Mainstream screen stories like Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Carol, Transparent and Looking have brought GLBTI lives into the multiplex and loungeroom. Sexually dissident characters seem no longer trapped in what film historian Vito Russo in 1981 memorably called the celluloid closet.
But what stories are these films telling? What are they celebrating or critiquing, and is representing non-straight or non-binary characters the only point that matters?
When the British Film Institute released a list of the 30 Best LGBT Films of All Time earlier this year, it was dominated by love plots. So too, queer film festivals are often crowded with narratives about romance, thwarted or otherwise.
From one point of view, though, the flowering of these seemingly dissident love stories represents a conservative step. Drawing on traditions of queer theory, some critics wonder what the political consequences of centralising the love story might be. Others suggest that recent queer cinema has a disturbing tendency to create a moralising panic about sexual practices that transgress the model of monogamous coupledom.
Queer theory took shape in the early 1990s, asking searching questions about the relationship between desire, identity and politics. Thinkers like Judith Butler argued that our identities aren’t set, but created; they’re an effect of social and power relations, rather than the ground upon which those relations unfold. Identity might be something you do, rather than who you are.
This also means identity categories are historically dynamic and malleable; they change over time – both in a broader cultural sense and in our own experiences.
The contest over “marriage equality” demonstrates the distinction between striving for recognition, and disrupting the terms under which that recognition is offered. Activists like Rodney Croome argue that gays and lesbians are excluded from full cultural citizenship because they’re denied the capacity to marry. For Croome and many others, specific sexual minorities deserve to have their love recognised.
Queer theorists like Annamarie Jagose, though, worry that these campaigns for recognition once-again normalise monogamous coupledom as the natural destination and desire for all. They suggest these campaigns tend to marginalise dissident desires. In so doing, they make life for those whose sexual and intimate lives fall outside the boundaries of the respectable couple more difficult.
I was a little surprised, then, to find myself recognising a distinctly queer sensibility in a recent film about the perils and pitfalls of heterosexual coupling – The Lobster (2015). Hailed by many critics as a dystopian love story steeped in the loneliness of modern life, to a queer reader, this film looks more like a savage critique of romantic love itself.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster imagines a near future in which single people are removed from The City, and admitted to The Hotel. Once admitted, if they don’t find a romantic partner within 45 days they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing.
David (Colin Farrell in an endearing performance as a short-sighted man with an adorable paunch) selects a lobster. He spends the next third of the film engaging in summer camp-like activities that mix match-making with ideological education. These single men and women, it would seem, must have forgotten the benefits of coupled life.
No character except David has a name, everybody else is known for a singular characteristic; The Short-Sighted Woman, The Limping Man, The Nosebleed Woman … Part of the film’s humour is produced by the sense that these individuals are being reduced to a singular characteristic, much like a menu of romantic possibilities. They simply must find their match.
After a strange narrative turn, David escapes to The Forest where a band of singles carve out a life of resistant survival. They reject the laws of The City and proclaim their capacity to exist as fully human outside the structure of the couple. In this environment, in fact, coupling is forbidden. Once a week the rebels get together for a boogie, but they only listen to electronic music, “because you have to dance alone.” It is, of course, in the forest where David meets his romantic match – a similarly short-sighted woman.
Expressed like this, The Lobster doesn’t sound tremendously funny, and yet it conforms to the usual plot of a romantic comedy. In this case, though, we are encouraged to be a little suspicious about the rules of this narrative game. What are the costs of living happily ever after, and what kind of lives do these ideals make impossible?
The Lobster is thus a profoundly discomforting film – and I suspect this is also why many film critics have struggled to write coherently about it. It is both utterly comical and completely confronting. One critic tellingly called the film “hideously funny.”
Perhaps this is no laughing matter. The narrative destination of coupledom exerts tremendous force in our imaginative and social worlds.
The Lobster takes this one step further. Characters treat friendships as stepping-stones as they move towards their romantic destination, and this means they can be shucked off with little consequence. The sovereignty of the couple completely orders their relational and political world.
Whilst our human rights might not be dependant on the achievement of romantic encouplement, the UN declaration of human rights does privilege the reproductive couple as an entitlement of political humanity. This historically contingent form of kinship is granted special status. So too, we don’t have to look very hard to realise that a whole raft of political and cultural privileges accrue around marriage and marriage-like relationships.
Indeed, as critic Guy Lodge noted in Variety, the “laws of [this] mundane dystopia…don’t look severely different from the world we live in now.” The resonances with our own world should be clear: this is simply a dystopian amplification of the cultural ideals we face every day.
Queer theorists ask thorny questions about how historically specific ideals and norms become entangled with, and perhaps even determine, our emotional lives. Romantic love, from this perspective, is a profoundly political feeling. The end of The Lobster is similarly unsettling; it is not clear whether we should be troubled or excited by romantic success and its associated costs.
It isn’t clear what alternative forms of kinship might take shape if we loosened the grip of the romantic couple on our interior and cultural lives – but queer films like The Lobster ask questions that encourage us to step into this unsteady and dangerous world.