A perspective on Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor things

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For all its faults, America’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – bestower of the Oscars – intentionally or otherwise occasionally directs attention to films that may ordinarily not have had the audience they deserve. One very likely example is Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor things.

Streaming now in South Africa, the film stars Emma Stone, who was named Best Actress in early March at the 2024 Academy Awards. This version of the macabre tale is based on a 1992 novel of the same name, which was written by Alasdair Gray. The setting is fantastical with undertones of the Victorian era in England.

It is the time when evidence-based medicine is unfolding. A radical reshaping is taking place. This was the era from which the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hailed. Scenes of those wedding cake tiers of doctors peering down at a central slab will be familiar.

In Poor things, Godwin Baxter – played by Willem Dafoe – is a renowned surgeon comfortable with being the centre of attention. But he is ailing and advertises for an assistant, who duly arrives in the form of Max McCandles, played by Ramy Youssef.

Wedderburn is desperate to please, and so he seems little perturbed by Dr Baxter’s menagerie of various homemade and very-much-alive creatures. It seems that Baxter has been experimenting away from the limelight, and clearly – as was often the case in that time – on himself.

It is, however, the surgeon’s daughter that requires observation. Bella Baxter, played by Stone, is distinctly off-kilter, but nothing as grotesque as the rest of the household. Soon enough, Wedderburn and the young woman fall for each other, a relationship that is thrown into disarray with the arrival of the flamboyant Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).

Stone gives a sterling performance, which, of course, makes the Oscar well deserved. She was up against stiff competition: Annette Bening (Nyad), Lily Gladstone (Killers of the flower moon), Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of a fall) and Carey Mulligan (Maestro). All had been circulating for some time, while Poor things was the last to be released and just ahead of the deadline for the Academy’s submissions.

It wasn’t surprising that many people had little idea of the movie. “Recently watched Poor things on Disney+. Glad I had no idea what it was about beforehand,” tweeted Sibusiso Biyela.

Or that the film caused such a difference of opinion. It was glorious, in our era where algorithms are usurping our choices – from films to music and beyond. In Filterworld: How algorithms flattened culture, Kyle Chayka (2024) says, “Over the twentieth century, taste became less a philosophical concept concerning the quality of art than a parallel to industrial-era consumerism, a way to judge what to buy and judge others for what they buy in turn.”

He echoes Martin Scorsese’s sentiments in a 2021 essay for Harper’s Magazine. The filmmaker writes:

[T]he art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content”.

“Content” became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.

Everything has changed – the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture …. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business”, and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property.

[The art of cinema is] among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.

If anything, Poor things certainly contributes to the evolution of our understanding of cinema, because it has managed what endless amounts of content on streaming platforms have been unable to do: it has got us talking.

That it is an engrossing story played by an outstanding cast makes it so much better.

This was Stone’s third collaboration with Lanthimos. A fourth will be realised in June with the release of Kinds of kindness, which also stars Dafoe, Margaret Qualley and Jesse Plemons.

Lees ook op LitNet:

Poor things: a film review

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