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Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation (detail)
Article Film

The Animal and the Angel: Two Anti-Love Stories

Dawn LaValle

The Lobster, 2015. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

Her, 2013. Directed by Spike Jonze.

The animal and the angel can be useful ways to think about the human. Two recent films have done precisely that, in very different ways. One beguiles, one shocks, but both The Lobster (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos) and Her (directed by Spike Jonze) are thought-provoking “love stories” that question the very possibility of love in the modern world.

The Lobster is a fable about the attempt to find one’s perfect partner, set in a bizarre dystopian parallel world where any single person who fails to find a suitable partner after 45 days is turned into the animal of his/her choice (the main character chooses a lobster, hence the title). The world is structured around the idea that partnerships are formed only as a result of an easily-identifiable similarity between the partners, which is frequently a handicap such as a limp or poor eyesight.

The plot centers around a man named David (Colin Farrell), who has been left by his wife of twelve years, and so begins his time at “The Hotel” trying to find his next partner. After one failed attempt, he flees into the woods to the alternative community of “loners” who are, by contrast, forbidden from forming relationships. There he actually does form a new relationship: with an unnamed woman (Rachel Weisz) who is short-sighted like himself (this was the thing that also connected him to his first wife). When she is blinded in an attempt by the leader of the loners to drive them apart, David must decide whether he is willing to blind himself as well, to stay linked to her. The film ends with the steak knife poised to his eyes.

The film is saturated with animals who used to be humans, forests full of exotic wildlife and “too many dogs.” In fact, one of the main characters is a dog who used to be the protagonist’s brother and whose death is perhaps the most gruesome scene in a gruesome film. And just in case you don’t know what you’re getting into, the opening scene, occurring without a single word uttered, shows a woman driving out to the countryside and single-mindedly executing a horse in a field before silently returning to her car. The scene is left unexplained, to begin the film’s mode of disquiet.

Her is a fable about how the loss of a lover can really be a phase in the growth of love. It preaches that love exists to teach, to evolve personalities. It tells this story through the growth in the relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer’s operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Since Samantha is a bodiless person, and therefore akin to the angels, her ability to form romantic relationships is questioned by skeptics throughout the film. However, in the end, her very distance from the material world’s limitations provides her with new possibilities of love beyond that experienced by humans. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha encourages him to view his previous marriage, which ended right before the start of the film, as a phase in his own evolution, his own growth in the ability to love. But is the way a human loves similar to the way that a disembodied personality loves? Do Samantha’s lessons actually teach Theodore how to be a better human being?

The protagonists of the two films are uncannily similar. Both are men who have recently been left by women and are unenthusiastic about loving again. Both are coaxed by circumstance into a new love. Both have amazing moustaches. And both are confronted with the question of what is “real” in love.

Her is plagued by the question of what is real and what is fake. Theodore gets paid to be a surrogate for others’ emotions: his job is to write touching personal letters for other people to send. Yet, the way this is presented is far from cynical. The emotions are real, there are people who love each other behind it all, and Theodore is good at his job not only because he is a good writer, but because he is an empathetic man. Later in the film, Samantha makes an edited collection of the best of his letters, which is enthusiastically taken up by a book editor as “Letters from Your Life”—that is, letters from Everyman. But are these letters fake or real?

We encounter the same question with Samantha. Is she also a fake? Given that she is after all only a computer program who is built to evolve in response to her owner, does that make her nothing more than a projection of Theodore, a shadow of the human? Or does Samantha instead demonstrate the theme which is at the heart of the film: that we are all constantly developing because of the people that we encounter? Since she does not have to be in one place at any one time, Samantha can know many more people, talk to them simultaneously, be excited by their ideas, and apparently develop into a more articulated personality as a result. Humans do this too, as we see Theodore reflect on how he and his wife influenced each other profoundly, even though their relationship is now over. But the final sound we hear at the end of the film is the familiar “sigh” from Samantha. A sigh from a bodiless creature, who has no need of oxygen, a conceit she learned in order to express emotions the way humans do.

The Lobster also confronts the problem of truth and falsehood. Most of the relationships in the movie are based on lies of sameness: one man bangs his head against the table periodically to pretend he has regular nose-bleeds so that he can attract a nose-bleeding partner. And David’s attempted first match at the Hotel is based upon his pretending to be as heartless as the woman with whom he wishes to partner. While neither of these relationships last, the match he finds with the near-sighted woman seems more authentic, given that it is engaged in freely. However when his lover is maliciously blinded, and he considers blinding himself for her, the question is raised again. If he chooses to blind himself, is this a genuine connection, or a false one? Is it necessary to disguise or change who you are in order to fit into a world of perfect matches?

