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Through the Coaching Lens: Poor Things

Holding nuanced and complex thoughts and feelings is often a challenge. People seek validation externally as the discomfort of "not knowing" becomes too hard to bear. At a time when information is a few clicks away, attentions spans shrinking and gratification harder to resist, we have to choose. This creates polarisation and a tendency to see the world in black or white. Our ability to hold complexity and nuance is therefore reduced. 
Things are hardly ever black or white. They are always more complex and nuanced than that. And I believe that we need to practice and re-learn "not knowing", to have a more compassionate response to this world we live in. 

This is what I felt the film Poor Things made me do to some extent.

Poor Things has had a big success in awards season, including best actress Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA to Emma Stone, and further awards to special effects, costume desgin and production design among others. The film also enjoyed an enthusiastic critical response. It was called a "Virtuoso comic epic" by the Gaurdian's Peter Bradshaw, and "visually sumptuous and gleefully clever" by Manohla Dargis of the NYT. In this article I share my thoughts about this film which I found cinematically intriguing, but thematically confusing.
Feel free to share, and I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Some thoughts on "not knowing": how we can build our telorance for holding nuanced thoughts and feelings

I have been having an ongoing, one-sided, internal debate with the film Poor Things by Yorgos Lanthimos since I saw it. I keep changing my mind about it. The struggle to make up our minds and to hold seemingly conflicting thoughts and feelings, are commonly seen in my coaching practice as problems that need solving. For me, in this case, the film’s greatest strength is this ongoing discussion inside me, and maybe by examining it and appreciating it, we can begin to appreciate a new skill: the skill of not-knowing. 

The film’s premise is truly absurdist: a baby’s brain is transplanted into its freshly-dead mother’s skull, in a Frankenstein-esque fable. The mother, having committed suicide (we don’t know why although we can guess as the film progresses), is thus revived: a baby in a grown woman’s body. The film charts Bella’s development from a trike riding toddler, into an opinionated, convention-defying woman.

Cinematically, this film is spectacular on every level. Bella’s creator, Godwin, whom she calls ‘God’, is an experimenter at the highest scientific level. This provides the art department and CGI artists some truly magnificent opportunities: Hybrid creatures, globular visible burps, and magical representations of world destinations, to name a few, make it easier to suspend our disbelief and put the whole story in the fantastical realm. The music contributes to the overall sense of bewilderment. We never quite know where in the world, or in what time, we are. 

The cinematic treatment is a huge component of the film, so much so that most of the mainstream reviews I read, discussed it with understandable relish, at great length.  It is unique, intricate, virtuoso in every department, and one can talk about it forever. However, my ongoing conversation with the film is more about the meaning of it. And I find myself questioning whether the cinematic artistry is in fact a distraction or a conduit. I simply cannot make up my mind. 

Coming out of the cinema I asked my partner what he thought the film was about. He spoke about life, being human, reality, perception, and “so many things.” I was perplexed. For me it is about gender and patriarchy. Did we see the same film? 

At the beginning of the film I felt a real discomfort. Seeing a toddler in a grown woman’s body, being played by an adult made me uncomfortable. And being created, and then manipulated, observed and assessed by men made it worse. As Bella grew up and became more assertive, gradually finding her own agency, I was able to let go a bit and be carried by the story. The film went into full saturation with colours, and I softened a bit into the fantasy world. 

As Bella’s journey unfolds, dislodged from any realistic space or time, she maintains her unique physicality, speech and moral convictions which separate her from anything we, as viewers, can identify with. Her personal growth, which is inextricably attached to her sexual discovery, can be seen as some sort of liberation from the conventions and shackles of society, both hers and our own.

Made by men, and then manipulated, researched and objectified by them, she is exposing their weaknesses, hypocrisy, and privilege. She learns to say ‘no’, and a lot of ‘yes’, she learns to articulate and rebel against the world’s contrived etiquette, its manipulation and injustices. She embarrasses the dignified over dinner, she winks back at flirtatious attempts and she hands out her male companion’s money to the needy whom she determines need it more than him. She has a lot of sex, and uses it to empower herself by offering it for money. Eventually she turns into a scholar, begins to read, and decides to become a doctor. She becomes a powerful woman. 

I came out of the cinema thinking that Bella challenges the patriarchy. The film is about the infantalisation of women by society. Surely, they make it as clear as possible by putting a baby’s brain into a woman’s body. It can’t be more literal than that. 

But as the days have gone by, I felt a growing discomfort. None of the reviews I read talked about those themes which were so present for me. They mentioned the impressive acting, the virtuoso filmmaking, the fish eye lens, the saturated colours and the wonders of the world created by the director. I found it strange. Why weren’t people talking about the meaning of this film?

