Poor Things arrives in cinemas nationwide on January 12th 2024.
Yorgos Lanithmos has made his career exploring the idiosyncrasies of the human experience. While his style may be an acquired taste, his films are so unabashedly singular that the way he executes an idea is just as exciting as the idea itself. Poor Things may be his greatest work yet. Best described as vivid pandemonium, it is as unhinged as The Lobster or The Favourite. Yet, the themes explored are layered with a richness that lingers with you even longer than the chaos of the imagery.
An adaptation of Alistair Gray’s 1992 novel, the Frankenstein influences are immediately apparent. We are introduced to Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), an adult woman who seems to have the motor skills and speech of a toddler. This is because her guardian, surgeon and scientist, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), found the recently deceased body of adult Bella and reanimated it, replacing her brain with a child’s. Surprisingly, this is one of the tamer oddities of the film.
Bella quickly adapts, learning new skills fast. Yet, she desires to explore the world around her beyond the restrictions set by Godwin. An opportunity arrives in the form of the debaucherous Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who suggests he take Bella on a worldwide trip so she may experience the joys of life before she is married off to Max (Remy Yousaff), a student of Godwin’s. Bella eagerly agrees, and the journey she embarks on forces her to confront several questions about female sexuality, patriarchy and individuality.
Poor Things is a scathing takedown of societal constructs, in particular, the gendered roles often forced on women by cultural and societal patriarchy. While framing Bella as a reanimated woman with a child’s brain is without question bizarre, it’s still a smart way of reintroducing the world and all of its flaws to her, as she no longer has the jadedness of her previous life. In a striking parallel to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, everything about this world is new to the female protagonist. The treatment Bella is met with garners both idiosyncratic reactions from her naivety, as well as strong condemnation once the weight of men’s lust or ambition and society’s prejudice becomes clear.
A gorgeously crafted film, the production design and cinematography of Poor Things reflects the macabre incongruousness of the premise. The costumes are explosively vivacious, while the sets could be lifted straight out of a German Expressionist film. It may not take place in 19th century Glasgow like the novel, yet the theatrical juxtaposition of modern machinery, like overhead cable cars, and historical stone architecture feels inspired by the city all the same. Meanwhile, Lanthimos’s signature utilisation of a fisheye lens injects even more oddity into the picture while also creating the impression of a world being seen for the first time through infantile eyes.
It’s a fitting choice, as this is a story of self-discovery and subsequent liberation. Bella may begin the film effectively as a child, but she does not stay one for long. Soon, as everyone eventually does, she discovers sexuality. However, unlike others around her, she finds no shame in this and is even assertive in her expression of that sexuality. At no point is Bella mocked for her enjoyment of sex. It is how others, namely Duncan, respond to Bella’s comfortability in her sexuality that not only amuses the audiences but teaches her so much about the world and its basis in patriarchy and banal societal expectations. Emma Stone’s performance is one of her very best. She bravely navigates a full spectrum of emotion, from childlike glee to confused repulsion to an unbreakable assuredness when the circumstances of her past life come full circle, all the while riding the wave of absurdity with giddy fervour. It’s hard to picture anyone else capturing the uniqueness of Bella’s role so terrifically.
The editing and score relish in the craziness of the premise and the freedom of Bella’s newfound independence. Jerskin Fendrix’s score plays like a sexual awakening in and of itself, with its repetitive beats and string music quickly becoming intoxicating, matching the inventiveness – short sharp bursts of music play throughout, emboldening the tone and deepening the sense of engrossment through its sheer audacity. Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ editing makes an already beautiful film into one of the year’s most unique with its mix of monochrome and colour as well as its creative use of zooming circles emphasising the moments in Bella’s life that go on to defy her journey of growth and autonomy.
As with all Lanthimos movies, a brilliantly brazen script infuses the material with magnificent humour. Tony McNamara returns after his work on The Favourite, and the dialogue is once again as hilarious as the integration of themes are intelligent. So blunt are Bella’s questions on life, purpose and sex that it’s impossible not to laugh at the benign awkwardness of it. There are an endless stream of quotable lines just from how the script embraces its weirdness – the constant referral to sex as “furious jumping” is one of many highlights. The actors, surrounding and including Stone, recognise the ludicrousness and chew the scenery accordingly. Mark Ruffalo is particularly ravenous in this area, as is DaFoe, even if his Scottish accent remains questionable.
Poor Things is ultimately a story about how one defies societal norms, emerging from the grasp of a structured patriarchal world as a free and prosperous person. It rejects gendered roles and expectations in favour of utterly chaotic freedom, and the end result couldn’t be more spectacular. An explosion of bright and bonkers imagination, proudly unrestrained in its detonation, it mesmerises with its witty writing, assured direction, immaculate visuals and filmmaking, and a tour-de-force lead performance. Destined to go down as one of 2023’s best and most memorable films, Poor Things is Yorgos Lanthimos at the height of his peculiar power.
An explosion of bright and bonkers imagination, proudly unrestrained in its detonation, mesmerises with its witty writing, assured direction, immaculate visuals and filmmaking, and a tour-de-force lead performance. Destined to go down as one of 2023’s best and most memorable films, Poor Things is Yorgos Lanthimos at the height of his peculiar power.