Even though the story is essentially a romance, the satirical tone is a good clue that we’re not dealing with a Buddy Love movie, and indeed the story doesn’t center on the main character’s relationship. And even though the main character is dealing with a new life stage (divorce/singlehood), to categorize this as a Rites of Passage would be kind of missing the point. This is a story that explores the institution that is built up around our fear of being single and alone — the difference between being coupled at any cost and the kind of love that makes one willing to sacrifice almost anything.
Opening Image: A woman finds three donkeys standing idly at the side of a quiet country road. The woman pulls over, runs toward the donkeys… and shoots one of them! Several times. She then runs back to her car and drives away.
We are now primed for a unique story, indeed. It takes place in a world that seems a lot like ours, but seen through a sly, darkly funny lens. So the tone is set.
But if we’re looking for an Opening Image that will act as the “before snapshot,” I think the next scene does this job:
We meet our hero, David (Colin Farrell), just as he’s being dumped by his wife. She apologizes; she’s met someone else.
Set-Up: Immediately after the dumping, David is escorted (along with his pet dog) to a place called The Hotel. Through his intake process we learn the rules of this world: single people become guests at The Hotel, where they have 45 days to find their match. This is a requirement of the laws of The City; single people are not allowed.
Theme Stated: His first day there, the Hotel staff rig David with one arm behind his back. It’s only temporary – an exercise to show him “how easy life is when there are two of something instead of just one.” This is what they’re selling, and what we’ll be exploring: real connection vs. coupling up for convenience.
Catalyst: I’ll be honest – I’m not sure there’s a clear Catalyst. There are a few possibilities:
1) Back at the start of the movie, when David’s wife kicks him out. This fits the Catalyst parameters of being something which shakes the hero, and is done to him. Or,
2) At minute 7, David looks out his hotel room window and sees the unconscious bodies of captured “Loners.” These are single people who live as outlaws in the woods, refusing to adhere to society’s demands to couple up. Guests of The Hotel are taken on hunting expeditions; for each Loner they bring in, guests are given an extra day on their stay. This could also be considered the Catalyst since, as we’ll see later, the choice David ultimately has to make is one typical of the Institutionalized genre: join, burn it down, or commit suicide. And seeing the Loners’ bodies is the first time we understand there’s an alternative – however bleak – to the institution that The Hotel represents.
(If you have thoughts on this, please let me know in the comments below!)
Everything at The Hotel is intended to groom the guests to “fall in love” – but really the emphasis is on coupling up, an important distinction in this story. When a guest fails to become part of a couple in the allotted time, he or she is turned into an animal.
Hey, the upside is they get to choose what kind of animal they’ll be! Still, no one here wants to fail and this ticking clock establishes urgency. We learn David’s pet dog is actually his brother, who stayed at the hotel a few years earlier and “didn’t make it.” David goes on the record: if he doesn’t make it, he wants to be a lobster.
Debate: The debate in this movie shows David making a couple of new friends, Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), and the three of them getting acquainted with each other and the new world of The Hotel together.
We meet a few of the female guests: Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden), sadly desperate Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), and Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) who is rumored to have “no feelings whatsoever” and is the “best hunter in the hotel – 192 captives.”
There’s a fair amount of world-building needed for this story, so this debate section really serves to continue our orientation and to show us the scope of the challenge that David is about to undertake.
Break into Two: On his first hunt, David doesn’t bring in any Loners. His days are ticking away. If he wants to succeed here, he’s going to have to try harder. What will he do for love? His journey begins in earnest.
B Story: David’s friend Limping Man is the savviest of the three friends; he explains how they’re turned into animals and tries to impress on them the seriousness of their situation. And later, Limping Man’s subplot will play out one part of the thematic argument.
Fun and Games: We’re shown some hilariously absurd “dangers” of being alone, as demonstrated by Hotel staff.
And we learn just how far The Hotel goes to prime their guests to search for a partner: no masturbation is allowed, yet one of the duties of the Hotel maid (Ariane Labed) is to bring David to a point of… unsatisfied arousal. David is told this will help him psychologically in his search, and it is required.
