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The Modern Prometheus Meets Kafka

My better late, than never movie review of POOR THINGS by Yorgo Lanthimos

Much to my chagrin, I finally saw the movie Poor Things at home. I streamed it off Prime and viewed it on my desktop remiss that I had let mixed reviews sway my going to the cinema, even with its long running time between the only two theaters in town. A purist I am, especially to the genre of creature and horror, the trailers combined with the “excessive, gratuitous sex” reviews gave the impression of a nubile Frankenstein monster meets Nymphomaniac vehicle that, frankly, was a turn-off.

Au contraire. 

A twist on the prodigal son parable, Poor Things is a coming of age story of a naive orphan, named Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). Under the wing of her eccentric caretaker, medical doctor, mad scientist, father figure named God (Willem Dafoe), Bella sets out to discover the world and returns home a self-realized woman with no regrets. Imbedded in the Frankenstein tale, Bella is found on the banks of the river Themes drowned, but still warm, and brought back to life by God. The movie is a delicious swirl set in a surreal world, replete with classic themes and Steampunk, industrial age visuals made for the big screen.

Poor Things meets Candide, meets Thais, meets Greenaway, O’Keefe and Kafka with magical sets and scenes and fantastic visuals trading in the snowy ice caps of the Himalayas in Lost Horizon for equally narrow passages and stairwells that lead to the Human Condition, or is it a conundrum?

Was it not Candide, as imagined in the novel by Voltaire, who set out in spite of the comfort (caging and boring) of his affluent life to explore the world under the pretext of optimism only to find the horrors of poverty, injustice and hardship undermining the quest for happiness. Atrocities veiled as “blessings in disguise” peck away at the idea “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds” central to the realizations and observations of Candide. Voltaire weaves true historical events of destruction and horror into Candide’s journey, animating the question of an omnipotent God, and if so is he really well meaning and kind? Does it suffice to blind ourselves with optimism at the expense of reality? To see things as they truly are and make our decisions accordingly is championed as the better path leading to satisfaction and happiness, as Candide ultimately turns to cultivating his own garden in these pursuits.

Similarly, Bella grows tired and bored of the confines of her opulent abode and dutiful caregivers. She desires to see what is on the other side of the locked doors and high fences with an exigency that culminates in her abrupt departure. She has been catered to and sheltered to the extent that she has never experienced true emotional pain nor hardship, her “upbringing” having fueled an unrelenting optimism and confidence that, in fact, does carry her through all of her escapades to come.

Nevertheless, her optimism does change and temper according to the realities that are swift to reveal themselves and she responds accordingly with her own maturing and evolution. Whether it be the mythical city of El Dorado in Candide or Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, Poor Things follows our heroine waking up from utopian dreams as her paradisiacal highs fall into all-time lows, reminding me of the famous quote from Lost Horizon, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

As soon as her journey begins, the glamorous highs quickly fall prey to the impetuous Bella who is distracted and curious by all sensorial experiences that come her way leading to conflicts with her traveling partner and lover (Mark Garofalo). Eventually, the pair find themselves penniless after Bella has given away all of his gambling winnings that were to fund their adventure. A critical shift in the plot occurs from a lofty height when Bella, standing at a rail on a cruise ship looks down upon a passing island and sees a ghetto of poor and starving people, notably babies.

Here , I am reminded of Lost Horizon, an adventure riddled with themes such as happiness, moderation, and societal responsibilities while also immersing the viewer in a mystical and mysterious world.

The movie, Lost Horizon, is renowned for its incredible sets and narrow stair scapes, this time set in an oceanic splendor instead of the icy snows of Tibet. Bella pays no heed to the warning of a fellow passenger that she has befriended while avoiding her lover, and steadfastly finds a descending staircase. Poignantly dressed in all white, her flowing gown augments her angelic intension in the climactically brief moment of extreme optimism that the money she can give them will actually help them. Her friend follows her closely, eventually embracing her in a collapse on the stairs where she bites his hand in primal rage.

As the camera pulls back we see the stairwell is dilapidated midway crumbling into the ghetto revealing no way in and no way out. 

Manic with unrealistic optimism she returns to the ship and still gazing down upon the island ghetto, she acquiesces to giving the cashbox to two deckhands standing by that offer her, tongue in cheek, to take the money down to the poor people. She believes the two deck hands and returns back to the cabin delivering a sobbing justification as to why she gave the money away. Her lover berates her and it is the beginning of the end of their relationship.

Making the best of it prevails as her motto as she forges ahead reincarnating the courtesan Thais, a character renowned in the eponymous novel by Anatole France based on Saint Thais Of Egypt.

Bella finds solace and a means of escaping her current predicament by working in a Parisian brothel. She quickly moves up the ranks and is finally exercising her ability to discern. Her experiences and life lessons are paying off as she gains respect over adoration. 

Thais was a courtesan, a famous a Greek Hetaira. A companion of Alexander the Great and other relations with powerful men in the time during the 4th century BC. She was real. In Ovid’s Remedia Amoris, Thais is taken to be the epitome of sex and the subject of his art. Indeed, she is quite a subject, eventually becoming the queen of Memphis in Egypt, by Alexander’s side.

At the end of the novel, the libertine Thais reunites with God and converts to Christianity, just as Bella returns home to her God and quickly transcends her hate, fleeting and only in the moment upon discovering the truth about how she was made, into compassion. The reunion is gentle and infused with unconditional love.

Bella’s journey, the same for Thais, is an exploration in moral principles and societal mores regarding sex and public etiquette with the oldest profession in the world still holding steady with solidarity, power and control.

Not to judge, but rather expose injustice, while working in the brothel Bella embarks on the road that she was always on from the beginning. Piecing together events and occurrences of her life, she compiles the data that led to her demise and the current state she is in, a monster. She then begins to right the wrongs that were done to her with an ultimate compassion, for God her father/creator, and just deserts for her antagonistic husband from her previous incarnation who, in a plot twist, shows up towards the end of the movie.

In the end Bella stands virtuous not tainted by the life she has led, but rather loyal to her experience, victorious with affianced Archibald, who has waited tirelessly for her return.

Visually the movie reminds me of the rich saturated pallet of Prospero’s Books, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And His Lover, and all of the luscious Peter Greenaway films that never turn a blind eye to the decay and stench, the brutal and perverse, the conniving and the happenstance of this world.

The frill and the billow, the nuance of rose petal, flesh colors, erotic glimpses of Georgia O’keeffe paintings come to life and are juxtaposed against the start black and suet of the industrial age. All of this visual opulence is layered into the nightmarishly complex, bizarre, and illogical- Kafkaesque quality of the entire film, the elemental theme of realism and the fantastic, taking us on a most provocative, yet familiar ride of the human condition.

Bella faces the bizarre and surreal predicament of discovering who, what, she really is and confronting the establishment, so to speak, in the form of her creator aptly named God in the film. The modern Prometheus meets Kafka, if you will.

I just loved this movie.

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