I’ve been wanting to incorporate my thoughts about the deeper meaning of movies into my Dose of Depth podcast, and I guess my recent viewing of the movie Poor Things pushed me over the procrastination ledge.
I couldn’t think of a better person to have this conversation with than my friend and former colleague, PJ Dever. He’s one of those friends that you can chat with for hours and wonder where the time has gone. For years, our conversations naturally gravitated towards films and Netflix series whether they were blockbusters that appealed to the masses or more niche films. PJ doesn’t have any specialized expertise in film theory, but he indulges me in my insatiable appetite to dig beneath the surface and his own thoughts about films facilitates my process of finding deeper meaning.
The space between us is like what Jungian analyst Luke Hockley named the third image, that space between the movie screen and our unconscious, or our TV or laptop and our unconscious. This space is where our unconscious grabs film images that are relevant to our personal psychological journey and offers clues about what’s beneath the surface of the collective unconscious that wants to be unleashed.
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Some Jungian Film Theory Concepts
The range of emotions, from disconcerting to anger, to liberation, and the fact I could not immediately articulate how Poor Things impacted my psyche was a clue that it was communicating something new. I suspect it has something to do with new versions of archetypal energies seeking to escape old stagnant conventional ideas.
I thought it would be helpful to share three Jungian concepts related to finding the deeper meaning of films. The first is CG Jung’s discernment between psychological and visionary art. There are movies that are straightforward in their intent and the way they are received and there are others that have an unexpected impact. When there are intense negative AND positive reactions, this is a clue that something new is seeking to be understood through reconciling perceived opposing ideas.
The second is the concept of the third image, which I mentioned earlier, the space between the screen or laptop and the viewer, a kind of playground for the images on the screen which reach into the psyche and unconscious of the viewer and there is an impact on the viewer that might result in a new insight that is personal in nature or that one can see playing out in the collective.
The last concept has to do with Jung’s idea about the difference between symbol and sign. A sign is an image for which there is an established and agreed upon meaning, but a symbol communicates something that is not ready to be articulated through the mind and in words. This film is rich with symbolism, and you're missing out if you don't take time to explore the strange images, colors, sounds, and apparel worn by the characters.
The film Poor Things continues to preoccupy my mind, which confirms there's something waiting for me to discover if only I'll take time to explore some more.
Death of Stagnant Ideas and Rebirth of a Liberated Feminine
Here are a couple ways the film is described:
“The incredible tale about the fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter; a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist, Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by Willem Dafoe.”
And . . .
"Under Baxter's protection, Bella (played by Emma Stone who has already won a Golden Globe for her role) is eager to learn. Hungry for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and debauched lawyer. He takes her on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation."
I say yuck!
Neither of those descriptions even come close to describing what’s going on at a deeper level. For me, this film is about death of stagnant beliefs and systems which seek to control the feminine in women AND men.
This film is about the rebirth of the feminine in women, which when truly liberated frustrates and prompts reconnection with the feminine and growth of a healthy masculine in men. Since the feminine and masculine have been defined and controlled by patriarchy for so long, I suspect we honestly do not know what it means to be naturally feminine or masculine.
In the film, we see a clean start within the context of a scientific process to watch the natural unfolding of the reborn feminine. The film also brings to life the archetypal experience of death and rebirth. The first scene is the dramatic surrender to death of a woman desperate to escape her life. We don’t know the details. The next scene is of a child’s brain in a woman’s body – a kind of starting over.
My initial discomfort with the paternal and patriarchal demeanor of the doctor transforms through the film, but in the beginning Bella’s reference to Dr. Godwin as “God” makes me angry. On the other hand, Dr. Godwin is a wounded traumatized man whose father committed atrocities on his body and mind in the name of science.
It would be a mistake to view this film about only a woman’s journey, rather the journey is about the unleashing of the liberated feminine and the healthy masculine that is also liberated once it no longer seeks to control the feminine.
