Think Different

Poor Things, by Yorgos Lanthimos

Although Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 English-language debut The Lobster might not seem to have much in common with his latest picture Poor Things, the films share a darkly comic view of social engineering.

The highest ideal. Anti-austerity protest, London.

Extremely dark in the case of The Lobster.

Whereas Poor Things sustains a buoyant vibe throughout, The Lobster feels hopelessly grim, even when making us laugh.

The difference is not what happens – both stories underscore the penchant of our species for depravity – but how it is framed.

Poor Things largely confines itself to the perspective of its protagonist, Bella Baxter, brilliantly performed by Emma Stone.

After jumping off a bridge to her death, the pregnant woman is brought back to life by mad scientist Godwin Baxter, only with the brain of her unborn child taking the place of her own.

Because everything in the world seems new to her, she lacks the cynicism of grown-ups who have been disappointed too many times.

First, Bella follows in the footsteps of Mary Shelley’s famous monster, wriggling free of Godwin’s physical and psychological control. Then, we witness her crash headlong into the conventions of polite society and break on through to the other side.

This double liberation testifies to Bella’s practical anarchism.

She doesn’t want to be ordered around, whether the commands come from her creator or from a society in which her sex consigns her to the status of a second-class citizen.

Emma Stone has described the role of Bella as a thought experiment about someone without shame. That’s because Godwin’s God-defying brain transplant permitted her to bypass the years of insidious ideological programming that makes other women police themselves. From Lanthimos’s perspective, this means that Bella has been given a second chance.

On the surface, The Lobster is also about second chances.

In the first half of the film, we encounter the protagonist, David, beginning his stay at a residential program where people try to find a new partner.

Although that sounds like the weekly plot of the hit 1970s television series The Love Boat, we soon learn that David and his fellow patients do not pursue romance of their own volition.

Despite superficial similarities between their world and our own, they live in a society where it is mandatory to be pair-bonded. When someone loses a partner, whether due to death or, as in David’s case, being abandoned, they must find a new mate within 45 days, or they will be turned into an animal of their choosing.

The film’s title comes from David’s decision to become a lobster should he fail in this quest. As this choice indicates, he has been so beaten down by life that he is functioning on auto-pilot, metaphorically braindead.

The premise of The Lobster is a thought experiment structurally equivalent to the one that results in Bella’s character. Poor Things and The Lobster exaggerate aspects of our own world to the point of absurdity, thereby revealing their ideological underpinnings.

Historically, this kind of satire has been identified with political scepticism. Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide and the genre fictions that build on their legacy all underscore what happens when our best-laid plans go awry.

These counterfactual narratives share the conviction that when human beings concede too much power to idealists, the results are never pretty.

More often than not, these anti-idealist sentiments align with ideological conservatism. As these thinkers see it, human beings cannot transcend their fundamentally selfish natures, no matter how hard they try.

It’s better to construct society around awareness of this intractable problem than to act as though it can be overcome. Because once utopian ideas become flesh, they are bound to wreak havoc.

In interviews, Lanthimos has distanced himself from politics, insisting that he is simply interested in making art. This reflex also tends to be a sign of conservatism. If the belief that every aspect of existence can and must be absorbed into the political realm is typical of radical left and right-wing ideologies, trying to limit the scope of politics is a goal of those who are wary of going too far in either direction.

The second half of The Lobster reinforces the perception that Lanthimos shares this concern. David manages to escape the residential program, only to end up in the thrall of a resistance group every bit as extremist. Instead of mandating that adults be paired off, this group demands that its members not do so and imposes severe penalties on anyone who transgresses.

In David’s depressing world, there is no in-between, just these polar opposites at war with each other.

Although Poor Things suggests a softening on Yanthimos’s part, since Bella achieves a happy ending for herself and a band of misfits, it is a fragile one that only seems capable of surviving to the extent that it rejects society as a whole.

This outcome suggests that Yanthimos is ultimately not so much a true political reactionary as an anarchist along the lines of the George Orwell who wrote 1984 and Animal Farm, someone who can envision a pluralist world in which no one has the power to reshape all of society in their ideological image.

The reason Poor Things is more hopeful than The Lobster is that it discerns a gray area in between the poles of the latter.

I experienced the difference between these two remarkable films the first time I saw them.

Although I was aware of the Scottish novelist Alisdair Gray, who wrote the book on which Poor Things is based, I walked into the cinema with almost no information about the film itself.

Over and over again, I found myself dumbfounded by the film’s creativity and daring.

As young people are fond of saying these days, Poor Things goes hard. But it brings a lot more pleasure than pain in the process, at least for moviegoers who don’t mind dealing with a lot of explicit content. The minutes flew by.

When I left the theatre after first seeing The Lobster, by contrast, I felt like I’d been holding my breath for the duration. Rarely has my intellectual judgment of a film differed more sharply from my immediate emotional response to it.

I never doubted that The Lobster was a very good film, but I also wondered if it was good for me.

About a third of the way through, I realised that I was hunched over in my seat, rocking back and forth, teeth clenched. Soon after that, I started checking the time.

The Lobster seemed interminable. Yet I sensed that I was somehow obligated to stay and suffer.

Once I knew what I was in for, it was much easier to appreciate the film on an aesthetic level. Unfortunately, this knowledge also led me to anticipate with dread the scenes that had initially upset me most.

The Lobster‘s underlying conceit may sound amusingly absurd on paper. But whatever comedy it leads to is too brutal to induce much of a release.

In the cinema where I first saw it, the twenty-somethings behind me would periodically laugh out loud as if hoping to garner the support of their fellow movie-goers. Every time, though, their mirth failed to spread, making it seem forced.

That was not the case with Poor Things, which had the audience reacting as boisterously as if it had been a slapstick comedy or, indeed, Greta Gerwig’s global smash Barbie, with which it has a good deal in common.

The more I thought about my initial reactions to these films, the more sure I became that Poor Things represents a rebuttal to The Lobster and Lanthimos’s acclaimed early film Dogtooth.

Instead of providing a means to flee my everyday life temporarily, The Lobster reminded me over and over of the parts of my life I may never be able to escape, the intractable aspects of my nature that I can never overcome.

It’s striking that the film evoked this dispiriting realisation in a story suffused with magic realism. Despite requiring a substantial suspension of disbelief, it simultaneously constricts the audience’s capacity for fantasy, shining a harsh light on the existential delusions that human beings turn to for sustenance.

In this regard, the film reveals a kinship with the work of directors like Todd Solondz and Michael Haneke, who refuse to let viewers get too comfortable.

For my part, even when I found a particular line or image funny, I was too preoccupied with the big picture to enjoy The Lobster fully. The distancing voice-over narration, awkward interplay of bodies, and exchanges without passion all communicate a world drained of joy, in which E.M. Forster’s famous injunction to “only connect” has been reduced to its lexical minimum.

I struggled to care about the characters because they could barely muster the energy to care about themselves. At best, I was able to sustain a slight rooting interest, far short of the intense identification I experience during a good action film.

Even though Poor Things makes just as vigorous use of Brechtian alienation techniques as The Lobster, it breaks with the latter and Lanthimos’ early career more generally by permitting us to imagine a world in which people are allowed to be different without, in turn, demanding that others conform with their difference.

It’s hard not to root for Bella.

At a time when the world seems to be perched on the edge of cataclysm, with runaway polarisation depriving us of meaningful middle ground, we should welcome the opportunity to conduct a thought experiment that doesn’t try to convince us that thought experiments should never become reality.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.