The Lobster: Debt, Referenda, and False Choices

By Kenan Behzat Sharpe

Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film The Lobster presents us with a world in which coupling off is mandatory. All single, widowed, or divorced people are required to check into a hotel in the countryside where they have 45 days to find a new partner: a suitable one being someone who shares the identical ‘defining characteristic’ as oneself, whether it be nosebleeds, a limp, a beautiful smile, good hair, nearsightedness, or the ability to speak German. Those who cannot find a partner within the allotted time are transformed into an animal. If they follow the rules, then they get the privilege of choosing which animal they become. Renegade Singles who dare walk the streets of the City without a romantic counterpart at their side are subject to routine police stops, harassment, forced extraction to a dating hotel, or transformation into one the animals that ‘nobody wants.’

The only other option available to inhabitants of this romantic dystopia is to abscond to the wilderness, where they can join an authoritarian band of poncho-wearing, electronica-listening, terminal Loners. This counter-society has a single rule which is enforced through acts of physical mutilation: the complete prohibition on romantic intimacy. This is the simple reversal of the law that governs the society Loners reject. Faced with constant danger due to the ‘hunting’ raids of the nearby Singles’ hotel (where the tranquilizing of each forest runaway is awarded with an additional day added to one’s stay, thereby temporarily forestalling the danger of turning into a pony or peacock) the Loners subscribe to an ethos of unalloyed individualism.

The most mundane interpreters of The Lobster are guilty of ahistoricism. They view the film simply as a commentary on such ‘universal’ themes as love and marriage or as an exercise in intertextuality. Other critics have rightly observed the way The Lobster reads as a parody of contemporary dating practices: digital platforms like Tinder or Match, the widespread obsession with common interests as an indicator of romantic compatibility, and the ubiquity of the ‘like.’ More astute commentators have described the film as a savaging critique of the couple-form. No one has yet to link this critique to contemporary Marxist-Feminist debates around dating as a form of domestic or affective labor. Crucially, such an approach to the film would have to temporally re-ground the issues it raises within contemporary mutations of capitalism and its work regimes. Another necessary step would be to relocate the film spatially within global capitalism.

Interestingly (or perhaps symptomatically) almost no U.S. reviewers have commented on the Greek origins of The Lobster. This is especially curious given the immense critical and journalistic attention expended worldwide upon the so-called “Greek Weird Wave,” a term first popularized in The Guardian to describe a new current of post-crisis Greek film within which The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have played an outsized part. The coinage has taken off, becoming a dominant critical lens through which contemporary Greek cinema is understood. Critic Alex Lykidis has described the common characteristics of the Greek Weird Wave in this way:

“The social effects of the financial crisis are addressed in these films through a narrative emphasis on isolated or alienated characters, dysfunctional family relationships, desperate or anti-social behavior and breakdowns in communication. Aesthetically, these dynamics are conveyed through unexpressive acting, stilted dialogue, performative gestures, an absence of continuity editing, absurdist deviations from narrative logic, excessive referentiality and claustrophobic mise-en-scène.”

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Scene from Tsangari’s Attenberg (2009)

Such features can be glimpsed in scenes of sheltered and clueless adolescents barking on the floor like dogs in Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2009), in the awkward and failed attempts at human intimacy in Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010), in the crushing ennui and meaninglessness of action in Knifer (Yannis Economides, 2010), in the flat affect of actors hired to impersonate dead relatives in Alps (Lanthimos, 2011), and in the neon irreality used to present the lives of fugitive Albanians in Xenia (Panos H. Koutras, 2014). The question of whether or not such films form a coherent cinematic “wave” is hotly contested among those involved in Greek film studies. The idea of a Weird Wave is also generally rejected by the filmmakers themselves. My point here, however, is that despite the strong public association of Lanthimos’ films with the Greek Weird Wave (and, necessarily, with the Greek debt crisis to which this absurdist, deadpan, and denunciatory style of cinema is thought to be a response), critical reception of The Lobster would have us assume that the film is exclusively concerned with romantic relationships and, unlike the director’s earlier films, has no relationship to the Greek situation.

One cannot help but think that this silence reflects a general surfeit of interest in Greece on the part of the international media and the internationalist Left alike following the tragic conclusion of SYRIZA’s hopeful anti-austerity intermezzo and the subsequent return to an interminable and seemingly plotless drama of austerity. Though coverage of Greece waned after the country’s first ‘far left’ government capitulated to the demands of its European creditors despite a clear popular mandate against them during the referendum of July 2015, Greece’s trials have endured – becoming, if anything, far more grave. The OXI vote – which at first seemed to promise a new path beyond the false binary of crippling austerity or disastrous (because unplanned) Grexit – ended up reinforcing the cynical realism constantly peddled out by the EU: you are either with us or you are dead.

The Lobster can give us insight not only into the Greek crisis but into the crises that are determining and limiting political possibilities across the debt-ridden states of the European periphery (Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland) as well as in the increasingly racist-populist environments of the UK and the US. Through absurdist exaggeration the film helps render visible a social logic which everywhere confronts us with two equally disastrous options between which we are compelled to choose. When David, the protagonist of The Lobster, played by Colin Farrell, checks into the Singles’ hotel he is given the option of registering as hetero- or homosexual: there is no in between. The same goes for shoe sizes: only 44 or 45, no half-sizes. Finally, he decides to flee the hotel where people are forced to find a partner under the threat of transmogrification. However, upon joining the Loners he soon discovers that the opposition is no less authoritarian, cruel, and arbitrary in its punishments than the society it rejects.

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The Lobster is a shrewd and perspicacious film, for we encounter the same logic of the double-bind everywhere from our intimate relationships and our debts to our electoral choices and political positions. A or B. Yes or No. Boredom or Loneliness. Capitulation or Isolation. In or Out. Compromise or Purity. NAI or OXI. Bailout or Shipwreck. Remain or Exit. The devil you know or the devil you don’t. The cosmopolitanism of capital or the fantasy of nativism. Disastrous austerity or the disastrous unknown.  Meanwhile, the clock counting the hours towards some inconceivable and horrifying transformation moves inexorably forward.