The problem of evolution championed by Her finds a more suspicious response in The Lobster. David’s adventures begin when he was left by someone who has found something better, although in the absurd world of the film, this is banalized by being a simple external characteristic. His wife has found someone who is more “shortsighted” than he is. Another character’s parents split up when his father finds another woman who is better at math than his mother. There is only one axis along which people “find their match”, and if that link is broken, or another comes along that is stronger, the relationship is entirely over. There is no development, only replacement, as people attempt to find a person that matches them best. When the main characters lose that which brought them together, David must decide whether or not he will change sufficiently to remain in partnership with the woman. But the change he contemplates is not the change that is involved in a developing human life: it is a loss, a maiming, a gruesome anti-life. Only the body would be changed, not the mind. The Lobster implies that the attempt to fit yourself to another leads literally to maiming, like Cinderella’s sisters who cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper.

The themes of these movies are illustrated by their respective publicity posters. Presented in stark black and white, The Lobster poster shows David and the near-sighted woman in an embrace, but cut in half and opened up. They are holding onto the erased body of the other, holding onto the hole, the missing piece. The film’s absurdist version of Aristophanes-like complementarity disfigures everyone involved. The figures of David and the near-sighted woman are grotesquely partial: they have been mutilated by trying to hold onto their other half.

The poster for Her shows a close-up of Theodore’s soulful face, in a saturated, blueless palette, with the words “Her” boldly written across him. And indeed, Her is about Him. Samantha is impossible to depict, because she is bodiless, but the poster also points to the disquiet that Samantha might be no more than a mirror of Theodore himself. The film’s vision of love focuses on how love affects the lover. In the end, it is a selfish film, one that rejects loyalty as an important consideration, or even the primacy of the beloved. The point of love is the evolution of the lover’s personality: it is essentially instrumentalist. While you certainly carry around part of all of those that you love, and you should be tender in your memories of them, you should also willingly let them go in order for both to move on.

Her concludes with Theodore verbally composing a goodbye letter to his ex-wife. The final sentences in the film express both the tenderness of the film’s universe as well as its lack of commitment:

…You made me who I am. I just wanted to let you know, there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend to the end. Love, Theodore. Send.

This is the first letter that Theodore has sent from his own person, this man whose job it is to write the personal letters of other people. When Samantha is saying her goodbye to Theodore the scene before, he tells her that he has never loved anyone as he has loved her. Her response is “well, now you know how.” Loving Samantha has taught him both how to let go of his earlier love, and potentially be open to love another, taking with him what he’s learned, constantly evolving, albeit at a slower speed than Samantha can. This is a genuine lesson, but only a partial one, which doesn’t teach him how humans might love differently from operating systems.

The Lobster, although a movie about metamorphosis, is not a movie about change. In each stage of the film, the characters remain in the same mental world. To be transformed into an animal is to be given a second chance to find your match. In the world of the loners, David and his woman are attracted to each other because of the very same logic as used in the Hotel. At the end, even in a moment of potential radical change, David is contemplating maiming himself because that is the only way to continue under the societal constructs of matching and mating that have been the rules of the film’s world. Animals fill the film because the humans are relentlessly pressed down to the simple logic of 2-by-2, like the rest of the creatures entering Noah’s Ark. They have no imagination to escape the world in which they live.

Her looks at those elements of the human that are not restricted to the body. Since it takes into account the emotions, the imagination and the mind, it is able to embrace mental change that would be impossible in the world of The Lobster. But in so doing, it falls into the opposite problem than that faced by The Lobster. To see love as only a means to develop personality might be a perfectly acceptable concept of love for an operating system. Humans, on the other hand, need more than that. They long for permanence, exclusivity, family. None of these are things that Samantha can give or indeed need. She loves thousands of people at once, she must be constantly growing and changing, and she has no ability to produce offspring with Theodore. If Theodore follows her teaching, he will become less human, developing only a fraction of himself.

Both Her and The Lobster are artistic, thought-provoking films that question the premises on which modern ideas of love are based. Her responds by saying that permanence squashes development. The Lobster responds by saying that in order to make ourselves suited to each other, we have to maim ourselves. They are both movies that try to be honest, that try to look beneath the surface of culture and habit to what goes on in the heart of the human, one in a nasty world full of animals, and one in a sublime world full of disembodied personalities. Through entirely different aesthetics, they both present a lonely view of the world. Both The Lobster’s bleak version of the unsatisfactory possibilities of modern loving, and Her’s attempt to offer a new type of hope after such loneliness are fundamentally unsatisfying, because neither chart an authentic course for the human, between the Scylla and Charybdis of the animal and the angel.

Dawn LaValle is a Fellow by Examination (JRF) in Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
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