Monthly Archives: January 2024

  • Poor Things   Yorgos Lanthimos (UK; 2023)

    Poor Things   Yorgos Lanthimos (UK; 2023) Emma Stone, Ramy Youssef; Willem Defoe

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 13 Jan 2024; ticket £11.75

    Duck Soup

    Poor Things   Yorgos Lanthimos (UK; 2023) Emma Stone, Ramy Youssef; Willem Defoe

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 13 Jan 2024; ticket £11.75

    Duck Soup

    In making ‘Poor Things’ Yorgos Lanthimos has directed a film that expresses a key feature of the times, the spectacle of narcissism. ‘Poor Things’ is a persuasive pervasive spectacle woven into the very stuff of contemporary experience – the self absorbing nature of today’s lifestyles, exemplified by social media in which the private transmutes into the public. Lanthimos’ film exploits the commodification of the self but has abandoned the critical edge that characterised earlier work such as the ‘The Killing of the Sacred Deer’.     

    For Lanthimos the settings of his scenarios have always played a significant and/or prominent part in the design of his movies.  In ‘The Killing of the Sacred Deer’ the spaces representing contemporary USA are signifiers of his thematic concerns. The manner in which he filmed the suburbs, the hospital, home interiors were intrinsic to his satiric theme of the intrinsic impersonality of this culture. We are shown the emptied out spaces, vacuous and devoid of meaning in which the black comedy of an ‘all American’ ritual death is played out.  The fusion of setting and theme was central to the concept underlying the ‘Sacred Deer’ script.  

    With his production of ‘The Favourite’ Lanthimos exploits relations in an historical context to play out some tropes of today’s oppositional gender politics. The drama takes place in an English Country House and its environs. But despite, or perhaps because of Lanthimos’ camera work with its long internal tracks and his use of wide angle distorting fish eyed lens, the setting never amounts to more than a backdrop. It serves simply as an authentic looking feed into the anachronistic script. The long galleries the wainscoted chambers the high ceiling salons play no part in the psychic dynamic of the film. His three principal characters are as detached from the film’s setting as a visiting tourist. The featured Country Pile has high background value, prominence but not significance.

    Like ‘The Favourite’, Lanthimos’ ‘Poor Things’ is a retro-temporal piece. It uses a vaguely depicted nineteenth century as a canvas upon which to project its female protagonist Bella’s proto-feminist career.   Unlike ‘The Favourite’ in ‘Poor Things’  Lanthimos fuses theme and sets but not in a manner in which they offset each other critically, but rather so that they work togather to uncritically support the conceits of the times. The sets are shop windows, display areas characteristic of a film that empties itself out as spectacle. As in department stores or adverts for fancy soap, the sets exist solely to promote the product on the centre stage; product which in this case is Bella. Bella – woman commodified as a feminist icon.

    In the manner of a large number of contemporary films ‘Poor Things’ scenario comprises one thing after another. The scenes follow on from each other with quick fire delivery. A product of Baxter’s experiments, Bella has been implanted with the brain of her own in utero child. As Bella matures she decides to move out of Baxter’s house (which is also his lab and surgery where he conducts Dr Moreau type experimentation – it would seem by and large with happier results) going off with libertine Duncan to various ports of call before ditching him and ending up in a Parisian brothel.   Using similar camera techniques as in ‘The Favourite’ the fish eye lens zooms and tracks, each of these locations is a showcase for advertising Bella’s development from naïve child to self loving woman. In a culture of narcissism spectacle has a particular rationale in its justification and legitimation of the individual.

    In ‘Poor Things’ narcissism and spectacle are inextricably linked as dominant forces within the contemporary matrix. Both narcissism and spectacle work to blur differentiation between the public and the private sphere. Through the projection of social media life can be lived out as a sort of spectacle where the self exists in a social matrix where things have value only in relation to the attention they attract. The price paid for the primacy of attention is the reduction of life to the simplistic criteria of one dimensionality. And Lanthimos’ characters in ‘Poor Things’ all flaunt their uni-dimensional cartoon type representations. As such we can have no investment in them other than as types, in a similar way to characters in superhero movies.

    As a quest movie scripted in the key of narcissism, ‘Poor Things’ shares some striking features with David Finch’s ‘The Killer’. Both movies feature self obsessed protagonists who canter through their respective scripts experiencing only self vindication and the validation of success: their brilliant careers. Without self doubts or serious obstacles the scripts of these respective movies celebrate an unconditional triumphalism. In ‘Poor Things’ Lanthimos’ scenario vindicates the arrogance of narcissism and and celebrates a world in which hubris has no consequences.

    adrin neatrour  





  • Letter from an Unknown Woman   Max Ophuls (USA; 1948)

    Letter from an Unknown Woman   Max Ophuls (USA; 1948) Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan

    viewed 1st Jan 2024 on BBC 2

    and the dead speak to the living

    Based on a Stephan Zweig novel, Max Ophuls ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is a ‘love’ film that penetrates into the core of obsessive desire. Ophuls whilst not staying true to the nature of Zweig’s uncompromising male protagonist, nevertheless delivers a movie that picks up the story’s initial proposition of fateful infatuation and follows it through to its logical conclusion: the bliss of death.

