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Poor Things: A Tale of Growing Up Against Societal Norms

Photo Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, "Poor Things," written by Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2023, where it won the Golden Lion. It received five awards at the 77th British Academy Film Awards and was nominated in 11 categories at the 96th Academy Awards. "Poor Things" also won two Golden Globe Awards. The film tells the story of Bella, who lives with an adult body and a baby's mind and starts her life anew, learning to love and find meaning. What if we were to give women "pristine" minds untouched by societal and family rules and allow them to explore themselves freely like experimental subjects? How would that turn out?


The main character, Bella Baxter, portrayed by Emma Stone, is an adult controlled within certain limits by her father, always observed and treated like a baby. Her father, known as "God," is a scientist who has been experimented on by his father. He always acts protectively towards Bella, setting boundaries against any potential harm from the outside world. However, Bella is rebellious, carefree, longing for freedom, and eager to explore. Unable to resist the crazy holiday offer of someone crazy, she embarks on a trip to Lisbon, where her world is completely transformed and enriched. Like a baby, she pays attention to everything and tries to learn, feeling as if she's in a wonderland, open to adventure.


This journey contributes to Bella's mental development, as she experiences various encounters. Thanks to an interesting couple she meets on board, she focuses more on reading books and begins philosophical inquiries. Her philosophical friend shows her the real world and introduces her to insurmountable pain. When Bella arrives in Paris, she starts working and attending idea meetings. One day, upon receiving a postcard, she returns home and directs her existential inquiries to "God." Seeking the truth, Bella begins to delve into her past. As she delves into the past, she gets the chance to see her pains, traumas, and past experiences from a different perspective. Previously indifferent and superficial in her approach to events, Bella, now a mature adult, learns to take responsibility and overcome problems like a fully grown individual. "The person who experienced those events is dead; I am Bella Baxter!"


With her stubbornness, Bella stretches and breaks all the boundaries she encounters. Her defiance of social norms becomes the most important aspect of her character. Leaving the floodgates of her impulses open, her inclination towards food and sex becomes both the cause and the result of her desire to experience everything fully. Despite making "youthful mistakes" like everyone else, she learns from them, thus continuing her emotional and intellectual development. Her world brightens as soon as she leaves home, like a cage, where she couldn't freely go outside.


Bella becomes the most conspicuous and desired person with her difference, but she is also the most wanted to be imprisoned, forbidden to see the outside world, to develop, and to show herself. Like all women. The rules of the world we live in, where women are squeezed, suppressed, and try to fit into societal norms, prevail in the world of the film as well. While Bella instinctively rejects these rules beforehand, she later chooses to reject them from a more political and philosophical perspective as she gets to know the real world. As the story progresses, she chooses those who embrace her with affection and joy in exploring around her. She does not allow anyone to dominate her in any way, including sexually. From this perspective, the film presents a perspective that can be interpreted as both philosophical/psychological maturity and feminist consciousness.


In the film, Bella refers to her father as "God," both as an abbreviation of his name and as the greatest reason for his own existence. Her father is her God. He created her, he is her God. Bella experiences some existential inquiries during her development process. She questions God, her father. She learns how she came into existence and what was hidden from her. She sulks at first, then accepts what happened. She matures.


With her second chance at life, she grows, develops, and broadens her horizons. She always chooses to explore more and trusts her decisions. She takes responsibility for her physical, mental, and emotional developments that started from scratch. Over time, the intensity of physical pleasures decreases, being replaced by mental pleasures. She discovers things that do not benefit her. According to Aristotle, what exists, exists; what does not exist cannot cease to exist; it always strives to exist. Bella progresses with determination in her struggle for existence and continues to create her life, existentially, like an artist. She chooses to love her new life, surrounded by free and compassionate people, when she sees her cold, imprisoned life, her cruelty, and her unhappiness in her old life. People can develop as morally as they can physically, as her fiancé Max said. People change/can change. But as with all journeys, the story ends at home. She is at home, open to development, eager to read, and surrounded by loved ones.


The world of the film takes place in a futuristic fairytale past. The director captures us with a fisheye lens. Apart from the colourful world Bella is exploring, the settings, architectural structures, and clothing choices are quite gothic. I find the film's world, storytelling, Bella's distorted development, growing pains, sudden colourization of her world, her making sense of herself and life, breaking norms, not giving up on the struggle, and enjoying life. The film, which contains many inquiries from political, feminist, and existential perspectives against societal norms, opens the door to very different readings on a personal level.


The idea of the child raised in isolation, as seen in Yorgos Lanthimos's other film "Dogtooth," is also addressed here, but this world provides a more enjoyable environment compared to the other. What was not shown, not allowed, not seen, and not experienced in the outside world metaphor in "Dogtooth" is vividly reflected here. There is room for exploration here. There are prohibitions, but they are softer and more surmountable. The price paid in "Dogtooth" is not paid in this film. There are inherent costs to exploration, but they are not coercive; Bella decides on them at her own will.


When talking about the film, Rumi's quote comes to mind: "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself." Those who want to change their "world" need to start with themselves. Bella does not settle for the information in the "world" she was "born" into. Considering that overcoming the family is a matter of maturation, she experiences it by going outside the house, and her world gets coloured. Change, transformation, and development are possible under all circumstances, as long as the desire to explore is not abandoned. "Poor Things" may be for those who want to feel the desire to explore again within themselves!

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