Poor Things, 2023.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
Starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Suzy Bemba, Kathryn Hunter, Vicki Pepperdine, Margaret Qualley, and Hanna Schygulla.
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.
Far from the standard fish-out-of-water story, in Poor Things, a reanimated Bella Baxter (a never-better Emma Stone) begins life anew as Doctor Godwin’s (Willem Dafoe playing the tender, walking abomination of surgery scars and bubble belches) Frankenstein being, whose creation by novelist Alasdair Gray fits perfectly into the twisted mind of director Yorgos Lanthimos.
Bella starts with a baby’s mind, gradually learning approximately 15 words a day and more about basic human behavior, such as how to eat food. Then there is some basic education, such as teaching her the world map. A few days later, Bella reaches the sexual discovery stage of maturity, masturbating at the dinner table with, well, let’s just say you have to see it for yourself. This is after having some stabby fun time with some of Godwin’s other cadavers intended for scientific experiments, playfully poking out their eyes like an infant shaking a rattle.
That sex drive further balloons from there, breaking off an arranged marriage with her experimental observer Max McCandles, to travel the world with a sexist, objectifying lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn (nastily portrayed by Mark Ruffalo with the perfect pitch to make it uncomfortably hilarious while also driving home the gender commentary) promising to teach her all about life (her choice to seek adventure also cleverly marks the transition from black-and-white to color, expressing freedom) and fulfill her dreams of traveling the world. But mostly, he just wants to “furiously jump” on Bella, as she comes to describe the sexual pleasure, at least until her brain develops into a woman carving out a strong sense of agency. Unsurprisingly, the second that control starts slipping away or a woman questions if she is getting the best sex, slimy men become frustrated and disinterested.
The point is that Poor Things features a golden director/lead combo (recently having worked together on another deranged, sexually charged British period piece with The Favourite) fearlessly committed to the bit from the get-go in this scathing smart and hypersexual takedown of gender politics and the male ego, told with a depraved sense of humor. One could forever discuss the physical challenges, from awkward movements to infantilized speech Emma Stone masters, gradually altering that performance as the character amasses knowledge and forms an identity.
The script is also sharp enough to depict the power balance scales between Bella and Duncan tipping in escalating fashion, with Duncan increasingly boiling over with anger at the same rate Bella learns about the world and how to make choices for herself, her pleasure, and the greater good of the less fortunate that come to annoy the manchild greatly. One would think that the debates and arguments that arise are tied to the past, albeit a fantastical historical past with a steampunk aesthetic, but the screenplay is razor-sharp at morphing it into a modern context for dark laughs and pointed insight.
In fairness, Yorgos Lanthimos is shooting easy targets, but the sheer stunning craftsmanship on display, from Robbie Ryan’s fishbowl lens photography to the disorienting camera angles to the exquisitely colorful dress designs from costume designer Holly Waddington (seemingly intentionally portraying Bella sometimes as resembling ones worn by popular Disney princesses, as if winking that this is all a dark fairy tale on par with some of the stories their classic films come from) offset that minor nitpick,
Meanwhile, the final stretch dives more into Bella’s past life, which would have been nice to explore in greater detail. Simultaneously, no one scene here feels like it should be cut since the entire film leaves one howling and hooked on Bella’s growth in mind and character as she goes on these episodic adventures, even if there is a small lack of emotional depth. There is a late stretch that sees Bella become a sex worker, taking on a whole new set of perceived societal norms with feminist feistiness. The feverish horniness and go-for-broke exploration of sexual dynamics, presented as an awakening of agency through familiar Frankenstein territory, is provocatively bold and entrancing.
Poor Things has that signature Yorgos Lanthimos brand of off-color weirdness with a wickedly fierce turn from Emma Stone meticulously in touch with every nuance of small detail of Bella’s evolution; it’s disturbingly funny, unapologetically kinky and erotic, and unabashedly bizarre with absorbing eccentric characters, and also a sweet story about love and family.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com