Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023): UK

Reviewed by Riley McCaffrey. Viewed at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

“The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it.” – Marcel Proust.

In Proust’s view, “habit”, as he calls it, is a powerful and double-edged force in human life. It refers to the routines and daily practices that shape our lives, providing comfort and stability, yet also potentially leading to a dulling of our perceptions and a blindness to the beauty and novelty around us, much like the dulling effect of a sunset viewed repeatedly until its brilliance fades into the mundane backdrop of our lives. This concept of habit—its capacity to render us numb to the splendors and wonders of the world—is vividly challenged and dissected in the journey of Bella Baxter in “Poor Things.”

From the moment of her resurrection, Bella embodies the antithesis of habit. Her existence, marked by an infantile wonder and an unspoiled perception of the world, starkly contrasts with the habitual blindness that pervades adult life, as noted by Proust. The film captures Bella’s odyssey with a freshness of perspective that recalls the curiosity of a child marveling at puddles or the simple joy of jumping on a bed. Through her eyes, we are invited to rediscover the world, to see it anew, free from the layers of habit that cloud our vision and dull our senses. Her journey is a vibrant testament to the idea that breaking free from the repetitive cycles of our daily routines can illuminate the splendor of life that habit conceals.

“Poor Things” extends its critique of habit beyond the personal to the societal, portraying Victorian society as a maze of rigid conventions and oppressive norms. These societal norms are indicative of a broader habituation to structures that limit individual freedom and expression. Bella’s defiance of these societal habits—her refusal to adhere to the prescribed roles and expectations of her time—serves as a powerful narrative force that challenges the collective habituation to gender roles, class structures, and moral codes.

The evolution of Bella, from a being reborn with the mind of a child to a woman navigating the complexities of her existence, mirrors the process of shedding old habits and embracing new experiences. This transformation is not merely about discarding the familiar but about an active engagement with life in its entirety, embracing both its joys and sorrows with equal fervor. Emma Stone, in her acceptance speech for Best Female Actor at the Golden Globes, aptly described this as the true heart of the film; saying: “I see (Poor Things) as a romcom but in the sense that Bella falls in love with life itself rather than a person. She accepts the good and the bad in equal measure and that really made me look at life differently and understand that all of it counts and all of it is important”

In essence, “Poor Things” is a cinematic exploration of Proust’s reflections on habit, a narrative that challenges us to break free from the chains of routine and rediscover the world with the unjaded eyes of a child. It is a film that not only critiques the societal norms that shape our lives but also offers a profound commentary on the nature of human existence, urging us to embrace life in its totality and to find beauty in the everyday. Through the lens of Bella Baxter’s extraordinary journey, “Poor Things” invites us to consider the ways in which habit shapes our perceptions and to seek out the passions that expand the elastic nature of our daily lives, reminding us of the transformative power of viewing the world anew.

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