Photo: Poor Things-Source IMDB.png
In discussions surrounding art of any kind, the issue of accessibility is one that is often talked about at length. The operative question of such dialogues is a simple, yet profound thought: How easily should the creative thesis of a work be identifiable, and at what point does a piece reach diminishing returns due to niche or avant-garde execution? Or, reducing the idea into terms that are not nauseatingly pretentious, how weird can a piece of art get before its message is muddled or lost entirely? To explore this idea, let’s take a look at Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” (2023) to unveil the complicated, but no less illuminating, truth about art and how it moves us.
Since its December release, “Poor Things” has enjoyed critical acclaim and has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards, according to IMDb. In many ways, the film is a typical Oscar darling. Masterfully inventive cinematography, emotional performances and tight, clever writing, culminate in an experience that is both fun and thought-provoking.
At the heart of “Poor Things” lies Emma Stone’s fascinating portrayal of Bella Baxter, a woman brought back to life with the brain of an infant. Stone takes full advantage of being given a character with such a novel premise, and the arc that unfolds throughout the story is consequently unique in a very singular way. Willem Dafoe is, naturally, a delight in the film as well. He utilizes his eccentric charm to full effect in the role of Godwin Baxter, the brilliant scientist who is Bella’s sole paternal figure. To understand and empathize with these two characters in particular is essential to forming a full appreciation for the themes this film is structured upon, and as such, the knockout performances truly elevate the experience.
Now, just what are the foundational ideas and messages of “Poor Things”? To explain every single one in adequate detail would require more than one writer and more than one article, so let’s focus on a few key concepts. It is interesting that Bella refers to Godwin as God. While functionally, this is simply a shortened version of his full name that a still mentally developing Bella can easily pronounce, it begs for deeper examination. At the thematic level, I do not believe that Godwin being referred to as God is any coincidence. To Bella, Godwin is the ever-present, seemingly all-knowing figure according to whom she lives her life. Whether you think Godwin is correct or not in his strict handle on everything Bella does, it is true that she only has freedom to the extent that he allows her to possess it. Although the Baxter residence is lavish and architecturally beautiful, its windows and doors remain coldly locked to Bella. In every conceivable way, her worldview is shaped — for both better and worse — by the restrictive confines of Godwin’s home. Despite this being the case, it is no easy task as a viewer to pass down any immediate, comprehensive judgment upon Godwin. The film makes it absolutely clear that there is a deep, loving connection between him and his surrogate daughter, one that persists to the end of Bella’s long journey of self-discovery. It is also no coincidence that Bella only begins to genuinely flourish and become in touch with herself through freedom and independence.
Indeed, living one’s life subservient to the ideals of another is no way to grow and change into the person you truly want to be. Bella does not discard her morals by straying from that path. In fact, the film makes it quite clear that her journey into the beautiful yet cruel wider world only served to equip her with a high degree of self-possession and an even greater appreciation for humanity. Bella will never again be able to live within the strict, ideological confines of Godwin’s world, but she is all the better because of it. Using these values as a platform, rather than a box, is what allows Bella to gain the perspective necessary to truly appreciate her existence and love the world around her.
So long as you’ve had your fill of exhilarating thematic analysis, the production value of this film warrants celebratory discussion as well. Bella’s bright and ornately detailed wardrobe ensures that the magnetic main character is indeed the consistent center of attention. The Victorian flare, for both the costumes and larger set design, means there is always something fascinating on-screen. Many shots resemble paintings, being as meticulously crafted as they are. From the snowy city streets of Paris, the expansive blueness of the sea and the hazy yellow skies of Alexandria, “Poor Things” has the visual character of a fairy tale, and Lanthimos’ direction is intent on immersing you in it. His cinematography here is always purposeful and is used to great effect on many occasions to elicit or reinforce the mood. Whimsical or comedic scenes utilize a fish-eye lens to establish both a sense of wonderment and a mystification of the film’s unique world. Conversely, tense, dramatic scenes are almost claustrophobic in their tightness and suspensefully drawn-out in their length.
With effective use of cinematic techniques, razor-sharp writing and masterful performances, “Poor Things” achieves a commendable feat. It stands as a high-concept, avant-garde film with deeply personal themes that never veers into the valley of inaccessibility. You need not be a film expert nor enter the theater with a notepad and pencil to walk away from “Poor Things” with at least a few things to talk about and contemplate. I personally found that the film left me thinking about it for days afterward, with ideas even beyond what has been discussed in this article. This, to me, is the mark of any truly great piece of art. A work that generates thoughtful discussion and has staying power in the human mind is bound to stand the test of time. “Poor Things” serves as a monument not just to the importance of art as a way of understanding culture and humanity, but also as a reminder that, often, the weird and the wild can be exponentially more powerful than the plain and the regular.
Carlo Constantine is a second-year Political Science major. CC1031591@wcupa.edu