Cinema and Crisis

Such a reading of The Lobster is far from obvious. If we are generous, we can excuse the critics for mostly missing its relationship to economic and political crisis in Greece and beyond. This is Lanthimos’ first film to be shot since he relocated to England, and unlike Dogtooth and Alps it is shot almost entirely in English. The Lobster is an Irish-UK-Greek-French-Dutch co-production with editing and post-production completed in the UK, Holland, and France. With actors from the UK (Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman), Ireland (Colin Farrell), France (Léa Seydoux), and the US (John C. Reilly), the film is a pan-European and transatlantic affair. Its storyline has almost no trace of its Greek origins.

Lanthimos himself gives credence to universalist and deterritorialized readings of The Lobster in an interview:

I’m obviously Greek, but I made this film in English, and—well, I don’t know what the film’s ethnicity is—it was shot in Ireland. The cast is from all around the world, which was intentional because the whole story just felt right being something contemporary and close to the societies that we live in, that I live in.

Elsewhere, he is even more unequivocal, stating: “The theme of The Lobster is universal; I don’t see how it relates to Greece.” Even without knowing that the film was shot in Ireland’s County Kerry, it is unmistakably located somewhere in the foggy northern tier of the EU. The film’s action takes place in a sleek hotel on the edge of a cold lake and its adjacent lush forest. And the tidy, grey, and nondescript neighborhoods of the City (of which we get only a few glimpses) are as far away from Athens’ rotting, lively, graffiti-strewn and crisis-ridden streets as you can get.

Yet despite this de-localized, European-ish atmosphere there are clear signs that this is a particularly Greek and characteristically Weird film. First of all, there is the unforgettable Angeliki Papoulia – familiar from Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Alps – in the role of the Heartless Woman. Viewers of these earlier Weird Wave classics cannot but marvel at the way that Papoulia and the Anglophone actors like Farrell and Rachel Weisz successfully replicated the flat, affectless, and awkwardly paced dialogue of the Greek films. Then, there are the two old Greeks songs played at key points in the narrative. The first is “Apo Mesa Pethamenos / Dead on the Inside” performed by the singer Danai in 1926. The lyrics of the song, both saccharine and nostalgic, begins with a scene of lovers conversing in bed and ends with the protagonist asking “I wonder how my heart can go on beating? Maybe there are more out there like me…dead inside, alive outside.” It is cued ironically to a scene of David and the rest of the hotel’s single inhabitants hunting Loners with tranquilizer guns in ludicrously elegant slow motion.

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Finally, there are two moments where Greece and Southern Europe are mentioned explicitly – both times as part of the sun-drenched European periphery. Farrell and Weisz’s characters fantasize about “going to Portofino in Italy, or to a Greek island in the summer” and, later, about having a “holiday in the Mediterranean.” Wherever here is in the fictional world of this film, Greece is elsewhere, somewhere south, a place where one goes to forget real life with the warm sun and clear sea. But by dislocating Greece from the action of the film, the film also successfully evokes it. In the context of the other Weird Wave films and the state of Greece today, the use of such trite Club Med stereotypes cannot but ironically contrast with the images of urban poverty and white beaches clogged with refugees that we all carry in our minds.

Even without these clever winks to the audience, it would still be possible to read the film allegorically, as a commentary on Greece and beyond. As film critic Anna Poupou remarks, “a major characteristic of this ‘weird’ wave is the tendency towards allegorical forms. The subject of the dysfunctional family – an allegory for the nation, the society or the political system – becomes a central obsession in these films.” [1] There is the isolation of the family in Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, for example, where a wealthy Greek paterfamilias and his wife are obsessed with isolating their three children from society. They lock them in a fortress-like house in the suburbs where they are instilled with a fear of the world outside. They teach them a warped, homemade language and try to prevent their inexorable turn towards incest. Critic Dimitris Papanikolaou echoes a widespread interpretation of Dogtooth in arguing that film is “a sociopolitical allegory related to the Greek crisis.” He reads the film in relation to social and patriarchal repression, authoritarian control, and biopolitics. Others have seen Dogtooth as a critique of mass media in Greece and its spread of misinformation, of Greek cultural isolation, bureaucratization, the decay of human communication under neoliberalism, the apathy and cluelessness of the post-dictatorship (1967-1974) youth, or the cluelessness of the political elites.

And yet it was not ordained from the start that Dogtooth should have been read in relation to the Greek crisis. There was almost no explicit mention of contemporary political or economic events in the film. Crucially, it is the allegorical structure of these films – presenting isolated, self-contained, generalizable settings and situations with almost parable-like sparseness – that opens them up to this variety of polysemous readings. Ironically, it was precisely because Dogtooth was lacking in local specificity that it was most available for interpretive substitution that helped understand the Greek situation.

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Scene from Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009)

However, The Lobster is even more delocalized, its international cast and English-language script allowing it access to the rarified territory of aesthetic ‘universality.’ Historically, it was only by shedding signifiers of local specificity and ridding themselves of a supposed parochialism that writers (or creative artists of any kind) from poor or peripheral nations could claim to be addressing universal human concerns and not simply national ones. As Pascale Casanova explains in The World Republic of Letters, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries only cultural superpowers and (colonial) metropolises like Paris, London, or New York had the power to “impress [. . .] the stamp of littérarité [literariness] upon texts that came from farflung lands, thereby denationalizing and departicularizing them, declaring them to be acceptable as legal tender in all the countries under [their] literary jurisdiction.” [2] A similar dynamic in the geopolitics of culture continues to exist in relation to film as well, if Lanthimos (with his new address in London and his latest film shown in theaters across Europe and North America) is seen suddenly a director of universal films and not simply Greek ones.

