If I know the world, I can improve it: Deep-diving into the surreal world of “Poor Things”

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When discussing Oscar-winning films, one considers the success of many elements, such as direction, screenplay, best picture and actors, production design, cinematography, and so much more. A notable factor that often plays a significant role in the overall success of films is its architectural brilliance. Poor Things is a science fiction movie blended with horror, dark comedy, and fantasy, adapted from a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray.

The story has an unknown setting, which includes a combination of the Victorian era and futuristic elements with a gothic and steampunk atmosphere. This mixture of historical and futuristic elements and the confusing setting is seen in the movie’s architectural style, as the main character travels from one place to another to discover the world and herself. The architecture of the movie is seen as a distorted world, both literally (using fisheye lenses in filming) and figuratively, because of the power imbalances caused by patriarchy in society.

Poor Things
Living Room

Poor Things revolves around Bella Baxter, who commits suicide and is then brought back to life by an unorthodox genius scientist (Dr. Godwin Baxter), who recovers her dead body and notices she is pregnant. Dr. Godwin replaces her brain with her child’s, which explains Bella’s lack of maturity and her constant hunger to discover the world and herself. However, she is restricted from doing so due to her being held captive by Dr. Godwin, whom she refers to as “God”. Bella is a” Frankenstein-like” figure controlled by “God,” who himself is a monstrous-like result of his father’s constant experiments on him when he was a child. They both live in a magical Victorian home from the outside, but the inside is a mixture of Godwin Baxter’s mind that he trapped Bella in – “Squishy floors, walls lined with plates, bizarrely steep stairs, and oversized chairs and cutlery perfectly marry Baxter’s highly-pigged life (and form) with Bella’s childlike wonder.”

Bella manages to flee God’s house with a lawyer named Duncan, who admires her hunger for the discovery of life and knowledge. She goes to different surreal locations, from London to Lisbon to Alexandria, and finally, she ends up in Paris. Each location has a different feel to it, which symbolizes Bella’s everchanging thoughts and moods; she experiences the world with its beauty, flaws, and ugliness, making her overwhelmed until she finally adapts and becomes a changed-grown woman with her own thought process and interpretations. After escaping Godwin Baxter’s brain, aka his home, she goes to another dreamlike city, Lisbon. The production designer, Shona Heath, explains that despite filming in a big set, it was challenging to add all Lisbon-related elements in a single space, but to the advantage of the film’s theme, the location looks like Bella is in her own playground playing and discovering it in her very own way (Emily, 2024).

Poor Things
Bella Baxter captured in Lisbon

Lisbon portrays Bella as being lost and feeling lost at the time. The flying trams, mazes, alleys, and stairways in a condensed city, as well as the colors, resemble Bella Baxter’s confusing emotions as she navigates the world and figures things out. After wondrous Lisbon, she heads to Alexandria, where she realizes that the world can be unfair and cruel; there are poor people out there who are not as privileged as she is, which puts her in a loop of guilt. Bella is then on a boat, where Duncan, the person she traveled with, starts to want to control and imprison her, which is what the boat represents – a moving scary cage inspired by the Kew Gardens. She arrives in gloomy Bohemian Paris, where she explores socialism and how society works. Paris was covered in white with red trees that symbolize Bella’s interest in the medical field, like her guardian, Dr. Godwin Baxter.

As Bella goes on her self-discovery journey through Europe, her environment keeps reflecting her ever-changing personality as she grows more mature. The architecture is composed of a mix of Art Deco and brutalist buildings, along with futuristic cities mixed with Victorian elements and abnormal creatures like mermaids, owls, and dolphins.

Brutalist buildings in the movie

“There needed to be a world created for Bella to inhabit, it couldn’t just be something realistic. We tried to open the period and insert elements that allude to a certain era while allowing it to be more of a fairy tale or a metaphor for things. There are various elements that are either science fiction, anachronistic, or imaginary.”

Yorgos Lanthimos

What is fascinating about the movie is that even the choice of film usage was carefully considered based on Bella’s character as she grows and travels throughout the story. The directors believed that lenses could tell stories, which is why they approached Kodak; they wanted to film using traditional 35mm film intended for a 16mm format. Kodak managed to create a unique lens tailored to the movie’s needs and Bella’s character. A captivating blend of black and white and fisheye lenses played a crucial role in storytelling.

For instance, at the beginning of the movie, Bella’s character was portrayed as very childlike, prompting the directors to use fisheye lenses during that phase of her character development. As the movie progressed towards the end and Bella began to mature as a woman, the camera became more stable, symbolizing her evolving thought process and personal growth.

Dining Room

“If I know the world, I can improve it.”

Bella Baxter

Poor Things delves into Bella Baxter’s vivid world of color, both in its literal and symbolic dimensions. Her untamed and child-like persona mirrors the unique reality she constructs, where perception diverges from the norm. In essence, what Bella sees isn’t merely what meets the eye for everyone else. Poor Things highlights the idea that despite living in an unjust world, one can still create his/her own world of color and spread goodness whenever and wherever possible.

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