Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Poor Things: on eating life with a big spoon

When an unstoppable id meets an immovable world

A brain extirpated from an unborn fetus and transplanted onto a dead adult's head sounds like the farthest thing from comedy. And yet Poor Things finds a way to turn this gruesome premise into an unapologetic exploration of the bodily experience, mishaps and all. Deliberately oblivious to the constraints of "polite society" (it's no coincidence that in her former life she had the same name as the famously horny Queen Victoria), this newly formed creature meets the world with inexhaustible wonder. Every sensation is new, every place is a delight, every new friend is interesting. Not only is it uncommon to see a Bildungsroman about a female protagonist; this protagonist is, in a twisted way, already a grown-up whose brutal honesty makes up for the maturity she supposedly lacks. The milestone life experiences that usually crush a part of us, leaving us slightly more jaded each time, only make her open up even more. She has nothing to disguise, so she can't be humiliated, and the unwise few who try to manipulate her with fear or shame end up swallowed, digested and excreted by her continuous hunger for more life, more learning, more freedom. The story places her in the well-trodden plot of finding herself, except she's never been lost. She's already comfortable in her own being; the only thing she's missing is a taste of everything.

There are, however, problematic sides to this characterization that aren't acknowledged in the story. With a baby's mind and an adult's appearance, she quickly falls into the trope of Born Sexy Yesterday, which is exactly what Victorian patriarchs want her to be: available, pliant, undemanding. This is what moves them to prey on her in the first place, although it's the same trait that allows her to more easily get rid of possessive lovers, because her sexual needs aren't tied to one specific person. She's happy to be taken, but not owned. The problem is the alteration to her humanity that it took to get her to that carefree state. It's hard to cheer for her erotic experimentation when one remembers that she's mentally a child who doesn't know she's a child. Poor Things wants to answer the question of what a woman's life could be if men's attempts to control her bounced off her without effect, but the device it chooses to employ for approaching that question results from extensive, violent male manipulation of a female body. A woman shouldn't have to literally lose her mind and identity in order to become her own person.

I'm not a woman, so I'm unqualified to declare whether Poor Things is feminist. Women who have reviewed this film have already delved into that topic, both mildly approvingly and very much not, and it's probably a good sign that varying answers are possible. Liberation shouldn't take only one form, and some flavors of liberation will be more appealing to some people, and others more to others. It may be too much to expect this single brain-transplanted creature to fix Victorian inequalities, but in each of her personal interactions, one can notice a growing desire to share her joy for life. The lover who kidnaps her thinks he's using her, he thinks he's a hedonist, he thinks he's free from social conventions, but he's unable to appreciate what she could teach him. She's the real hedonist, the real user, the really free, so of course she leaves him when he refuses to be as free as she is. The friend who teaches her about the pains of the world thinks he's breaking her, he thinks she needs a dose of reality, but she's the one who lives in reality. It doesn't even occur to him to do what he can to alleviate the suffering around him. She does try, and it doesn't matter that others predictably take advantage of her good intentions. This is not a character at whom you can yell "you ought to know better." She exists in a broken world, but the story is not about that broken world. The function of this plot point is to mirror Buddha's path toward enlightenment, which started when he left his pampered palace life and saw suffering for the first time.

You may have valid reasons to criticize this hypernarrow focus on one individual's personal progress, but it's a choice the film does consciously. Several shots are filmed literally with this extreme focus: the protagonist's singular perception dominates the angle from which you're allowed to see the story. We're shown a world with multicolor skies and air railways and impossibly tall towers, and it's an open question whether that's what the world is like or that's how it appears to her. Meeting the outside world for the first time is such a surreal experience for her that even the background landscape shines to the point of warping around her.

The structure of the film is similarly affected by the way she inhabits life. The plot is interrupted by big digressions that she takes to with natural ease, existing purely in the moment. She makes impulsive yet significant choices with no care for narrative momentum, sometimes forcing a scene to snap into an unrelated trajectory. What she wants and what she does is not interested in our expectations of how life should proceed, so it can be jarring to have to adjust to her journey's irregular pace, and that's the point. When we feel like Poor Things is failing to follow the established rules of filmmaking, it's the character seizing her fate in her hands and playing with it.

For all that she discovers and grows and moves past, she's still a child at heart, still motivated primarily by fun, still untainted by learned cruelty. And when she deals with a broken world by exposing her entire, unbreakable self, we may react with shock, or amusement, or pity, or concern, but in the end, we can't help harboring a little nagging bit of envy.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.