    Ophuls ‘Letter from…’ scenario formulates time for Lisa as a series of crystallised events. Most films encompassing passion or love render the experience as a series of naturalistic events, each with their own particular resonance, events that are bound within a strict passage of time. Ophuls recalibrates sequential time as emotional time, time as crystallised by the emotions. Outside the intensities of the experience of being in direct contact with Stefan the object of her worship, Lisa’s days and nights slip into the void of inexistence.

    Told by Lisa’s voice over as she reads the eponymous letter she has sent to Stefan, her whole life from girl to death bed has been lived only for the moments of her several meetings with him. Whilst with Stefan, Lisa is in ecstasy; removed from his presence, she is as one of the dead, mechanically going through the motions of being alive. The letter is her last expressive gesture, testament to the clarity of her rapture in suffering the ‘Passion of Lisa’.

    Time for Lisa has been compressed into the singularity of a vision, a vision of love becoming worship, that for her ‘splits’ time forever. Her experience is the opposite of an epiphany. Epiphany is an experience in time that changes everything so that life and perception open up new vistas taking the individual on new paths through an ever unravelling renewed world. Lisa’s moment of vision, the vision of Stefan as the ultimate object of her love/worship entraps her in a beatific quasi religious moment that never expands never develops. The vision of Stefan simply reduces her life to the infinite quest of trying to renew repeat replicate or recapture that singular moment. She is trapped in a time crystal. To some extent her life takes on a form similar to that of a heroine addict or a person who has had an intense numinous experience. What is yearned for, desired above all else is to achieve the moment once again, a repetition, to capture the same rapturous intensity of that first experience. The heroine addict seeks to repeat the glorious sensation of the first hit; the feeling of being charged with the numinous, drives a need to re-experience this elation, by prayer by flagellation to remove all obstacles imagined or real, to arrive at this goal.

    There is no logic in Lisa’s total infatuation. There are few clues as to its source. Lisa has experienced instantaneously some ego shattering truth. It’s a vision which like a cancer will grow within her and eventually overwhelm her. There is no why; there is only the spectacle of a self consumed by an internalised daemon. In another form, in another context, with another kind of vision she might have been a saint.  

    Ophuls creates for Lisa the necessary filmic vehicle for the experience of her life. ‘Letter from…’ is structured purely about her crystallised moments and realisations. Her whole life compacted into her moments, her experiences of and with Stefan. The first rapture occurs when she is a girl. Stefan, a concert pianist, moves into an apartment in the same building. Stricken by his presence and the world his presence creates, she watches him from afar, listens to him playing, secretly enters his home. Like a spy she watches secreting her passion never interacting with him except one delirious moment where she holds open the entrance door for Stefan: he oblivious she consumed.   Growing up marriage childbirth all pass by as in a grey void. Orphuls’ film expands and fills out the scenario with Lisa’s brief episodes with the object of her worship. The one night stand which makes her pregnant; her abandonment of her husband as she glimpses Stefan at the opera and makes one last effort to re-experience the rapture. And of course, the final chapter her final letter: the statement of her idealised love/worship of this indifferent being unaware of her until the letter which like cupid’s arrow pierces him.  

    So as Lisa’s life time isn’t a continuum a series of events, but rather a number of crystallised moments. Ironically in relation to Stefan whose life has been ‘one thing after another’ her letter becomes a defining event in his life. (Orphuls script deviates radically here from the Stefan Zweig story which ends on a colder note). After reading Lisa’s letter, Stefan’s life also crystallises into a life / death decision: he changes his mind about running away from the challenge of Lisa’s husband, and accepts the duel.

    Opus shooting of ‘Letter from…’ underpins the emotionally episodic nature of Lisa’s life. Lisa’s actual life is an internality, Ophuls contrasts this by filming the context of her life in Vienna as a vivid externality. The street scenes, the detailing of interiors and exteriors are caught in movement using tracks and cranes linking the   bustle and immanency of life to Lisa’s immobility. Much of the filming of Lisa is in these sort of wide shots which allow the viewer to make the linkages between Lisa and the world in which she moves. The psychological weakness in the filming comprises the over long close-ups of Lisa as she hovers close by Stefan under the spell of her own enchantment. Joan Fontaine simply runs out facial expressions for her to adopt in the presence of her ‘God’.

    The scripted voice over device serves the dramatic realisation of the story superbly well: the dead communicating to the living. It is certain that Billy Wilder will have seen Orphuls film. When ‘Letter from…’ was released Wilder was engaged in preparing the script for Sunset Boulevard and Orphals use of the voice over device may well have fed into his scripting of this film which of course begins with the dead man in the swimming pool introducing himself in voice over and taking us into the movie.

    adrin neatrour