Whose point of view is it anyway?

Gradually I begun to question Bella’s liberation. On one hand, Bella seems to challenge conventions, to empower herself and to expose the folly of the men she is with. But on the other, as her empowerment is entwined with sexual liberation, it is hard not to question whether this is not a clear example of the “Male Gaze.” While we are led to believe that Bella is in control and navigating her own emancipation, she still functions on the two levels identified so clearly by Laura Mulvey who codified the term ‘Male Gaze’ in 1975:

“Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium…”

(Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975)

While Lanthimos might be challenging the former, i.e. the idea that Bella is displayed solely as an erotic subject for the characters in the story, he neglects the latter - and Bella remains an erotic subject for the spectators in the cinema. We see Bella’s body in sexual acts in such frequency and intensity, that one cannot avoid asking: In whose point of view does a woman’s emancipation takes the form of such sexual indulgence? 

Of course it may be argued that depicting women desiring and enjoying sex, still seems a taboo not frequently seen on screen. Still, I would question that this on its own is a challenge to patriarchy, when so much of the film revolves and is seen through its own conventions. So even if Bella is the dominant one, calling the shots and asserting her path, she forever remains an erotic object for the spectators in the cinema. 

Laura Mulvey writes: 

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic comment by imposing them on the silent image of women still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

(Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975)

When I came out of the cinema I felt that the director was attempting to make Bella a “maker of meaning” by rebelling as she does, and creating her own path. But ultimately, I am not sure that the film succeeds in this, since in the realm of the viewers’ reality, Bella remains the bearer of meaning, defined ultimately by the conventions and laws of the patriarchal society in which we still live. 

My language is intentionally inconclusive. That’s because I am not sure I am right. As in, I may be wrong. That is why I keep having this internal conversation with this film. It makes me wonder whether this internal conversation is in fact the greatness of the film and perhaps the intention of the filmmakers, although I may be projecting here. 

Discomfort as a tool for Perspective

By putting us in the position of questioning, of not knowing, they keep us neither here nor there. By creating characters that are so hard to identify with, and a world which we cannot recognise as our own, they keep us in an active viewing mode. Alienating the viewer as a principle was central to the dramatic technique of the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) who criticised ‘traditional’ theatre for trying to recreate reality and thus turn viewers into passive consumers. As commented by John Willet in The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht:

“The audience is drawn into the ‘plot’ and made to identify itself with the characters; the means by which this is achieved falsify the picture of reality; and the audience is too contentedly hypnotised to see that it is false.”

(John Willet, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, 1959 p.166)

And then he proceeds to quote Brecht himself who sarcastically wrote: 

“[...] one has to admire the theatre folk who, with so feeble a reflection of the real world, can move the feelings of their audience so much more strongly than does the world itself.”

(Brecht, 1948 quoted in the J. WIllett’s The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, 1959)

Poor Things’s strength, in my view, is that it is alienating us from the plot and the characters by making them so absurd, surreal, illogical and frankly, funny. I am assuming here, with some trepidation, that audiences can see beyond the comic effect of this film - otherwise we have another problem. Maybe this alone is what keeps us at enough distance to assess the themes of the film and the values of the world it depicts. 

As both a filmmaker and a coach, I like to say that coaching happens between the lens and the action, or between the viewer and the screen. In this respect, that distance is vital for us to actively gain a perspective, which is not ‘hypnotised’ or passive. 

At the same time the ongoing inquiry and inner dialogue I have with Poor Things challenges my capacity to stay with the discomfort of ‘not knowing’. Dealing with uncertainty and not knowing is a constant challenge which my clients are faced with. Leaders and managers often feel that their job means that they must have an answer. The insecurities around not-knowing, are truly debilitating and can be devastating in the context of organisational culture. Seeing our strength in not-knowing, in daring to ask questions and make mistakes is vital in effective leadership. But also outside the workplace, in our personal lives, dealing with uncertainty is a true challenge. Pandemics, difficult relationships, trauma, and even just making a decision can impact our lives in a myriad of ways that we have no control over. Knowing how to cultivate true presence even in the face of uncertainty is a sure way of making life more manageable, calm, and joyful. 

While I am still debating whether I love Poor Things or hate it, I am grateful for the reminder to allow two seemingly conflicting perspectives or judgments to co-exist, and that I actually don’t always have to reach a conclusion. 

Through the Coaching Lens posts are my own commentaries of film and TV a coaching perspective. What movies or TV do you suggest I look at with my lens? Comment , and please share if it is of value to you.

Illustration by Evie Fridel


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