Yorgos Lanthimos continues to be one of the most creative filmmakers working today, repeatedly going for the oddball gusto with his movies to tell large, memorable, and utterly batshit stories that mask simple and universal ideas. With The Lobster, his first English language effort, he posited a dystopian society where the uncoupled are turned into animals if they can’t find love, in an extreme example of the ways people will contort themselves to be perceived as “normal.” In The Favourite, he used the ribald underbelly of the royal class long before Bridgerton turned it into straight up softcore porn as a means to show the childishness of those society says we’re meant to see as superiors. The deft — and daft — way he plays with subtext in absolutely bonkers terms is a hallmark of his career to date, and why his films stay with you long after the credits roll.
The man continues his hot streak with Poor Things, a madcap adventure of feminist agency filtered through a strange, steampunk combination of Pygmalion and Frankenstein. This probably has the most obvious messaging of any of Lanthimos’ works so far, and some of the production values almost dare you to quibble, but that’s all part of the grand scheme to make you question your own biases when presented with a massively unorthodox hypothetical.
Emma Stone continues to show why she’s one of the best actresses in film history (yes, I am ready to call that one) as Bella, the quasi-creation of deformed surgeon Godwin Baxter (an excellent Willem Dafoe with an even more impressive makeup job). Reanimating her corpse after she committed suicide (the opening shot is of Stone leaping off a bridge), he successfully transferred the brain of her still-viable fetus (not really a spoiler, as it’s revealed quite early on, and is essential to understand the intent of the story) into Bella’s skull and accelerated its function, creating an adult woman with an infant mind that quickly develops. As such, when we truly meet Bella for the first time, she can barely vocalize, walks with no coordination, can’t ingest food without assistance, and pointedly refers to Godwin as “God” in the form of her parental figure.
To help document Bella’s development, Godwin hires one of his medical students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to observe and befriend Bella, noting her day-to-day progress as he continues with his surgical practice and lectures. Through this exercise, the two grow a fondness for each other, though McCandles is conflicted when he learns the truth of Bella’s origins, wondering what he should or shouldn’t reveal to Bella, and whether she’ll even understand it. After some time, it is suggested by Godwin that Max take Bella as his wife, because he detects their feelings, he’s developed a paternal protection of Bella as his pseudo child as well as a project (he resists every attempt for Bella to go out into the world), and as he notes, his own medical conditions prevent him from any kind of sexual relationship in the first place, so Bella will need some other partner to experience that crucial aspect of life.
The wedding is put on hold, however, with the arrival of Duncan Wedderburn (a hilariously foppish Mark Ruffalo). Initially brought in to draw up a marriage contract that will keep Bella under Max and Godwin’s supervision permanently, Duncan is instantly smitten with Bella, and offers to take her on a whirlwind adventure around the world, including showing her all the things that Godwin and Max refuse to, like sex. This leads to Bella drugging her wardens and running off with Duncan for a journey full of self-discovery and, as Bella puts it, “furious jumping,” which may be the best euphemism I’ve ever heard.
This first act is an open invitation to walk out of the film, as Lanthimos and his cast establish the purely insane parameters of this cinematic odyssey. Stone shambles all over the place, speaking nonsense and smashing things, sort of like an off-the-walls Monty Python sketch (the physicality of her performance is worth the price of admission alone). When she first discovers her own sexual desires, complete with offers of fruit-based demonstrations, it’s not only hilarious and crazy, but oddly innocent. All of the leading scenes are shot in black-and-white (save the very first of Stone jumping in a vibrant blue dress), many using fish-eye wide angle lenses, and almost all from a low angle looking up, to give the audience the perspective of a new baby making its way around its environment. The film doesn’t switch to color until Bella has her first “jumping” experience, mirroring the fact that newborns can’t see colors until they’re about four months old.
As for the men in her life, we’re shown three interpretations of the same archetype — that of a possessive male. Godwin, literally and figuratively playing the first half of his name (as noted in films like The Inventor, there was a time when carving cadavers was a Hell-worthy trespass), projects his insecurities on her through his fatherly role in her existence. He gave her life, albeit against her will. He raised her, but in the manner of one with absolute authority. He chooses her mate in an extension of overly protective scouting, and when she leaves, he accepts it as part of the empty nest process. Part of this is because he, too, was mutilated by his surgeon father (in one of the oddest visuals you’ll ever see, he lost the ability to make digestive acids, so a machine creates large bubbles of gas that he “burps” out during meals to keep his metabolic processes going), which extends to a series of Dr. Moreau-esque hybrid animals akin to Hugo Simpson’s “pigeon-rat.” But mostly it’s because as a man of science he wishes to approach Bella with a dispassionate detachment, seeing her as an experimental variable that needs to be controlled. In fact, when Bella does leave, part of his “coping” is to find another corpse (Margaret Qualley, dubbed “Felicity”) and start the trial over again.