And yet it is also perfectly understandable that Lanthimos and other Greek directors would chafe under a system of interpretation which has their work bound tightly to a national situation while their counterparts from richer countries can make films not about the U.S. or British or French ‘experience’ but rather love, mortality, betrayal, or hope. Yorgos Lanthimos has publicly stated that “there is not a single Greek new wave with common characteristics.” [3] A number of influential Greek film critics have expressed agreement. In “A New Cinema of ‘Emancipation’: Tendencies of Independence in Greek Cinema of the 2000s” Maria Chalkou writes that this new “film trend [. . .] should not be seen as a direct consequence of the Greek financial crisis, as it is widely believed, but as a phenomenon developing through the 2000s to the present” [4]. She points at a number of converging developments in Greek society and its film sector which began before the financial crisis that help to explain this new turn in Greek cinema. Lydia Papadimitriou concurs, offering what she sees as a much-needed

critical contextualization of developments in Greek cinema around the nodal date of 2009, which brought together the beginning of the financial crisis, an increased international visibility of certain Greek films, significant grassroots-motivated institutional changes for cinema in Greece, as well as the emergence of Anglophone criticism on Greek cinema.” [5]

Like Chalkou, Papadimitriou argues that there is no directly causal relationship between the financial crisis and the emergence of films like Dogtooth or Attenberg. [6]

Yet for critical discussions of a distinctive Greek Weird Wave, the relationship of the new Greek cinema to the financial crisis was not an answer given in advance but a question raised. Steve Rose’s 2011 Guardian article began this way:

In recent years, Greece’s global image has been jolted from Mediterranean holiday idyll and home of big fat weddings to fractious trouble spot. And not just in economic terms; let’s not forget Greece had its own street riots in 2008. So perhaps it’s to be expected that the country’s cinema is changing, too. The growing number of independent, and inexplicably strange, new Greek films being made has led trend-spotters to herald the arrival of a new Greek wave.

Rose then asked, “Is it just coincidence that the world’s most messed-up country is making the world’s most messed-up cinema?” In an article for The Economist published in the same year, another critic remarked that “Given the Greek economic and political landscape, there is the inevitable question of whether these filmmakers are commenting on their country’s problems.” Certainly, once a term like “Greek Weird Wave” is coined or a cultural movement is christened with a name it is inevitable that some will take it as fact rather than description.

What is at stake, however, in discussing this wave of films is less a verifiable causal connection to the economic crisis than an interpretive wager. The concept allows us to periodize; to make a narrative out of the flux of history; to allow for breaks and beginnings in what would otherwise be an eternal present; and to posit connections among cultural, political, and economic developments. So long as we avoid reifying the relationship between the Greek crisis and Greek cinema, allowing it to remain an open question for exploration, it can help us to understand particular phenomena in the country and, indeed, the world. While it is certainly true, as Alex Lykidis argues, that “these acclaimed Greek films are the product of a series of institutional, technological and social developments that began well before the recent financial crisis [. . .] they nonetheless enable us to understand the crisis more clearly by highlighting the disappointments and disenfranchisements of the neo-liberal era” [7]. And, as Papadimitriou herself acknowledges, it is unlikely that many outside of the country would have noticed Greek cinema if not for the interpretive prism of the Greek crisis. [8] The crisis has ironically led to something of a renaissance of interest in Greek cultural production, with international readership paying more attention to developments in Greek fiction and poetry than any time since Kazantzakis and Cavafy.

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National Allegory and its Discontents

All of this to-do about the concept of Greek Weird Wave shows us that the question of national allegory has returned with a vengeance. Fredric Jameson first introduced this concept back in a 1986 essay called “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” There he infamously stated that “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical.” [9] Offering readings of works by Chinese writer Lu Xun and Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembene, Jameson asserted that even those texts which appeared to be about the personal life or psychological state of a protagonist actually had at their heart political – and, by extension, national – concerns. Such works “project a political dimension in the form of national allegory.” [10] All “third-world” texts contain not only a political but a specifically national allegory: this was due to the central role of the nation in the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and independence movements starting in the long 1960s in the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Historically, the nation was the locus of emancipatory politics in the ‘third-world.”

Jameson’s unequivocal stance in the essay (“All third-world texts are necessarily…”) and his oversimplified lumping together of radically different national contexts (China, India, Senegal) lead to a barrage of antagonistic responses, most notably from Aijaz Ahmad in 1987, but also from a number of postcolonial critics. [11] Revisiting the heated debate sparked by Jameson’s intervention from the vantage point of 2002, Imre Szeman explains that “within the field of postcolonial literary and cultural studies, Jameson’s essay has come to be treated as little more than a cautionary tale about the extent and depth of Eurocentrism in the Western academy.” [12] The controversy and misunderstandings generated by Jameson’s intervention can help us to understand why attempts to link Greek cinema and Greek crisis have been rejected so vigorously by some critics. Just as with the national allegory controversy, the apprehension of those who reject the Greek Weird Wave concept has more to do with a healthy skepticism of interpretations based on ideas of national exceptionalism or geographical determinism than they do with resistance to the theory of political allegory itself – which today would by necessity be transnational. Jameson’s theory remains useful because it can help us to uncover the relationship between The Lobster and the political situation not only in Greece but across the world.

