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Oscars, take note: 'Poor Things' built its weird, unforgettable world from scratch

Oddsmakers say <em>Barbie</em> will win this year's Oscar for production design. But here's the case for <em>Poor Things.</em>
Searchlight Pictures
Oddsmakers say Barbie will win this year's Oscar for production design. But here's the case for Poor Things.

Stepping out of Yorgos Lanthimos' grotesquely gorgeous Poor Things, I found myself frowning at the world around me, struggling to take in the sheer, thudding, somehow plaintive dullness of it all. At the way the buildings just sort of ... sat there sullenly, like a series of well-ordered lumps, risking nothing. The way the inert, featureless sky seemed perfectly content to simply hang in the air, instead of swirling furiously with drama and menace. At the drab, leached out colors of the cars and sidewalks.

I'd spent the previous two hours deep inside a film that was thrilling to look at – that offered a visual tasting menu, serving up its rich and detailed story with inventiveness and style, scene by intoxicating scene. For its sheer craft and invention, I felt certain Poor Things would get nominated for the production design Oscar this year – and win.

But then I remembered that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – which hands out the Oscars each year – has developed a few pernicious habits over the decades. You can count on 'em:

  1. If a movie's considered too weird to win best picture, it'll take home a screenplay award.
  2. The best costume award goes to period films; if your movie's got bustles and bonnets, corsets and corsages, you're gonna have a good night.
  3. You know how folks say the acting awards never recognize the year's best acting, but the year's most acting? Same thing for production design.


When it comes to production design, the Academy likes a big swing. It wants to see the work (read: the budget) onscreen. This is why, year in and year out, the best production design Oscar goes to films that spend millions to painstakingly recreate historical eras (All Quiet on the Western Front, Mank, Lincoln), films that sink the GNP of small countries into bringing the fantastic to life (Dune, Black Panther, Avatar), or films that do a bit of both at once (The Shape of Water, Hugo, Pan's Labyrinth).

Jerrod Carmichael on the set of <em>Poor Things.</em>
Yorgos Lanthimos / Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures
Jerrod Carmichael on the set of Poor Things.

This year's contenders fit the mold. There's your historical epics like Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon, which flood the screen with thousands of tiny, period details to situate us in a specific time and place. There's Barbie's fantasy world of shiny, retina-sizzling pink plastic. And there's the visionary, pseudo-historical alt-reality of Poor Things.

Barbie's the odds-on favorite to take home the production design award this year, and it's easy to see why. The filmmakers had a very specific, and thus very difficult, job to do: Distill the mutable design aesthetic of a toy that's weathered six decades of change into a single clear vision that's specific and instantly, universally recognizable as Barbie. It's a lot, no question; I doff my wide-brimmed pink gingham beach hat to them.

But I'd argue that what Poor Things accomplishes is something more, something that strikes me as the essence of truly great production design – it supplies us with a bespoke visual language that reveals what the film's truly about.

And what Poor Thing's about is Bella, played by Emma Stone, who is brought into the world by a brilliant surgeon (Willem Defoe) who reanimates the corpse of a pregnant woman after replacing her brain with that of her unborn child. But director Yorgos Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara are less interested in Bella as one man's scientific creation and more concerned with Bella as a woman who creates herself. As Bella grows into herself sexually, intellectually and politically, her curiosity and confidence allow her to embrace her individuality, on her own terms.

Emma Stone in<em> Poor Things.</em>
Atsushi Nishijima / Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures
Emma Stone in Poor Things.

Throughout, Lanthimos and production designers James Price and Shona Heath help us chart Bella's development by creating a sealed-off world, a kind of cinematic terrarium, for us to watch her grow inside – a world that resembles our own only in passing.

Poor Things takes that world building seriously – and literally. The streets of its sort-of Victorian London, Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris were built on vast soundstages. The fantastical architecture of these pseudo-cities combine familiar references – Belle Epoque, Gaudi's Modernisme, Art Deco, Neo-Gothic – to create a singular aesthetic that reflects who Bella is: She, like the world around her, is a thing that has been obviously, painstakingly wrought. She and it are constructs, made with deliberate purpose, from scratch. They belong to themselves.

Part one: London

The film's opening scenes take place in a fanciful, quasi-Victorian London, in and around Bella's birthplace — the home of Dafoe's Godwin Baxter. Airships hang in the gray skies above its roof, and Baxter's motorized carriage sports a superfluous horse-head to more easily blend in with the other horse-drawn vehicles on the narrow, curvilinear cobblestone streets.

Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe.
Yorgos Lanthimos / Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures
Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe.

The interiors of the surgeon's home echo the man's profession – its rooms and hallways seem as if they have been carved out of the walls with a scalpel and hastily rearranged. These early scenes are shot in black and white to underscore the fact that Bella is still in her developmental infancy, and her status as Godric's sheltered plaything is established by the house's low ceilings, which loom into every shot and lend a claustrophobic sense of oppressiveness.