The pressure mounts. David witnesses Limping Man give himself a nosebleed so that he’ll appear to be a perfect match to Nosebleed Woman. When David confronts his friend, Limping Man lays it out: “What’s worse, to die of cold and hunger in the woods, to become an animal that will be killed and eaten by some bigger animal, or to have a nosebleed from time to time?”
These are the choices they face. David answers, “to become an animal that will be killed and eaten by some bigger animal” would be the worst. This reinforces what David must do, and what’s at stake.
At a formal reception, Limping Man and Nosebleed Woman are announced as an official couple. “They are very much in love and perfectly suited. They both have the same problem with their noses.”
David comes up with a new strategy: he targets Heartless Woman, who has no other suitors. He pretends to be as cruel as she is. It seems to work; Heartless Woman accepts him and they’re announced as a couple. It’s not perfect, but at least he’s safe. Until… Heartless Woman deliberately kills David’s dog/brother. David tries to keep his horror and grief under wraps, but Heartless Woman sniffs it out. He lied, and she’s going to turn him in.
David makes a run for it! The Hotel maid helps him escape, and —
Midpoint: David makes it to the woods, where he intends to start a new life. In classic midpoint fashion the stakes are raised here since living in the woods brings the constant threat of being hunted.
David joins up with a band of Loners. They help each other to survive, but there’s no romance or sex allowed in this outsider society; they’re anti-couple.
And then David sees… Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), another Loner. The attraction is mutual. And guess what? David is short-sighted too. It seems that David may have found his match, in the most unlikely of places. But now that he’s taken a vow of Lonerism, what can he do?
Bad Guys Close In: We get a hint that something big is brewing – a secret plot the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) is hatching with some help from inside The Hotel.
In the meantime, Loner Leader also has her eye on David and Short Sighted Woman. Loner Leader sees them growing closer. And that makes this Company (Wo)man suspicious, then angry.
We finally see what the Loners’ plot amounts to when they infiltrate The Hotel and hold the Manager (Olivia Colman) and her Partner (Garry Mountaine) at gunpoint. The Loners force the Partner to choose which one will die – him or her? The Loners don’t kill either; they’re just there to prove that coupling up is a sham.
All Is Lost: After the successful mission, the Loners celebrate (by dancing alone, together). Still – right on time! – we’re shown a whiff of death as Loner Leader reminds David he needs to dig his own grave. Literally. Because he’s going to die alone, there will be no one to do it once he’s gone.
This is David’s false defeat as it drives home the point that fully throwing in with the Loners means saying goodbye to the possibility of love, for good.
Dark Night of the Soul: David sees another Loner man bringing rabbits to Short Sighted Woman (they’re her favorite food). David is instantly jealous and defensive, practically attacking the other man.
Break into Three: David can’t deny his true feelings, no matter how much easier that would make things. He finally decides to go for it!
David and Short Sighted Woman secretly plot to leave the woods and live in the City together, as a couple. Unbeknownst to them, Loner Leader learns of their plan…
Loner Leader takes Short Sighted Woman into the City for a surprise eye surgery appointment. This is a good thing (so she says), as having better eyesight will improve her chances of survival in the woods. Short Sighted Woman can’t risk rejecting the surgery – that might tip the others off. But will the surgery make her incompatible with David? Or is their love true enough to withstand the change?
When the surgery is over, the real surprise is revealed: Loner Leader has had Short Sighted Woman blinded.
Finale: David and Short Sighted Woman grapple with this new obstacle. They look for any other trait that could create enough of a compatibility to justify being together. They can’t find one. Yet – he still wants to be with her. Do they need more reason than that?
They fight past the Loner Leader and make their escape!
And just when we think we might get a happy ending, we remember what a weird, dark tale this is.
Final Image: David and Short Sighted Woman in a diner booth, where David asks to see her profile… her fingers… her elbows… and then asks the waitress for a knife. He takes the knife into the bathroom and prepares to make his “sacrifice.”
In the dystopian world of this Institutionalized story, it seems that David must sacrifice his sight in order to be with the woman he loves.