Bracketing for now the question of whether Greece is ‘third world’ [13] or whether the term itself (associated with discredited theories of modernization and superannuated Cold War geopolitics) still maintains any theoretical hold on our contemporary context, we can readily admit that Jameson overstated his case. He risked hypostatizing ideological concepts like ‘west’ and ‘east,’ ‘first-world’ and ‘third world,’ thereby opening himself up to charges of over-simplification. However, the main thrust of his argument was to explore how capitalism affects culture’s ability to comment upon and engage in political/economic struggle:

[O]ne of the determinants of capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the western realist and modernist novel, is a radical split between the private and the public, between the poetic and the political, between what we have come to think of as the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of secular political power: in other words, Freud versus Marx. [14]

Jameson was pointing to the way that advanced capitalist societies have become invested in a notion of aesthetics as autonomous. For these societies, art and culture are seen as pure realms, untainted by the workaday world, the products of individual genius or psychological depth, and expressive of the deep truths of life. Only for a society that believes this kind of thing can the presence of politics in a work of art be, per Stendhal’s famous phrase, like a “pistol shot in the middle of a concert.” [15]

Jameson contrasts this state of affairs with the work of art in the “third-world,” or rather, we can say, in places where this capitalist process is still incomplete:

I will argue that, although we may retain for convenience and for analysis such categories as the subjective and the public or political, the relations between them are wholly different in third-world culture. Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society. [16]

Jameson’s argument was based on a palpable difference in the “ratio of the political to the personal” in texts created in the so-called first-world versus the third-world. Rather than arguing that there is a categorical difference between “third-” and “first-world” texts, Jameson was suggesting that the emphasis on aesthetic autonomy hegemonic in the advanced capitalist context was not always a cultural dominant in the underdeveloped countries and (ex-)colonies of the world. This was certainly true of Greece. [17] In such places “western [sic] antinomies – and most particularly that between the subjective and the public or political – are refused in advance.” [18] However, Jameson’s most crucial point was that all texts, even those which most vehemently refuse any social or political content, are at their core political. Whatever the case, national allegory is a description of “the kind of dialectical criticism he would like to apply to all cultural texts” – and not just “third-world” ones,” as one of Jameson’s more sympathetic commentators explains. [19]

A formalist understanding of art as autonomous has been common and dominant in Greece for a very long time now. And yet the process by which this came about looked different there than in Germany or England. Cultural producers and critics in Greece are thus rightly wary of interpretations coming from outside the country which assert that all Greek poetry or film or drama is either absolutely alien (always about Greece or Greekness, and thus political in a way different from ‘western’ art) or else absolutely the same (universal in its concerns). As we have seen, just as Yorgos Lanthimos is skeptical of readings that attempt to link The Lobster to Greece, so too many Greek film critics resist interpreting the work of a whole generation of filmmakers in relation to the economic crisis. This wariness regarding outside labels extends to many other semi-peripheral, underdeveloped, or indebted countries. Certainly, if it is only Greek or Ecuadorian or Chinese films (or the films, poems, novels, or memoirs from minority writers within a country like the U.S.) that are seen to comment on politics, economic, national identity, ethnic belonging, or the state of the nation then there is a serious double-standard at play. This double-standard naturalizes the dominant themes and sensibilities of core countries while forcing peripheral or racialized voices to speak only ideologically and particularly. The goal, however, is to register the way all cultural objects – even the most de-localized, autonomous, or ‘universal’ (read: white and male) – are fundamentally political.

Together or Alone

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So with this caveat and warning in mind, what happens if we take The Lobster as, among other things, a national allegory? How would this approach function at a moment when decolonization is (formally, at least) complete and when under conditions of globalization the nation is no longer the assumed terrain of politics? What would be the political content of such a reading? The first interpretive layer of the film must be, of course, the critique of the couple-form. This first (personal or libidinal) dimension of the allegory is also the only layer to which the filmmakers themselves give credence. It is, we can say using the psychoanalytic terminology appropriated by Marxist criticism, the manifest content of the film (as opposed to the latent or hidden content). This is how Lanthimos describes how he and co-writer Filippou set about creating The Lobster – a film in which, as Adorno once said of psychoanalysis, “only the exaggerations are true”:

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.

Their method is truth through hyperbole. Hence, people unable to find partners are not only seen as somehow less worthy of respect or less human than those in committed partnerships but are actually transformed into animals: dogs, donkeys, boars, parrots, and of course, lobsters. In this literalization of popular anxieties and societal pressures, inhabitants of the Singles’ hotel are subjected to a tireless ideological campaign regarding the benefits of coupledom and the grave dangers of being single. Upon first checking in to the hotel, ‘guests’ have one hand tied behind their backs for a period of 24 hours so that they can be reminded how much easier life is when things come “in pairs.” This point is illustrated hilariously in a scene where Colin Farrell’s character David spends several minutes attempting to undress before bed. Then there are the lectures put on by the hotel’s charismatic and cruel Hotel Manager (played by Olivia Colman). She has her hotel staff act out short skits which illustrate the disastrous consequences of being a man alone (eating dinner and choking to death with no one to perform the Heimlich for you) or being a woman alone (being violently raped while walking home at night). None of this, the guests are assured, would possibly happen to those who remember to eat or walk in twos. Finally, the captive audience must listen to nightly duets performed by the Hotel Manager and her partner: nothing would be more motivating to exit the hotel as soon as possible than being repeatedly subjected to Garry Mountaine’s bass vibrato singing “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart.”

Most of the film’s action takes place either in the hotel or in the nearby wilderness.  However, viewers are given a few glimpses of the larger society that the hotel reflects in microcosm. Inhabitants of the City are accustomed to routine police stops and identity checks meant to ensure that no partnerless miscreants are hiding amidst law-abiding couples. We are not sure what fate awaits those who are found in public without either a partner at their side or the necessary documentation proving that they indeed have one. Yet the terror evinced by those walking while single is enough to give us some idea. Back in the hotel, the punishment for singles who masturbate is having one’s hand burned in a hot toaster.

