A horror for an Oscar

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Oscar nominations are not what they used to be. It is little wonder that audiences regularly opt for the old “black and white” favourites. Oscars are handed out to forgettable films while the memory of old films linger. What movie won the Oscar for Best Picture last year? That is a challenge.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that audiences are not what they used to be either. Filmmakers cater to societal changes. If that were altogether true, why do we hunger for films of yesteryear?

We do not quarrel with genius if genius exists.

While tastes differ as they say, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” yet every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, beauty, and brilliance.  

Do we depend on our own impression or the critic’s judgement? When art critics come to particulars, unanimity vanishes, as there is no standard taste. All critical judgements are subjective.

Judging by the hits at the box-office, you need a special film to get you off your couch, to the movie-theatre and judging from the revenues of this highly rated horror film, the viewer remained at home.

Poor Things is the highly acclaimed horror film nominated for 11 Oscars which is an eye-opener. Academy Award voters are not inclined to favour this genre. In about a century of filmmaking only six horror films were nominated for Best Picture: The Exorcist (1973), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Black Swan (2010), Get Out (2017), and Poor Things (2024). Only one film won the much-coveted award, Silence of the Lambs.

Who or what are those Poor Things that inspired the illustrious members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to regard it in such high esteem?

Poor Things is hard to classify. It is a dark comedy combining sci-fi, drama, horror, cruelty, violence, sex, and offensive language. Rated R (restricted) for good reason, the film has been heaping accolades in every venue, except among viewers.

The film won the prestigious Golden Lion Award at its premiere opening at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and has been named among the 10 best films by the American Film Institute and the National Board Review. Nominated in 11 categories by both the 77th British Academy Awards and the 96th American Academy Awards, it has already garnered two major wins at the Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Actress (Emma Stone).

Will it have the same luck come Oscar night? Stone has already won the gold for her performance in Lalaland, (2017).

Is that the academy standard?

The sweep of Lalaland at the Oscars is an indication of how haphazardly Oscars are handed out to ordinary productions. Will the bar be raised now that the Covid pandemic is over and audiences are flocking back to the theatres?

Adapted from a 1992 novel by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, Poor Things is set in the stuffy Victorian era, using a Frankenstein-like drama ambiance of 19th century Glasgow, where Gray spent his entire life. It is a brilliant creation about a post-modern revision of Frankenstein, that replaces the monster with Bella Baxter, a beautiful, young erotomaniac, brought back to life with the brain of an infant.

This was Gray’s best work; an off-beat novel often compared to George Orwell and Franz Kafka.

After committing suicide, a young lady is brought back to life by an unorthodox scientist who implants her with the brain of her unborn child. Now we have a fully grown female body with the brain of a child, living a stiflingly sheltered life with her creator, Godwin Baxter, (Willem Dafoe), whom she refers to as God.

Visions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein dance through our heads.

Baxter is visited by a wildly indulgent lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who takes a liking to Bella and together they flee the mansion and embark on a licentious journey of every kind of pleasure.

A sexually free woman who, fearlessly, without guilt, pursues her desires as an innocent child.

The journey is one of self-discovery, personal transformation, and evolution of Bella Baxter. Bella’s childhood perspective of the world allows her to question the established norms and gender rules, which we accept tacitly.

What is the message? A subtheme of redemption is detected. Given a second chance, will we be able to redeem ourselves, grow into someone different, better?

It is indisputable that author Gray was greatly influenced by the life and work of Mary Shelley, born to Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, both philosophers and advocates of women’s rights of the 18th century, long before it was fashionable. Gray even borrowed the name Godwin, for his scientist.

A feminist spin of equality and liberation is underlined by Bella’s voyage of discovery.

An added attraction may be the film’s Greek director, orgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, 2015) famous for weird films, which “aren’t for everyone”. The box-office returns are clear proof.

Will this Gothic horror be the first of over 65 “Frankenstein” inspired movies to win an Oscar for Best Picture? Stranger things have happened.

More likely, Emma Stone, who was given the role of a lifetime, may take the gold home again — a more deserving win than the overrated Lalaland.

Is it necessary for a great work of art to appeal to the masses, or to the critics?

One critic said “the only Poor Things he found, was the audience.”

“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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