Max, on the other hand, gets far too emotional far too quickly. In Bella he sees endless possibilities, which is somewhat noble, and he’s presented as being genuine and kind in his approach, but you can also tell his imagination soars much more for himself than it does for Bella. He truly does love her, or at least what she represents, but he does so vicariously through his own ambition and fascination, an ideal of what she could be for him, rather than who she could be for herself. It’s a very fine distinction, cleverly hidden, and it’s not entirely a flaw in his character, but it’s there nonetheless, and serves as another example of the film’s moral.
And of course, once freed from the lab, Duncan treats Bella in the worst context within this theme. He sees her as a curiosity, a toy, and a trifle for fun. Throughout their sexual jaunt about Europe and the Mediterranean, he’s enamored with her drive and exuberance, but he never truly sees her as an individual, even when he becomes hopelessly infatuated and begins mournfully screaming her name like Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. He delights in her simplistic nature, but is scandalized and hateful when she seems unwilling — or unable — to comport to what he believes a “proper” lady should be. No matter who it is, no man looks at Bella as anything more than an object, at least not at first (Godwin and Max do evolve on the point, especially when they compare her with Felicity). Even when they mean well, they approach her as something to be quantified, molded into some established paradigm, rather than just letting her develop on her own terms. If you’re not on board for any of this, Lanthimos has formatted the film to let you bow out. Of course, very few will.
This is thanks to his commitment to fully realizing Bella as a character. The reason why this isn’t just paint-by-numbers sexism is because of the wonderfully depraved humor from everyone involved, but mostly from Bella herself. There’s a delicious bluntness to the proceedings, from Max’s first reaction to meeting Bella (“What a beautiful retard!”), to entendre-filled side excursions with characters played by Hanna Schygulla and Jerrod Carmichael, to Bella’s dinner table declaration of “I must go punch that baby” when she hears an annoying sound, to her eventual work in a brothel. Through this conceit, Bella learns everything as she goes in an overdrive fashion, ironically becoming the most objective aspect of this so-called experiment. She sees everything in an intellectual context, one that denizens of Victorian England would not think a woman capable of, which taints their own scientific method.
But Bella has no such bias or disqualification. She’s unfiltered, uninhibited, and unencumbered in her research of the world and of life itself, choosing to experience as much as possible without judgment before drawing logical conclusions. And while she does feel emotions, she doesn’t let them prejudice her findings. This is best exemplified by her time working as a prostitute, where she asks the madam (Kathryn Hunter) about the possibility of letting the girls choose amongst themselves which one fucks the john, and develops a quasi-romantic relationship with one of the other workers (Suzy Bemba). Through them she learns the figurative ins and outs of this business — as well as the literal ones — and the inherent unfairness of it, forcing her to account for real-world variables via first-person evidence, rather than the men in her life insisting upon it through mere words.
This is also why the surrounding production elements are intentionally just a bit off. The wide angle shots continue well past their thematic utility. Backgrounds are rendered into the most simplistic and silly versions of themselves (another Monty Python parallel is the Terry Gilliam-inspired design of the cruise ship that Duncan takes Bella on). The various locations of the journey are broken up with surreal title cards where Bella mystically floats on dismembered pieces of brain. The costuming is traditional Victorian garb for most of the cast, while Bella herself dresses in what looks like a combination of the period style and a 1980s glam rock retro take. The gas bubbles and duck-dogs are hysterical, but the effects themselves are over-the-top cartoonish and don’t match the rest of the shot. All of this shows just how weird this world that Lanthimos rules and Bella inhabits can be, but it also stresses that it’s all window dressings and accoutrements to the real story that’s unfolding. He’s acknowledging that he’s trying to draw you in with the oddness of it all so that you’ll stick around and pay attention to the crucial character study he’s getting across, and it’s done brilliantly.
With each new film, Yorgos Lanthimos continues to demonstrate why artists like him are so essential to the ongoing conversation that is cinema. Anyone can make a flick about a woman realizing her own initiative and value. There are literally scores of them, as well as entire television channels devoted to the trope. But without memorable imagery, strong performances, and airtight writing, most just fall by the wayside and don’t leave any real impact. With Poor Things, we see a truly fantastic — and fantastical — effort to seer the idea into your mind while also being uproariously funny and entertaining. As silly and bombastic as this entire spectacle is, it all boils down to a simple story about three men trying to, in their own way, create the perfect woman, an idea that has polluted far too much in modern pop culture (just ask Disney). What makes this one of the best movies of the year is that the solution is to just leave her be and let her figure all that out for herself.
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