January 23, 2024

Poor Descartes

Pietro Bianchi

Still from Poor Things, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (2023)

The first was Descartes, who said that the entirety of natural and human phenomena could only be understood mechanically. And although he still granted humans a somewhat peculiar “breath of life” (the res cogitans or soul) irreducible to the physical world, the image of the world that emerged from his work was that of an enormous and highly complex machine, where matter was inert and moved by a complex sequence of causes and effects. After him, Julien Offray de La Mettrie took this disenchanted mechanism even further, seeing between humans and animals not a difference in quality but only in machinic complexity.

The world of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film Poor Things, even more than Frankenstein’s (overly cited in the film), is indebted to Descartes and La Mettrie: the universe is a pure mechanical assemblage, where life is an electrical impulse that drives a mechanism. Animals can have the legs of a chicken and the head of a pig, just as humans can be disassembled and reassembled at will as if they were Legos. And indeed during a surgical procedure performed in an amphitheater by the film’s proverbial mad scientist (named Godwin, after Mary Shelley’s maiden name, and played by Willem Dafoe), one of his students says, “May I ask what is the purpose of putting the organs back in sir?” To which he replies, “My amusement.” Science does not need whys: when dealing with matter, one should only be concerned with “how it works,” not “what it is.”

Godwin Baxter, the Dr. Frankenstein of the film, is a London scientist and surgeon who studies the human body as if it were a machine. He takes apart and reassembles animals—sometimes with horrible results—but for humans things are a bit more complicated, because of that thing called death (only “a subtle difference compared to being ill,” he will say later in the film, faithful to his quantitative understanding of life). Unfortunately for Godwin, the law imposes limits on his ability to experiment with death. But opportunity will come to him, in a not completely legal fashion, when a pregnant woman, under mysterious circumstances, jumps from a London bridge, killing her but sparing the child she’s carrying. For Godwin, this presents a chance too enticing to pass up: to resurrect the mother’s body, a mere machine, by using the baby’s brain, a mere electrical-impulse device. So he puts the baby’s tiny brain into the body of her own dead mother. The experiment works, but with a peculiar side effect: a short circuit between the resurrected woman’s biological age and mental age (“I repaired her brain. But her mental age and her body are not quite synchronized”). The result is an infant in an adult woman’s body.

Although the beginning of the film is vaguely slapstick (a little girl with the strength of an adult, smashing objects and spitting food), the situation quickly turns serious when Bella Baxter (and she is in fact as “Bella” as Emma Stone), just after discovering masturbation, wants to experience … freedom. Bella, like every child, keeps asking questions about her identity and the existence of her parents, but it is not easy to explain the truth to a person who is her own mother and daughter. And Godwin, whom Bella unironically calls “God” and not “father,” is dismissive of her questions since according to him a machine like Bella does not need a father only a “creator.” As he keeps repeating, it is not a good thing to mix feelings with science.

Indeed, even when Bella Baxter runs off with lawyer Duncan Wedderburn—a libertine viveur hilariously played by Mark Ruffalo, who, however, turns out to be just as possessive as all the other men in the film—her attitude is more machinic than human. Here Descartes is succeeded by the film’s second philosopher, David Hume. In fact, Lanthimos’s humans possess nothing “unique” or “special”: they are simply sponges of sensation that absorb and learn. Bella’s bildungsroman story (which occupies most of the film) is nothing more than an increasingly complex sedimentation of experiences. From sexuality to philosophy to politics, Bella roams the world with the same nonchalance and naïveté but also ridiculous mechanicalness as V.I.C.I., the ten-year-old girl android who was the protagonist of the 1980s TV show Small Wonder. For Bella, sexuality is a gymnastic activity (“furious jumping,” as she says), knowledge a purely bookish matter, and even her understanding of politics is weirdly mechanical and literal: if there are poor people dying in the world and you have money, you should give the money to them, even if you end up in the street with nothing left.