It would be easy to focus mainly on these elements of the story, but the other half of this dystopian diptych is just as revealing. It is as a whole that the film makes sense, revealing the deeper layers of its (national-political) allegorical content. The society of Loners living in the forest is no less punitive, cruel, and exacting than the hotel in the way it regulates the lives of its members. Loners are allowed to hug, but any flirting, kissing, or sexual contact is strictly forbidden. Each transgression has its own punishment attached to it, whether it is slicing the lips, cutting the genitals, being buried alive, blinded, or having hot boiled eggs placed under the armpits (the latter being a form a torture introduced by the British during its rule over Cyprus and which remained a popular way for the state to torture Leftists throughout the years of Greece’s dictatorship). [20] Whereas the larger society of the hotel and the City is obsessed with things being in pairs and couples, the Loners abide by a code of pure autonomy and total lack of solidarity. Their authoritarian ruler (played by Léa Seydoux) fills the protagonist David in on how they live: “Don’t expect anyone to dig your grave for you, or carry your corpse,” she tells him. Upon joining the Loners everyone must dig their own grave, or risk being consumed by wild dogs when the inevitable comes.

The plot is set in motion when David and a fellow Loner identified only as the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) become amorously entangled. Interestingly, for both of them this romantic interest is predicated on and affirmed by their shared myopia. Neither of them thinks to question the reductive notions of compatibility they have inherited from the City. When David temporarily suspects than another Loner who is friendly with his partner might also be short-sighted, he immediately begins to unravel. The logic of the match has the same severity as fate.

The two short-sighted Loners begin their courtship by stealthily helping each other – sharing food, protecting each other from the Singles that come and hunt their group. Such acts are forbidden, presumably because they can create feelings of indebtedness and attachment. After they fall in love the couple decides to flee the forest, but not before getting caught. David is mock-buried alive and the Short Sighted Woman is surgically blinded (thereby foiling their union). The film ends with David standing in a restaurant bathroom on the edge of the City with a knife held up to his eye. Meanwhile, the Short Sighted (or now Blind) Woman sits at a booth nervously sipping water, waiting to learn if he will follow through on the act of self-mutilation that is their only ticket of re-entry back into the society they fled.

These are your options, The Lobster tells us: a couple-form that is reductive, enforced, and policed, or instead a life in the forest completely lacking in intimacy and human solidarity. Both options are absurd, both are untenable, but nevertheless: you must choose. Both are based in oversimplified notions of human sociality. In the hotel couples are matched on the basis of pseudo-pragmatic and arbitrary commonalities such as physical features or favorite foods. The rejection of even this weak sense of solidarity takes the form of a complete disavowal of intimacy, as everyone is meant to fend for themselves. There is no place in either structure for alternate forms of collectivity that would move across or between these binaries: radical friendship, temporary physical intimacy, chosen family, multiple partnerships. This impasse mirrors a general inability to discover new modes for truly challenging the heteronormative couple-form. These would have to go beyond both the insular and all-consuming polyamory of counter-cultural scenes and the repressive-desublimation of Burning Man and wealthy swingers parties.

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Promotional advertisement for The Lobster
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Greek referendum ballot

It is at this point that the seemingly personal and strictly intimate aporia of the film’s protagonist maps onto larger (geo)political structures, allowing us to move from manifest to latent content without negating the former. It is difficult not to read the logical structure of this world, and the pseudo-choice it offers, in relation to the event that shook Greece last July, almost exactly a year ago. On Saturday, June 27, 2015 Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the newly elected SYRIZA coalition announced a referendum. Hoping to strengthen Greece’s hand its negotiation with its creditors, Tsipras asked the Greek public to come to the polls to declare whether or not they support the conditions of renewed and deepened austerity attached to the latest bailout offer from the Troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission). In his speech Tsipras urged people to vote in a plebiscite on this “proposal that accumulates a new, unsustainable burden on the Greek people and undermines the recovery of the Greek economy and society, a proposal that not only perpetuates the state of uncertainty but accentuates social inequalities even more.” Tsipras made no secret of the fact that he was firmly in the “No” camp, but he also insisted that this vote was not meant to be a mandate on Greece leaving the Eurozone; rather, he wanted simply to get a better deal out of talks with the so-called Institutions.

However, this did not stop the Troika from seeing the referendum as a vote for staying or leaving. Similarly, fiercely polarized camps appeared in Greece who argued for OXI – rejecting the demands of the creditors and leaving the Eurozone – and NAI – staying in Europe at all costs. While long queues formed in front of ATMs as panicked people attempted to withdraw cash, Greece closed its banks for a week and imposed capital controls. The oligarchic, establishment media – firmly on the NAI side – joined the European officials and politicians in the chorus of prophesying and doom-saying. A “No” vote leading to an unplanned Greek exit from the Eurozone, they argued, would spell certain disaster. Media outlets engaged in a fierce campaign of blackmail and intimidation while many employees faced threats from their bosses against voting “No.” Despite this toxic and panicked environment, at the July 5th, 2015 referendum a majority of 61% of voters rejected the bailout proposal made by the Troika. Feeling that a serious blow had been finally dealt to austerity, an elated public surged into Syntagma Square in Athens and elsewhere in Greece to celebrate. Many felt that with “No” a novel path had been forged beyond both the blackmail of a new austerity memorandum and the hysterical threats which argued that questioning Greece’s place in the Eurozone could only lead to catastrophe.

Of course, things did not work out as well as everyone had hoped at that euphoric moment. Tsipras and the core SYRIZA leadership, it is thought, had not expected “No” to win with such enthusiasm and were unprepared for the social energies and popular expectations the referendum had unwittingly unleashed. Rather than escaping the double-bind once and for all, they fantasized that they could find a more comfortable spot within it. Wanting to remain in the Eurozone at all costs, SYRIZA aimed not to reject austerity completely but simply to soften it. At its core, however, this strategy was contradictory, and so were the political positions of those supporting it. As one commentator presciently remarked in the lead-up to the vote:

The referendum [. . .] pushes to the fore to the contradictions lying more or less latent five years now and urges the respective social forces to take shape. For, how can one be at the same time anti-austerity and pro-Euro? How can one vote for SYRIZA at 2015 elections to negotiate hard with troika and after a while remove one’s bank deposits every time the negotiation gets really hard?