Part two: Lisbon

Bella absconds to Portugal with the smarmy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) and experiences her sexual awakening. This is the point at which color surges into the film, splayed across the sun-dazzled, Marshmallow-Peeps-yellow streets of Lisbon. Everything about the look of these scenes seems deliberately artificial, even fantastical; we're reminded that this is Bella's first step into the wider world, and these oversaturated, canary-colored walls and rich vermillion terra-cotta rooftops help us see things as she does, with wonder edging into disbelief.

Alt-Lisbon in<em> Poor Things.</em>
/ Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures
Alt-Lisbon in Poor Things.

Part three: Ocean liner

As Bella's worldliness increases, she begins to see Wedderburn as the weak, simpering fool he is. He responds by kidnapping her and forcing her to accompany him on a cruise to Alexandria. The cruise ship itself is a sleek, richly appointed teak-and-glass marvel; their stateroom is a dark space of rich browns and lurid reds – a kind of tufted Jules Verne sex capsule.

Yorgos Lanthimos / Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures

But Bella and Wedderburn never take advantage of it. They've stopped having sex and instead quarrel often; Wedderburn even goes so far as to threaten violence. As if in response to these heightening stakes, and to signal Bella's growing wariness, the skies around the ship begin to roil with low clouds of purples and yellows – the colors of an aging bruise.

Part five: Alexandria

When the ship reaches Egypt, Bella goes ashore with Jerrod Carmichael's Harry, a cynic determined to prove to her that the world is a miserable place. To do this, he need only get her to gaze from the balcony of the swank hotel bar they're visiting. There, far below, the poor and downtrodden suffer and die.

The production designers pull out all the visual stops here, by showing us what Bella sees as she sees it: an ancient, ruined structure covered in sand, where wailing men and women bury their infant children. The gulf separating her from them is made garishly physical: A staircase leads down from the balcony she's standing on; once, it descended all the way to the plaza where the poor now lay moaning and dying. Long ago, however, the bottom of the staircase crumbled away. She cannot reach them; they are stranded, lost, alone.

This scene takes place under the kind of bright sunlight that, back at the start of her journey in Lisbon, seemed like a cheery, warm and inviting confection. Now that same quality of light has become blistering, ruthless – and deadly.

Part six: Paris

Bella leaves Wedderburn for good and takes a job as a sex worker in a wintry Paris. The narrow streets she navigates recall the winding alleys and squares of London, as does the snow, which evokes the film's monochromatic early scenes. But Bella is a fundamentally different person than she was in London, and her work allows her to complete her sexual education and embark upon a political one.

Atsushi Nishijima / Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures

The baroque lobby of the brothel in which she works features sections of floor lit from below, which put the women who work there on display, under their cold white glare. It's a stark and deliberate contrast to the plush velvet sofas and settees on which the women lounge as they await their next client. It's as if the filmmakers are visually referencing Bella's current state of mind – she's a sex worker (the velvet) who is ruthlessly pragmatic, even scientific, in her duties (that harsh, clinical lighting).

As for Bella's bedroom, it, too, seems remarkably practical. The visual language of the film's production design grows more muted, here – downright realistic. That's because Bella no longer sees the world through the eyes of a naive, delighted child; her perspective has coalesced into something logical, hard-earned, mature.

Part seven: Back to London

Yorgos Lanthimos / Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures

The film concludes with Bella's return to London to tie up loose ends: Baxter's final fate, her relationship with the sad-eyed, long-suffering Max (Ramy Youssef) and her unresolved business with a man from her past (Christopher Abbot).

Baxter's house is the same as ever, but Lanthimos now doesn't include its low ceilings in scenes taking place there – the 0ppressiveness is gone, and Bella's asserting her independent personhood, moving on. In fact, the film's final scene takes place in the house's back garden, under a wide open sky – in full color. But now those colors are milder, closer to the more moderate hues seen in "our" world. Bella is planning her future, and it's one that she could only arrive at after taking the journey she has. She sees the world as it is. (There will still be plenty of room for the weird and grotesque in her life, we are assured – Baxter's duck-pig and other unholy animal hybrids aren't going anywhere.)

Poor Things does what all the other nominated films this year do, but it goes even further. It's not content to recreate one single, specific historical moment, or to concoct a bright bubble-gum fantasy world that contrasts with ours. Instead it lays out a discrete series of visual cues and design choices that bring us along with its main character; they underscore, and comment on, the hard choices she makes throughout the story.

The design team behind Poor Things blends familiar styles and points of historical reference to produce a new aesthetic, one that's unique to the film and its characters. It plays with layers of artifice and textures to instill in us a deliberate sense of the uncanny, of strangeness and untapped possibility. And it does all this for a very good and necessary narrative reason – we get to crawl inside Bella's head and be there with her as her dawning self-awareness proceeds to change how she sees the world.

And in the process, because it's just that great of a film, it changes how we see the world, too.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

/ Searchlight Pictures
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Searchlight Pictures

Corrected: February 14, 2024 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the characters Bella and Duncan abscond to Spain. In fact, they go to Portugal. In addition, Willem Dafoe's character is a surgeon named Dr. Godwin Baxter and not Godric Baxter as originally stated.
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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.