Towards the end of the film, when Bella almost seems to have really become a woman (with that crowning accomplishment of the bourgeois life path: marriage), the big question of Poor Things become unavoidable: What is a human being after all? Is it a machine pieced together from randomly found parts by a mechanic/demiurge? What differentiates a human being from a pig? Or are they, as La Mettrie thought, two forms of fundamentally one and the same machine?

Just when Bella seems to want to discover why her previous self committed suicide—almost hinting at a possible spiritualist solution, where desire is transmitted between different brains— Lanthimos takes the radically mechanical route, even at the risk of resolving the film in an overly farcical way. Is happiness really just a matter of oiling the cogs of the machine, perhaps in the form of the polyamorous, fluid, multiracial, anti-speciesist family with which the film ends?

Something seems to be missing in this mechanistic bildungsroman, in this Frankenstein with a happy ending, where the world turns out to be nothing more than a well-oiled machine. Perhaps this missing element is sexuality: not in the sense of the “furious jumping” that takes up so much of Bella’s time—she seems to experience a masturbatory form of pleasure that’s almost indifferent to those around her—but as a desire that derails the mechanisms of the machine and rearticulates them in unpredictable ways. What is the electric spark that already in Frankenstein jolts the creature alive on the Doctor’s table (and which Poor Things literally quotes the moment when God[win] gives life to Bella) if not the out-of-joint dimension of sexuality? That there is a connection between electricity and sexuality is revealed to us by God himself, when he admits not only that he has no sexual desire since he is a eunuch (“To get a sexual response from my body would take the same amount of electricity as runs North London”), but that he has sublimated the sex drive into his paternal function (“Besides, my paternal feelings seem to outweigh my sexual thoughts”). It is only because he translated his sexual “electricity” into paternal love for Bella that she was able to become a woman. In fact, when God, depressed about missing Bella, tries to repeat the same experiment with another daughter (a surprisingly funny Margaret Qualley), the experiment fails since the same desire is not there: the second daughter, Felicity, remains stupid and basically at a pre-subjective stage until the end of the film.

Contrary to what God says—but faithful to what he does—science does need feelings and love. In psychoanalytic terms, one would say it needs transference. And it matters little that Bella is the incestuous monster of her own mother and daughter. In fact, according to the logic of the film she might as well be a collection of dead tissue (because Cartesian matter is always inert) carelessly sewn together. The only thing that makes her a subject—and not a machine—is the fact that there is someone who has desired her (a father or a mother—or in this case a combo of the two since we are talking about a eunuch). More than a film about female emancipation, Poor Things is a film about a desire for filiation: unacknowledged at a rational level (God dismisses attachment to one’s creatures as unscientific), this paternal connection is evident in practice, like in the moving scene in which God pretends not to notice when Bella runs away, but leaves her emergency money in his jacket pocket, in a self-effacing paternal gesture.

Some might be disappointed to realize that such a seemingly rebellious film ends up making a plea for paternal desire. Yet it is not the first time in contemporary cinema that the most apparently Deleuzian film ends up being the most Oedipal (see one of the most blatantly anti-Oedipal-turned-Oedipal endings in recent years, Titane’s). This is not only an example of the return of the repressed (which it is). It is also a sign that our collective imaginary has not yet managed to figure out the transmission of generational desire outside the form of the family. Perhaps it is a sign that going beyond Oedipus is a much more complicated project than one might have thought. Or perhaps Lacan was right when he said, in his typically convoluted and enigmatic way, that “the Name-of-the-Father can just as well be bypassed on the condition that one make use of it.”

Film, Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Philosophy

Pietro Bianchi is Assistant Professor of Film Studies and Critical Theory at the University of Florida. His first book, Jacques Lacan and Cinema: Imaginary, Gaze, Formalisation, was published by Routledge in 2017. He writes film criticism for Cineforum, FilmTv, Doppiozero, and DinamoPress.


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