I think one of the reasons the ending of The Lobster leaves people so bemused and unsure is because it’s a philosophical ending rather than a resolution. Movies and books have trained us to expect resolution. Ask anyone what the parts of a story are and they’ll say, “Beginning, middle, end.” And typically that end takes the form of a conclusion. The hero is victorious or defeated. The authoritarian institution triumphs or gets brought down. Someone finds love or they don’t.
The resolution ending is standard when telling a story for the sake of telling the story. But it’s less standard when the story is a tool for an examination of humanity.
That sounds pretentious, but that’s the realm of art, right? To explore and examine what it means to be alive. To try to make sense of the world, even if that’s through a defamiliarization of the world.
In the case of The Lobster, the world is very defamiliarized. It’s a full-blown dystopia. But the details of the society are thin. Over the course of the movie, we realize that couples are forced to have something in common; that it’s the government that turns people into animals; that there’s a normal-but-stilted society where people live in the city, have homes, go to the mall, and live semi-basic lives if not kind of emotionally reduced lives. You can exist in this society as long as you follow their very stringent rules.
The Lobster isn’t telling us a story about this weird and whacky world. It’s using this weird and whacky world as way to ask us a question. “If you were in the situation David is in, what would you do? Do you blind yourself? Do you not and become an animal? Why?”
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The shape of things
At the end, we see David and the woman he loves (Rachel Weisz) at a diner. They’ve escaped the Loners, which means now they have to blend into normal society.
But the problem is that, in this society, everyone has to have a defining characteristic, and every couple has to share that characteristic. Fair enough. This had been fine when David and Rachel (she’s otherwise nameless) were both shortsighted. But now that Rachel has been blinded…David’s only real choice is to blind himself.
If this weren’t a weirdly specific movie where everyone is a little bizarre, David would have other options. But The Lobster doesn’t want us to consider other options. It wants to bring us to this moment of truth where Rachel waits at the diner table while David goes to the bathroom to blind himself with a steak knife by stabbing his eyes.
The last shot is of Rachel, at the table. Waiting.
Ruling out resolution
Clearly this is not a resolution. The story’s main consideration had been whether David could find love. He has, but the duration of that relationship depends on him inflicting these wounds on himself. Should he go through with them…then he’ll be able to spend the rest of his life with Rachel. Should he not go through with it…he’ll not only break the heart of the woman he loves, he’ll probably become a fugitive wanted by the state for being a “loner.” This increases the odds that he and Rachel will each be turned into animals. The fact that we don’t know what happens to David means the story does not wrap up.
If this was a story designed to have a resolution, this would be a bad one.
But if this was a story designed around a philosophical question, then this is a perfectly fine ending.
Philosophy for you and me
In storytelling, there’s a basic need to bring the narrative to a moment of climactic choice. Stories that want to resolve will show this choice and then show the reaction of the world to that choice. So in Star Wars, Luke has to decide whether or not to help the Rebel forces blow up the Death Star. He chooses to. Then we watch that play out. He succeeds. The Death Star explodes. Everyone is happy. That’s some resolution.
But if Star Wars was an exercise in philosophy then it would end with Luke having to decide whether or not to join a Rebel army and take the lives of the enemy. We’d be left without an answer. We’d never know if the Empire wins or loses. If Luke becomes a hero or dies trying or scurries away out of fear. We’d just have endless debates.
Why do philosophical endings deny us the satisfaction of a character making a decision?
Because it begs the question, “What do you think happens? “
Which is a different way of asking, “What would you do in this situation?”
To eye or not to eye, that is the question
If you were in a society where you could only marry someone that had the same defining feature as you…would you blind yourself to be with the person you love?
That’s really the mental exercise that The Lobster is. All of the hotel stuff. All of the Loner resistance stuff. All of the dystopian society. The entire purpose of it is to build the final moment of choice and leave the audience to asking themselves: What did he do?
And then: What would I do?
From there, the question gains nuance.
If you’re in David’s world…
If you’re in David’s world, what are your choices? Blind yourself to be with this person? Or don’t do that and get turned into an animal?
Either way is kind of bleak. If you blind yourself, you’re no longer living the same life as before, or capable of the same things as before. Your life fundamentally changes. But if you’re turned into an animal, you’re also not living the same life as before, or capable of the same things as before. So is it better to be blind and living with the person you love, or is it better to be an animal with all five senses?
If we were in our world…
So in real life we don’t have to have a defining characteristic. No one is going to turn is into an animal if we’re single. The stakes are much much much lower. If anyone was trying to make you blind yourself out of love…well, they’re probably a psychopath and you should run away.
But we can extrapolate. When you commit to a relationship, there’s always a cost. In most cases, this is a matter of losing a bit of your individuality. Instead of being a single entity, you’re now part of a couple. You can’t just move into whatever apartment you want. You have to consider how the move will affect the relationship. If the apartment you want is 30 minutes away from where your significant other lives…that could be a problem. If you want to live in the middle of downtown and they don’t…that could be a problem. You have to compromise.
But this can be bigger than compromise. If you love NYC but your significant other gets a job in San Francisco…do you move?
What if you go on a few dates with someone, are falling for them, then they tell you they have a child? Does that change things for you? Do you flinch? Or are you fine with it?
None of these things are as serious as having to blind yourself, but they are examples of the cost of a relationship.
“That’s all well and good, Chris. But is there a resolution? Can’t a movie do both resolution and philosophy?”
Oh, yeah, certainly. I think something like Blade Runner is a good example of mixing resolution and philosophy. We get the initial conclusion to the showdown with the replicants, but there’s the philosophical with Deckard making a choice to run away with Rachael. The question there isn’t would we choose to run or not…it’s would we be able to love an android as though it were a human. Deckard can because he now believes there’s no difference between humans and replicants. Or at least doesn’t care.
If we’re looking at the resolution of The Lobster then I would argue that the conclusion is in the title itself. A lobster is the animal David chose to become if he were turned in to one. If David chose to blind himself, then the title is a very limited one, as it only applies to the theoretical of what David would become. But if David chooses to not blind himself…we’re probably safe in assuming that he gets captured and is returned to the hotel to become an animal. In which case he would become the lobster.
I also can’t help but compare The Lobster to 1984 and Brazil. All three are dystopian society films that follow very similar narrative arcs.
The character starts within a cruel dystopian system. They start to doubt the system. They break out of the system and meet up with a resistance force. The woman they love is part of the resistance force. But the resistance force ends up falling apart.
In 1984 and Brazil, the main characters are caught, tortured, and ultimately rehabilitated into the system. They aren’t dead, but they have lost the essence of their individuality.
For much of its narrative, The Lobster follows the exact trajectory of 1984 and Brazil. That means it is either using their basic structure to eventually diverge, which is something V for Vedetta does. Or it’s using the exact same structure because The Lobster is a retelling of 1984.
If The Lobster wanted to borrow in order to set-up the divergence…then we never see it actually diverge. And there’s no real implication of diverging. Which I think would support the reading that David fails to blind himself, opting instead to be subjugated by the system. Just like the endings of 1984 and Brazil. In this world, that means becoming a lobster.
Rachel is waiting
I do think it’s worth noting that there’s a bit of a hold on Rachel while she waits for David to return. The shot maintains for enough time to create the doubt he may not return. To the point where we may be looking out the huge window behind Rachel, expecting to see David running down the street, abandoning her to her fate. The hold here functions as dramatic moment to make us wonder what’s taking so long. We start to expect David to come back any second…any second…the more time that passes the more we’ll worry he won’t show up. It’s a nice use of tension building, especially leading to this final moment.