Poor Things”, More and Less of The Same

(Apolo­gies to sub­scribers who received a sec­ond and con­fus­ing mail on the Israeli/Arab post from Decem­ber (below). Mail­er­Lite had a glitch. Noth­ing I could do about that, but apolo­gies all the same.)

Poor Things is the eighth fea­ture from Greek film mak­er Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos and the fourth of his Eng­lish lan­guage films, which he’s been mak­ing with the Irish pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Ele­ment Pictures. 

But it was his third fea­ture, Dog­tooth, from 2009, which brought him to the atten­tion of inter­na­tion­al audi­ences and set the tone that we’ve come to expect from him.

Lan­thi­mos makes the sorts of arche­typ­al­ly Brecht­ian films designed to con­front you with your expec­ta­tions, to there­by upend them. Instead of using nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions and visu­al tropes to draw the view­er in and sub­merge them in his sto­ry, he delib­er­ate­ly draws their atten­tion to the con­ven­tions and tropes that he’s using. 

The idea being that you’re there­by forced to more active­ly think about what it is that you’re watching.

There’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with traips­ing sim­i­lar ter­rain to Lars Von Tri­er and Michael Haneke, or, for that mat­ter, to messrs Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Lind­say Ander­son, Dou­glas Sirk and Luis Buñuel before them. But it does mean that, the old­er you are and the more famil­iar you are with that well-trod­den path, the less like­ly you are to be impressed this time around. 

In oth­er words, Lan­thi­mos makes the sorts of films you loud­ly cham­pi­on in your teens and very ear­ly twen­ties, but which you lat­er become qui­et­ly embar­rassed about ever hav­ing celebrated. 

And, sure enough, Lan­thi­mos too has moved on, at least up to a point. His last two films, The Favourite, from 2018, and now Poor Things, both have rel­a­tive­ly con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tives that are most­ly told in the tra­di­tion­al way. The prob­lem is, that ‘most­ly’. 

Because he’s just not capa­ble of ful­ly jet­ti­son­ing his nat­ur­al anti-nar­ra­tive ten­den­cies. The result is a film that veers from being a con­ven­tion­al com­e­dy come social satire, to one that looks as if it could become an orig­i­nal and visu­al­ly arrest­ing art house film, before veer­ing back to being a ho-hum meat and two veg social comedy. 

All the per­for­mances are excel­lent. Emma Stone, obvi­ous­ly, as the harum scarum reimag­in­ing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s mon­ster for the me-too era. But equal­ly Mark Ruf­fa­lo, Willem Dafoe and Christo­pher Abbott. And, at times, it looks pos­i­tive­ly resplen­dent, with Rob­bie Ryan’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy com­bin­ing daz­zling­ly with Géza Ker­ti’s arrest­ing art direction.

But their tal­ents are con­tin­u­al­ly reined in as the direc­tor insists on pok­ing you in the ribs with his cal­cu­lat­ed overuse of those tedious fish-eye shots. He’s the peren­ni­al bright but over-active teenag­er who dis­cov­ers some­thing that irri­tates you, and keeps on doing it, know­ing that you know that he knows that it’s its rep­e­ti­tion that’s real­ly annoy­ing, rather than the thing itself. 

And so he’s just going to keep right on doing it, over and over again. Repeat­ed­ly. Until that but­ton in duly pushed. 

Which is a shame, because at times, that heady mix of cin­e­matog­ra­phy and art direc­tion sug­gest the film could have devel­oped into a fas­ci­nat­ing com­pan­ion piece to Dario Argento’s Sus­piria (1977) (reviewed by me ear­li­er here) and Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), if only it had been allowed to.

Instead of which, all we end up with it an unnec­es­sar­i­ly extend­ed (yet anoth­er near­ly two and half hour film), con­ven­tion­al comedy.

You can watch the trail­er for Poor Things below:

Bet­ter still, watch the trail­er for Argento’s Sus­piria:

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