Healing the Feminine and Masculine in Men Too (and those beyond the binary)
The cast of male characters who are Bella's antagonists prompt her growth. Little do they know that underneath their desire to control, trap, and limit her so they may keep her, her commitment to her own self-determination prompts their own growth as well, except for one who suffers the consequences.
There’s Dr. Godwin of course, who is referred to by Bella as God. But he is a different kind of God, one who balances his paternal role of providing nourishment and guardrails for Bella’s growing curiosity with curiosity about her natural unfolding within a sterile environment. He reminds her about how dangerous the outside world can be. He kind of reminds me of CG Jung, who liberated the intellect of many women students who later became analysts. When he catches himself seeking to control her, he abides by her wish to be set free to live her life with all its consequences.
Then there’s Max, Dr. Godwin’s assistant who is attracted to Bella’s innocence and beauty. His attraction to her is disturbing and initially reflects men’s desire to infantilize women, but he grows too, not necessarily by choice. He respects Bella enough to let her live her life, which in the end is how she finds her way back to him. Their new relationship is a partnership that emerges after Max is able to withdraw his idealistic projections from Bella and see her for who she truly is, a human being who exists only for her own
Then there’s the womanizer Duncan, played by Mark Ruffalo. I love his character so much. He believes that when Bella agrees to allow him to take her on an adventure that he has the upper hand. Bella’s pure and wild instincts both arouse and torture Duncan to the point where he leaves her, comes back, and begs her to be with him, and then ends up in a mental institution having gone crazy by her self-determination.
Finally, there’s the General . . . and we won’t say too much about him to avoid giving too much away. He stands for the old stagnant ideas about masculinity, and it doesn’t end well for him.
Finding Truth for Oneself is For the Brave: The Knowledge of Good and Evil
I love the quirky couple – Martha (the philosopher) and Harry (the cynic). They offer Bella knowledge through books and bantering about ideas related to good and evil, and Bella ponders whether people can change. After unleashing sexually and exploring the outside world with all her senses, Bella's intellect catches fire and her intuition begins to come to life, guiding her towards more informed and confidently held opinions and beliefs that are her own and no one else's.
The soundtrack, surrealism, and evolution from black and white to exaggerated colors and shapes kept me disoriented and off kilter enough to force me to be open to something new that was trying to make its way from my unconscious to consciousness. I ditched my mind and just absorbed the images and music on the screen. There was no easy way to escape the challenging threshold in which I found myself.
The soundtrack is described as “strange,” and I saw the word subversive used to describe the film, which I find enticing. The scenery is familiar, for example, Duncan takes Bella to Lisbon, Portugal, but sometimes the perspective is like that of a fish looking out of a fishbowl, and even though the film seems to take place in the end of the 19th Century, there are gondolas on wires passing overhead.
The images between major sections that made up the three acts of the film including Bella floating in water as if she were a clump of cells in a Petri dish. Water of course is a symbol of the unconscious. The image leading to Act Three was the mature Bella crossing a bridge carrying a suitcase filled with wisdom after having shed her naivete and come to know the potential for good and evil in the world. It’s like she left Eden and became conscious of her own potential for good and evil.
The Impact of Films on Your Life
There's so much more to this film, including our relationship with sexuality and pleasure. I'll leave that for another time. I hope you enjoyed my reflections about Poor Things and will check out my chat with PJ Dever on Dose of Depth podcast or YouTube.
Maybe you can relate to my passion for discussing movies and Netflix series, but all your friends think you’re a little too nerdy or maybe they just don’t see what you see. It’s interesting that the invention of the moving picture coincided with the establishment of the field of psychology. Could it be that the collective unconscious was prompting us to reflect about ourselves?
Certain films really worked me over during my midlife unraveling and reconstruction. They were all super hero movies, like Alita: Battle Angel (I wrote about it here) and Aquaman (click to read a short post).
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Until next time . . .