“No,” it seems, meant different things to different people. While many hoped that rejecting demands of the creditors would lead to a complete break with the logic of the austerity, the “No” of the Europhiles represented the fantasy that the EU could stop being anything but a neoliberal debt prison for Greece.

Lobster 10

The contradictions of this “left-Europeanism” (to use a term from Stathis Kouvelakis) become undeniable when it came time for the ruling coalition to re-enter negotiations. Only July 12th, in exchange for a rescue bailout the Greek government accepted a program of austerity that was even more brutal and severe than the one rejected by the Greek electorate a week prior. Pensions were slashed and taxes were raised. This capitulation to the logic of austerity was widely decried among the Greek and international Left, leading to the widespread hashtag #ThisIsACoup. Accounts of the marathon of closed-door meetings that lead to this defeat were

replete with anecdotes of the browbeating that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras endured. Finance ministers from Finland and Slovenia took the opportunity to hector and shame Tsipras. A senior eurozone official reported, “They crucified Tsipras in there. Crucified.”

Similarly, ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis described the demands of the creditors as a form of “fiscal waterboarding.” They might as well have burned the Greek negotiators’ hands in toasters or forced them to lie in open graves, for they got the message. The impudent spirit that lead to referendum was quickly replaced by obsequious sycophancy. While international observers were initially outraged by this capitulation, outrage soon transformed into acceptance which in turn transformed into apathy. Most recently, the Greek government agreed to even more austerity, wage slashing, and the mortgaging of public assets to foreign entities. Greece continues to be punished, and yet hardly anyone notices.

The Lobster helps us to understand the logic that underlined the July referendum. On the one side, there was the punitive attitude of the Institutions: enforcing unity and with the threat of financial violence. Any attempt to rebel or to forge another path would be punished severely. Europe is stronger together, Juncker and Merkel said, while austerity cripples Greece seemingly beyond repair.  Similarly, at the end of the film David and the Short Sighted Woman return to a society that demands partnership, but they do so limping, blind, and beaten. Their union – like the union of economies as different as that of Germany and a Southern European, belatedly modernized/industrialized, tourism-dependent one like Greece – is based on the shotgun wedding of dissimilar things. Many of the partnerships in The Lobster are based on dissimulation and false matches: counterfeit nosebleeds, feigned sociopathy, self-inflicted blindness. In the same way, the ability of the Greek elite to continue racking up debt within the Eurozone was exacerbated by financial deception and shady statistics.

The real problem is that the underlying notions of compatibility which determine both the economic union of the Eurozone and the romantic unions of The Lobster are themselves constructed and ideological, whether they are based in supposedly shared personal interests (jazz, German, raspberries) or shared histories (cliches about Greece as the birthplace of democracy or its history as a ‘European’ civilization – an idea reinvented by philhellenes like Lord Byron in the nineteenth century). Both paradigms belie complexity for the sake of convenience, allowing union only at the expense of self-betrayal. To reject such unities – to forge a different path – is to become barbaric, animalistic, ‘oriental.’ According to this logic, a Greece outside of Europe is nothing but a cheap holiday destination and an expendable labor pool. Yet the youth unemployment rate already hovers around 50%. Whether you remain within or attempt to escape, the story still ends in brutality. As for the inhabitants of the hotel, they are allowed to be in limbo for only 45 days. If they cannot pay their debt to society and find a partner within the allotted time, they are transformed. Of course, the only way you can get an extension is by projecting outward the same violence imposed on yourself. Those who punish others are rewarded: for each rebel Loner tranquilized and bagged, an additional 24 hours is added to your stay. Each bailout only re-sets the clock. It never stops it.

The crude propaganda (“Things are better in twos”) and violent intimidation of the hotel and the City in The Lobster is the “Yes” campaign, enforcing European unity at whatever cost. What about the other side? As we have seen, the life of the Loners is not much better. In the forest they are reduced to bare life. If they don’t die of hunger or get eaten by wild dogs, then there is the still the threat of the law: whether they are caught breaking the rules of the Loners or are caught by the Singles, the punishment is death. The Loners are not free. Their lives are just as strictly regulated as they were in civilization. Rather than being subjected to enforced coupling they are subjected to enforced solitude. By simply turning the rules of the larger society on its head, the Loners replicate rather than escape its logic. This is a form of resistance which is merely capitulation, a “No” which is not one. It reveals the way the dominant logic reinforces the right-wing formula of ‘Europe or death’ while leaving no room for a conception of political Euroscepticism which is not irrational, masochistic, or nativistic.

Writing of the renewed austerity that was imposed after the referendum against austerity, Costas Lapavitsas wrote:

“[I]n a few tumultuous weeks in July, Tsipras took the proud “no” of the Greek people in the referendum on whether to accept a new bailout, and turned it into a “yes.” The man who was going to change the face of Europe proceeded to sign a new bailout that included harsh terms and neocolonial restrictions on national sovereignty. The firebrand had turned into a kitten.”

It is interesting to notice the rhetoric at play here: National pride versus humiliation, sovereignty versus emasculation, autarky versus dependence. As he well knows, however, we need not have recourse to ad hominem attacks and patriotic sentiment in order to explain Tsipras’ volte-face. As Lapavitsas explains later in the same essay, “a member state [of The Economic and Monetary Union cannot have debt write off, lifting of austerity, and continued membership.”  In fact, it is clear now that the core SYRIZA leadership never had any intention of letting things go so far as to rupture from the Eurozone. And this is why the Institutions were able to call their bluff. It was SYRIZA’s refusal to develop a clear plan for leaving (despite a proposal spearheaded by Lapavitsas entitled “Programme of Social and National Rescue”) that hurt its ability to negotiate. The OXI was never meant to be a real OXI. What it ended up becoming was another form of TINA: the capitalist common sense of “There Is No Alternative.”

