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Does Yorgos Lanthimos Want to Be Liked?

In past films like ‘Dogtooth,’ ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ and ‘The Favourite,’ the Greek director’s greatest strength was his alienation. In ‘Poor Things,’ he’s tilted toward appeasement.

Searchlight Pictures/Ringer illustration

Although the title of Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest effort comes from the book it’s based on, it fits well with the Greek filmmaker’s other work: All of his characters, from the gaslit sisters in Dogtooth to the hired grief actors in Alps to Queen Anne in The Favourite, are “poor things,” creatures stuck in oppressive conditions who nevertheless try to find some sense in their lives. Yet between his experimental solo debut feature, Kinetta, and this latest film, Lanthimos has transformed both his style and approach, moving increasingly away from his Greek Weird Wave roots and toward his own special kind of commercial cinema.

This isn’t to say that Poor Things is a mainstream conceit. Bella Baxter (played by Emma Stone, who also starred in The Favourite) is an adult woman with the literal brains of a child, living in a huge Dalí-esque mansion in London with the man who made her this way, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who has never let her go outside nor taught her any basic manners. For all intents and purposes, she is considered more a pet than a human being. It is when Bella discovers sex, accidentally and without having been taught anything about it, that she realizes she wants more out of life. And since you ideally need other people to explore that side of yourself—and because Godwin, whom she calls “God,” has a clinical condition in which getting aroused would kill him—she steps out of the door and begins a journey of self-discovery. Yet already, this dynamic between the outside and the inside world represents a shift for Lanthimos.

In his previous films, the world within the family home is what’s characterized as most constricting and dangerous. In Dogtooth, Lanthimos exposes, with a disquietingly soft tone and absurdist style, the hypocrisy of wanting to protect your loved ones from society’s mandates by creating your own. Going out into the wilderness and making it alone represents a sort of liberation from normative structures. By contrast, once outside, Bella finds herself having to accept all of the illogical and cruel ways in which the real world functions, and she is repeatedly told by the people she meets (often but not always men) what box she should fit in: the faithful lover, the high-society dame who holds herself a certain way, the sex worker who is her “own means of production.” Lanthimos has moved from a critique of the nuclear family (also present in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and of specific normative systems (the romantic ideal of the couple in The Lobster and the court in The Favourite) toward a more general analysis of society at large. By aiming wider, he not only avoids ruffling the feathers of the bourgeoisie he usually targets, but he also guarantees that there’ll be something in his film for everyone.

As he tackles the wide range of behaviors, customs, and ways of thinking instilled in us by our collective in Poor Things, Lanthimos loses the focus and sharpness that characterized his previous efforts. Jumping from sex and its discontents to the conditions of women to world hunger, he seems to want to satisfy rather than surprise, offering the audience an all-encompassing worldview where every question about why the world is how it is gets answered. The sometimes frustrating but often engrossing opaqueness of his previous films feels far away.

In Alps, the unanswerable question of whether seeing a performer pretend to be your dead relative can really help you mourn keeps you watching. The strange necessity of turning people into animals in The Lobster allows all kinds of questions about human nature and learned attitudes and values, even if Lanthimos doesn’t ask them directly. Even Colin Farrell’s stilted, Bressonian acting style in that film makes one realize how our behaviors and mannerisms may not truly be our own but originate in our environment. No such uncanny element is to be found in Poor Things: Instead, we know exactly what is going on and what everything means at every turn.

A literal blank slate, Bella takes the world as it is without question. Her inability to understand her emotions makes her merely a sponge for society, taking in all its rules and repeating them back in distilled and clear statements: Masturbating is “working on myself to get happiness”; sex with a partner is “furious jumping.” The effect is the opposite of uncanniness. Poor Things is an openly literal film about how confusing and cruel the world often is and how it is probably better understood if one doesn’t question it too much. Ignorance is bliss, but if you’ve got to know, just accept things as they are. This sort of conclusion, that there’s not much any of us can do about anything, isn’t devastating—it’s resigned, and it might be the most commercial sentiment a film could communicate.

Lanthimos is often compared to Lars von Trier (and the epic, surrealist, and slow-motion title cards in Poor Things recall the ones in von Trier’s gorgeous and devastating film Breaking the Waves), who has himself made a film where his usual themes are made literal. In Dogville (both filmmakers have a thing for dogs), he lets the spectator see through the invisible walls of all the houses in a small, industrial town to reveal the lies, secrets, and betrayals in which their inhabitants take part. That minimalist, direct approach makes the film unusually ferocious. Lanthimos’s candor, though, has the opposite effect. The discomfort he once created is replaced in Poor Things by great clarity and a satirical frankness. It’s the shock of sincerity, the surprise of how far Bella is willing to go to understand the world, that Lanthimos capitalizes on, rather than suggesting what horrid adjustments this world might require. The dreadful anguish of Alps, The Lobster, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer hits you in the guts; the ironic, light human comedy of Poor Things tries only to lightly titillate your brain. If Lanthimos made his name with disturbing films about human nature that weren’t for everyone, he now seems to want to comfort us while making us swallow the pill. The bitterness he used to share, too much of an acquired taste, has been replaced with sweetness and just a touch of sour irony.

It isn’t the first time that Lanthimos has done humor: The Lobster could be read as a straight survival comedy despite its surreal premise. And Dogtooth, although dark and disturbing, also exists in a universe where the patriarch has made the word “pussy” mean “very bright light.” This sort of absurdity felt dangerous then, as though laughing at this silly wordplay would reveal how we weren’t much more willing to embrace the coarse, vulgar world that the father was so desperate to hide from his children. But in Poor Things, laughing at the contradictions that Bella discovers in the fabric of the world has a distancing and soothing effect. When she notices that sexual jealousy is “a weakness in men,” we can all nod along, feeling satisfied, and perhaps superior. We may also be poor things, but at least our sensitivities aren’t hurt.

As we quickly understand that Bella can absorb any impact, her willingness to go ever deeper into man’s dark heart feels less and less interesting, especially as Lanthimos takes great pains to make the journey feel fun and pleasant. Although Bella is constantly preyed upon by men, she’s physically incapable of registering trauma—a convenient way to keep things lighthearted, at once woke but not at risk.

It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Lanthimos has always been heading in this direction. Since Alps, he’s graduated to making English-language films with A-list casts and increasingly realistic settings. But The Lobster, The Favourite, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer all had fangs and an unpredictable quality central to their appeal. With this tale of a woman discovering, and then accepting, all the problematic aspects of society, Lanthimos seems to have gone from pointing out our faults to ticking the boxes of contemporary discourse. Rather than challenging our worldview and prejudices, Poor Things teases us and then gently pats us on the back, as if to reassure us that there are no hard feelings. But hard feelings are exactly what Poor Things needs.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.