently attend (and blindly heed the advice of) ludicrously simplistic workshops heralding the benefits of being coupled versus being single (sessions laughably similar to those depicted in the over-the-top comedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999) in which gay teens go through a structured deprogramming regimen in an attempt to “restore” them to the heterosexual lifestyle).

Giving away our personal power in this way has devastating consequences, as evidenced by the prevailing ways of life apparent in this film. In addition to surrendering our ability to balance collective cooperation and personal individuality, we allow those setting up the prevalent paradigms to call the shots – and to run roughshod over us. This becomes evident in the behavioral hypocrisy exhibited by the leadership of the two dominant camps, who freely exercise rights denied to those they oversee. One might rightly ask why they get away with it; and the answer is “Because we let them,” mainly by holding fast to beliefs that give them carte blanche to do as they want while we kowtow to their whims.

In light of this, the narrative of “The Lobster” can be seen as an allegory for contemporary society and its various institutions, especially those related to religion, politics and even sacred cows like political correctness, regardless of which end of the ideological spectrum one adheres to. It also shows us that, even when we’re willing to forego one viewpoint in favor of an alternative, we’re just as likely to fall prey to equally intolerant attitudes and outlooks by switching sides. Changing tribes doesn’t mean we’re able to escape tribal mentality; it just means setting ourselves up for a different form of mentality (something to bear in mind with regard to highly charged events, such as this year’s hotly contested US presidential race).

In a similarly symbolic way, the story line painfully portrays the effects of personal detachment, something that has, unfortunately, run rampant in today’s society, especially when it comes to matters of emotional engagement. All too often, we limit ourselves to contemplating mere surface considerations, never going deeper to anything more meaningful. Again, because we’ve allowed ourselves to become dumbed and numbed, we’ve bought into beliefs that support such woefully shallow conditions, keeping us more removed from one another than ever before (an amazing irony given the heavy-handed emphasis placed on sanctioned coupling in the film’s narrative).

Only when we assert our personal power – and formulate beliefs that support it – can we avoid becoming ideological automatons. This is especially crucial for striking the aforementioned balance required to square the needs of society and the individual. Let’s hope we figure that out before we find ourselves headed for a pot of boiling water and a cup of drawn butter.

“The Lobster” is one of the most unusual – and most provocative – films to come along in quite a while. Its decidedly bizarre humor and wry symbolism work wonders in skewering everything from contemporary courting rituals to relationship dynamics to social institutions. The picture regrettably becomes a little bogged down in the second hour, going off on several tangents that could have easily been deleted. On balance, however, “The Lobster” offers a thoughtful, satirical look at where we stand as a society – and, one hopes, where we’ll resist the temptation to go.

Even though the picture is just now being released in North America, director Yorgos Lanthimos’s offering debuted overseas in 2015 and racked up an impressive dossier of film awards and nominations. Among its many honors, “The Lobster” captured three awards at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, including the Jury Prize, and it was a Palme d’Or nominee, the event’s highest honor. It also earned a nomination for best British film production in the BAFTA Awards program, the UK’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Striking the right balance between conformity and individuality may be one of the most daunting ventures we’ll undertake in our lives, and finding the right mix may take a lot of effort. But, if we look into our hearts and minds to identify our true selves, and then formulate manifesting beliefs in line with our authentic being, we can materialize an existence that harmonizes the aforementioned attributes, offering us a chance at lives truly worth living on all fronts, both for ourselves and for those with whom we share it.

A Postscript: If you were faced with having to decide which animal you would become, what would you choose? Find out by taking a quiz on the movie’s web site to see which creatures might best suit you.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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