It is true, though, that Grexit (as it was understood by the SYRIZA leadership, the terrorized voters, the European creditors, and the diaploki or “intertwining interests” of the media oligarchs) was not a true alternative. Unplanned Grexit followed the same logic of economic union but simply turned it upside down: you’re either in, or you’re out. Let’s not kid ourselves: unplanned Grexit would have been an utter disaster. Greece would have seen incredible social chaos, capital flight, increased immiseration, and a drachma beyond feeble. The whole problem is that these were the only choices presented to the people. It is no surprise, then, that despite the contradictions and logical impossibilities inherent in the position, a seeming majority of Greeks still prefer to stay in the Eurozone. Battered by Scylla and threatened by Charybdis, so-called “left-Europeanism” prefers to stay put. The only way out of this mess is a “No” that is truly “No,” an option that refuses the dominant logic. Right before the referendum Panagiotis Sotiris wrote the following words. They still resonate today:

The biggest problem is that we still lack what is most urgently needed: a coherent narrative for a rupture that is in fact inescapable. A sincere narrative that will speak about the initial difficulties and the long-term benefits of Grexit, provided that is done in a sovereign manner, and the need for a different developmental paradigm. A militant narrative that could also appeal to the people to support this strategy in an energetic fashion, accept the initial hardship, and fight fear.

Only such a strategy would allow us to reach a space beyond Yes and No, calamity and catastrophe, together and apart, hotel and forest, imposed unity and pure isolation. We want neither party discipline nor social chaos, neither pragmatic maturity nor the Hobbesian state of nature. In the end, our dreams are far grander than simply remaining within or rejecting the EU. Our imagination of rupture extends far beyond checkboxes on a ballot. We want everything.

Lobster 11.jpg

Transnational Allegory

Whether such a political reading of The Lobster was consciously intended or is heartily disavowed by its makers, the film is very much revealing of the current situation in Greece. It is indeed a national allegory, wherein the false choices that have trapped David in his intimate life echo the double-bind which limits political possibilities in Greece. His fate is Greece’s fate. And yet if there is one aspect of Jameson’s theory that calls for reevaluation today, it is the exclusive focus on the nation. While the nation indeed remains a dominant terrain of political struggle in many contexts and situations, in order to understand the present we must contend with a stage of late capitalism that is fully worlded and multinational, as Jameson himself has repeatedly argued. Just as the politics of our enemies operates in terms of the entire globe, so must ours.

Here our discussion links back up with the Greek Weird Wave, for those who oppose the idea of a specific cinematic movement of this kind do so on the basis of a critique of a narrow national exceptionalism. Lydia Papadimitriou’s critique of the Weird Wave concept is grounded in new understanding of Greek historiography for which  “accounts of the nation and its culture that see it as a phenomenon isolated from parallels elsewhere are now understood as deeply ideological.” [21] In place of this narrow nationalism, she argues for a view of cultural phenomena that emphasizes “the interconnectedness and co-dependence that characterizes the contemporary world.” [22] This view is crucial when discussing the filmmakers typically associated with the Weird Wave, for they are part of a mostly young generation that is itself a product of globalization. They have benefited from increased access to global cultural developments, have had their cinematic careers made by the international film festival circuit, and benefit from possibilities of external funding and trans-European co-productions. At the same time, their lives have been strongly determined by the Euro crisis. They are a part of the same wave of displacement and migration that has affected so many young Greeks.

Papadimitriou gives this proposal for how to contend with the question of the nation today:

For now – and for the foreseeable future – I would argue that the national remains a useful frame of reference and point of identification; but that instead of reifying it, we need to place it in a broader, global, context and let it loose, like a ‘floating signifier,’ so that it cross-pollinates and produces new hybrid cultures – including new hybrid cinemas. [23]

While being perhaps an overly optimistic view, it certainly describes the current state of cinema in Greece. However, we are far from living in a fully post- or transnational world – as any unemployed Athenian pensioner or eastern Mediterranean refugee trapped on Lesbos will tell you. Revising Jameson’s formulation in light of Papadimitriou’s line of thought, we can argue the following: “All texts [but perhaps most obviously those that come from the Global South or the debt-ridden periphery] are necessarily allegorical.” And the most perspicacious of such cultural texts are allegories not only of the nation, but also often of the world system itself – for this is the terrain not only of capitalist globalization but also its internationalist opposition.

The first step of such a (trans)national allegory would be to hone in on dynamics within the region itself. Interesting comparative work has already been done on the cinema of southern European/Mediterranean countries strongly affected by the financial crisis, where bailouts and looming defaults are constantly discussed. In “Crisis and Creativity: The New Cinemas of Portugal, Greece, and Spain” co-authors Kourelou, Liz, and Vidal explore “questions that resonate within and across national borders; questions that [. . .] reveal a broader European dimension to the debates and sit, like the crisis itself, at the intersection of the national and the translational.” [24]. Their argument is predicated upon the commonalities shared among these three Mediterranean countries: they are all young democracies, having gone through periods of dictatorship and joining the EU and the Economic Community relatively late. We can reach even further back into the longue durée of Mediterranean history to understand how the region’s semi-peripheral incorporation into a world-system dominated by Northern Europe set the Mediterranean countries on a path in which European integration was bound to be on terms unfavorable to its economies, exacerbating its debt and dependence. [25] From here it is not difficult to see why the debt crisis would have created parallel cultural dynamics across the Mediterranean, as Kourelou et. al. show in their case study of Greece, Portugal, and Spain – three of the pejoratively named P.I.G.S. of the EU, the fourth being Italy or Ireland. In a similar vein, Alex Lykidis argues that the early films of Lanthimos “can be read as an allegory of the ‘systemic, anonymous’ violence of global capitalism currently wreaking havoc on contemporary Greek society [and] the vulnerable populations in the European periphery [. . .].” [26] The Lobster is an allegory of the pigs.

