Oscar Watch 2023: Poor Things


While I wouldn’t say that any of us at Flixist are big Yorgos Lanthimos fans, we’re all familiar with the films he has made. When Poor Things was gearing up for release and its eventual Oscar campaign, none of us had the thought, “This is so weird for the Oscars!” To us, Poor Things was just another extension of Lanthimos’ career that almost seemed to be going for mainstream appeal.

There’s not really much extra depth I can give to Poor Things as Emma Stone’s recent Oscar win has put a gigantic spotlight on the movie. People have been dissecting its themes since release and while a Lanthimos film would normally only be seen by film nerds or art students, Poor Things finally brought him into the limelight (2018’s The Favourite notwithstanding). That’s only a good thing as it will lead to more releases and an expanded audience for his unconventional style. People are already getting hyped for Kinds of Kindness, so Lanthimos could be seeing back-to-back Oscar runs.

Anyway, my prior exposure to Lanthimos came from his 2009 film Dogtooth. Heralded by many film nerds as an absolutely bonkers experience, I think I was a bit too young when I initially watched the movie. I believe it was roughly 12 years ago when I watched it, but I was put off by the extreme violence and bizarre style. I did think its narrative was interesting, dealing with a couple that shelters their children from the outside world and teaches them a revisionist and manipulative version of history. Poor Things is most certainly not Dogtooth.

© Searchlight Pictures

Apart from its Oscar nominations, what piqued my interest in Poor Things was the discourse around the film online. Coming from people who either have no media literacy or have never seen something outside of the norm, there’s a shocking number of misinformed and angry readings of this movie. I figured I was in for another Dogtooth with a sometimes-obtuse message that could be construed in multiple ways. Nope: Poor Things is probably Lanthimos’ most straightforward film yet.

The strangest of these misinterpretations comes with regard to Mark Ruffalo’s character Duncan Wedderburn. People seem to have a hard time figuring out he is the “villain” of the movie and believe there is a sympathetic message to his story thread. I’m not sure how. At one point during the scene in Paris, Duncan is throwing a hissy fit in the streets and screaming at Bella (Emma Stone) that she’s a “CUNT!” I don’t think you could get any more explicit with that reading if you tried.

The only characters you could say that have sympathetic arcs are Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) and Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). Both start off trying to imprison Bella in Godwin’s laboratory and then eventually learn to let her go. By the end, they accept the woman she has become. Max is maybe possessive of her in the start and there’s always the undercurrent of him being attracted to a literal child, but that isn’t a failing of the movie. The film is meant to be uncomfortable with the themes it broaches.

© Searchlight Pictures

It’s astonishing that I can bring up topics surrounding Poor Things without even discussing the film itself. That isn’t to say the movie is bad or uninteresting: there are a lot of good qualities here. I love the film’s visual design, evoking a kind of Tim Burton style while utilizing CG in creative ways. I like the blunt and humorous dialogue that finds amusement in the mundane and often sees Bella blurt out inappropriate words on a whim. Emma Stone has done a really great job evoking the naivety that Bella would have.

If we focus on what the film does, I think its best aspect is the inversion of the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope. There are a ton of smarter people than me who have written on what that trope is and how problematic it can be, but Poor Things embraces the ugliness of the idea. Emma Stone is stunning, as always, but you aren’t supposed to be rooting for Bella to get taken on a sex adventure by Duncan. While Bella might find sexual liberation during her time in Paris, it’s supposed to be gross that all these old men come onto her in the whore house. Everyone wishing they can get a piece of her is disturbing and the film never attempts to paint it otherwise. It’s not the usual blueprint for the trope, which would see the naïve woman portrayed as a prize or an idealistic form of beauty.

There has also been talk about how my reading just now is wrong because the film is comedic. Again, I believe this is likely coming from a crowd that doesn’t understand what a dark comedy is. Lanthimos’ previous work often veers into the realm of black, or dark, comedy. These are films that find humor in otherwise oppressive surroundings and taboo subjects -think religious humor or making light of someone’s death-. When Bella introduces Martha von Kurtzroc to Duncan and blurts out, “She hasn’t been fucked in 20 years,” you’re supposed to be laughing. It’s funny not just because of how direct Bella is, but because of how against the grain the phrasing is. There’s also a moment at the end where Duncan accuses Godwin of spewing blood like a demon and Max retorts, “He has cancer, you fucking idiot!” Comedy gold.

© Searchlight Pictures

But, getting back to my point, films about tough subjects aren’t required to dance on eggshells when it comes to dialogue. While I wouldn’t suggest following a sexual assault sequence with a big musical number, life is all kinds of bizarre. Even now, I can go from writing this article to accidentally falling down my stairs and injuring myself in an instant. One doesn’t preclude the other and the stark tonal shifts in Poor Things are a better representation of life than most “serious” movies can manage.

The thing that bothers me about Poor Things is that I believe any conversation moving forward is going to be more about the reception from the general public than the film itself. While I enjoyed the movie and have a lot I could praise, I mostly thought it was “good.” The film is an enjoyable dark comedy with a solid message about self-actualization, liberation from patriarchal chains, and the weakness that men believe is a strength (they are the Poor Things, after all). That people seemed to have either missed or misinterpreted that is puzzling.

At any rate, I’m happy that more people have been exposed to Lanthimos’ style and that there does seem to be a general appreciation for what he achieved with Poor Things. People aren’t hate watching this movie and while social media is driving me nuts with how misinterpreted things are, any sane person can see that Poor Things isn’t an endorsement of the themes it touches. For Lanthimos’ next film, however, I hope he goes back to being impenetrable and obtuse.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.