Lobster 12
Parody of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum which circulated on Twitter

However, with a work like The Lobster we can move even further beyond out these national and regional frames. The logic of the psuedo-choice, the false bind, the catch-22, is ubiquitous in our contemporary moment, from the Greek referendum to Brexit. Everywhere we turn we are confronted with two (and only two) options: Yes or No, Remain or Leave, Neoliberalism or Neofascism, International capitalism or Nationalist chauvinism, Sociopath or Psychopath, Clinton or Trump. As in an optical illusion, the longer you stare at them, the more similar these options begin to appear. Any attempt to reject this logic, to form a more complex position, [27] to insist on nuance, to develop a Plan B or C or D, is shouted down for supposedly giving strength to the enemy side. This is capitalist realism at its finest. And the referendum or plebiscite, the ‘decree of the plebs,’ seemingly the most democratic gesture imaginable, is actually most effective at shutting down discussion and giving a zero-sum mandate to the victorious. The referendum has become the right-wing strategy par excellence. Trump has publically celebrated Brexit. Vociferously right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders is now itching for The Netherlands to have its own referendum on the EU. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would like two, please: one to change the Turkish constitution so that he can become president and another on the future of Turkey’s ongoing EU accession talks.

In the last year referenda have demobilized social movements and exacerbated seemingly insoluble contradictions. Left-Europeanism continues to rule Greece, with no serious plans in sight for an alternative to austerity. With the recent Brexit debacle, it becomes increasingly difficult to articulate an anti-EU position that does not make us into bedfellows with our populist, racist, anti-immigrant enemies. This dualistic, depoliticizing environment gives no quarter to dialectical subtleties. Yet having to choose Remain or Stay, Yes or No, within the terms dictated by an increasingly extreme center provides us no room for maneuver. And this is why The Lobster is a timely film, both for Greece and for the world. It is a cautionary tale, reminding us that both options spell only boredom and immiseration and death for those who are already most vulnerable. The dystopian nightmare The Lobster presents us with is one we already live in. We must wake up.

 

Notes:

As always, I’m grateful for the diligence of Madeline, Johanna, and Justin in their help with this piece. Conversations with them and with Maya, Kendra, Matthew, and Xaris were also an important inspiration.

[1] Poupou, Anna. “Going Backwards, Moving Forwards: The Return of Modernism in the Work of Athina Rachel Tsangari.”  Filmcon Journal of Greek Film Studies 2,  2014, p. 47.

[2] Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters.  Trans. M.B. DeBevoise. Harvard: Harvard Unity Press, p. 87.

[3] Nikolaidou, Afroditi.  “The Performative Aesthetics of the ‘Greek New Wave.’” Filmcon Journal of Greek Film Studies 2, 2014, p. 21

[4] Chalkou, Maria. “A New Cinema of ‘Emancipation’: Tendencies of Independence in Greek Cinema of the 2000s”. Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, 3:2, 2012, p. 245.

[5] Papadimitriou, Lydia. “Locating Contemporary Greek Film Cultures: Past, Present, Future and the Crisis.” Filmcon Journal of Greek Film Studies 2, 2014, p. 1.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] Lykidis, Alex. “Crisis of Sovereignty in Recent Greek Cinema.” Journal of Greek Media & Culture 1:1, 2015, p. 10.

[8] Papadimitriou, p. 2.

[9] Jameson, Fredric “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text, 15, 1986, p. 69.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Aijaz Ahmad, “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory.’” Social Text, 17, 1987), pp. 3-25.

[12] Szeman, Imre. “Who’s Afraid of National Allegory?” South Atlantic Quarterly, 100:3, 2001, p. 804.

[13] Here are two recent arguments in favor of and opposed to thinking of Greece as ‘third-world.” See also note 25 below.

[14] Jameson, p. 69.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] In Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture Gregory Gregory Jusdanis is at pains to remind his readers that “aesthetic autonomy, the determining feature of western literature, does not necessarily characterize all cultures.” Such notions did not become dominant in Greece until the 1930s. See Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 8; 72.

[18] Szeman, p. 814.

[19] Jameson, p. 69.

[20] Rejali, Darius. Torture and Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 436; Panourgia, Neni. Dangerou Citizens: The Greek Left and the Terror of the State. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009, p. 130

[21] Papadimitriou, p. 10

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 12

[24] Olga Kourelou, Mariana Liz, and Belen Vidal. “Crisis and Creativity: The New Cinemas of Portugal, Greece, and Spain.”  New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 12.1-2, 2004,

  1. 134.

[25] Edmund Burke III helpfully argues that in the nineteenth century the Mediterranean region, “semiperipheral with respect to the world capitalist system and characterized by weak state structures, delayed or muffled class formation, agrarian backwardness, and the persistence of pastoralism,” can be said to have “foreshadowed [. . .] the historical experiences of the Third World in its unity and diversity.” Burke III, Edmund. “Toward a Comparative History of the Modern Mediterranean, 1750-1919.” Journal of World History 23:4, 2012, p. 924-5.

[26] Lykidis, p. 11

[27]: In an interview given immediately following the Brexit vote Costas Lapavitsas said the following:

“The left for too long has associated the EU with progressive policies and progressive politics. That must change, because people have got genuine grievances about the EU, and the ones who are benefiting politically from these grievances are the extreme right. So we must rethink left-wing politics along the lines that I’ve already suggested for Britain for the whole of the continent.

“That doesn’t mean going back to a state of national competition, nationalism, or anything of the sort. It’s a fallacy to counterpose the false cosmopolitanism and false internationalism of the EU to extreme nationalism. The left never subscribed to this idea of internationalism coming from Brussels. The historic left never subscribed to this idea of internationalism coming from Brussels. This is bourgeois internationalism. The left has always had different ideas about internationalism and it must rediscover those urgently.”

Costas Lapavitsas, “The Left Needs to Develop an Alternative Plan for Europe,” Verso Blog, 27 June 2016.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Lobster: Debt, Referenda, and False Choices

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