Imagine a ‘Frankenstein’ type story, that was also a more mature coming of age tale about purpose and self-discovery, but that discovery was fostered by an aggressive sexual awakening, leading to a feminist liberation odyssey around the world. Poor Things is fucking bizarre, and I loved it!
Acclaimed director of the abstract, Yorgos Lanthimos reunites once more with screenwriter Tony McNamara and star Emma Stone, all who of which collaborated on the 2017 dark comedy The Favourite, in this adaptation of Alaisdair Gray’s black comedy novel, Poor Things.
In a uniquely odd and imaginative London, in which Victorian era clothing and colloquialisms are afront steampunk science and pastel-coloured skylines, Bella (Stone) is brought back to life by her guardian, renowned scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter, or simply ‘God’ to Bella. Whilst being the body of a grown woman, Bella must re-learn and developed basic human behaviours, such as talking and motor functions.
Perplexed by Baxter’s experimentation on Bella, and the affinity he shares for her like a daughter, an emerging doctorate student, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) is brought in by Baxter to document Bella’s life for scientific purposes. However, the interactions between Bella and Max lead to complicated feelings, those of love for Max, and those of unashamed sexual desire for Bella. However, Baxter sees this as a developmental opportunity for Bella, and orders a marriage between her and Max. A marriage that requires a quite strange contract, which catches the curiosity of debauched lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).
Infatuated by Bella’s beauty, and her incessant pushes for her sexual needs to be meet, Duncan convinces Bella to run away with her. But Bella’s eagerness to continue learning about the world around her, a world she has been sheltered from by Dr. Baxter, leads her on a journey of liberation and discovery that can’t be contained by Duncan.
Yorgos Lanthimos is no stranger exploring themes of liberation and discovery, and most recently with The Favourite, through a strong feminist perspective. Poor Things continues his streak with a dedicated viewpoint of a navigating truly bizarre world completely through Bella’s perspective. The gender power dynamics she encounters from the men in her life, usually restricting her desire to discover through demeaning demands, serve as the catalyst to propel herself into a journey of self-discovery, predominantly through the liberating sensation of masturbation of which Bella discovers as many of us did… just randomly one day. And from that point, Bella’s life changes for ever as she develops the eagerness to learn more about the world, but without the preconceived societal expectations of women during that era, which was ultimately look pretty and stay quiet.
Here, Bella’s journey is told in such a unique and weird way, that it’s almost even more relatable in all the insanity. Outlandish sets, production design and costumes create an atmosphere that feels like a mix of between utopia and a fairy tale. It’s colourful and grand, almost like a more unhinged Barbie-land. Being set in such a heightened world works to make the way Bella is treated by the men in her life seem even more ridiculous, and eventually infuriating. This, mixed with the complexities of Bella as a character make her an incredibly interesting protagonist.
Outside of the story itself, Poor Things will draw you in with its purely unadulterated and graphic oddness. And Poor Things does not hold back at all by making its oddness intentionally uncomfortable, playing its confronting card early on with the sex, gore and politically incorrect (but contextually of its time) terms to really let the audience know that nothing is off limits. Even the grotesque nature of scientific creations that are seen in the film create a sense of uneasiness that you just can’t look away from.
Lanthimos captures this insanity in his unique way, with an affinity for the fisheye lens he began to popularise for his visual style back in The Favourite. There’s no denying that the cinematography and direction of Poor Things is for the most part astounding and captivating, and while the strong fish-eye lens use is on the exciting end of the filmmaking spectrum, it is slightly overused here. Where Lanthimos’ visual style shines is the use of digital zooms that will pull out from a character, hit a mid-point of the shot, and begin zooming in a different direction, adding a dynamic energy to the already heightened feeling of this film. On a technical level, Poor Things and Yorgos Lanthimos are doing things that no other filmmakers are doing, and it makes for engaging and intriguing viewing.
But this is undoubtedly Emma Stone’s movie. The unashamed freedom that Stone plays with Bella is unbelievably dedicated. When Bella is still in her, for lack of a better phrase, infancy stage of her rebirth, Stone must play dumb, very dumb, because she is ultimately a child in an adult body. The language, the body movements, and most impressively, the drooping eyes bring Bella’s mental state to life, and that is simply because of Emma Stone releasing all inhibitions and “Hollywood” decency to serve the character and the story. Even the extent of Stone’s commitment to Bella’s sexual nature is one not seen by someone of her celebrity stature, and it’s commendable that she is willing to literally bare it all, again, in service of a story that’s screaming sexual liberation from the rooftops.
Mark Ruffalo barrages in with a sleazy demeanour and pouty British accent and damn near steals the whole film with his manic energy of a degenerate who’s obsessed with reaping the rewards of Bella’s sexual revolution, but his eventual (and rightful) downfall as he loses his grip on Bella ensues in a comedic performance unlike anything Ruffalo has done before, full of childlike tantrums, off-kilter insults and whining galore. Willem Dafoe is his intriguing self, even behind a heavy layer of prosthetics to bring the Frankenstein elements to the forefront, and a barrage of supporting roles including Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott never set a foot wrong with every actor committing to the ridiculous camp tone.
For it’s first hour or so, Poor Things is at it’s most entertaining. Bella’s globe trotting journey filled with sex and discovery plays with solid momentum and pacing, and the exploration of the film’s themes are at their most prominent. The film does stall when the journey comes to a slight halt in one location that overstays it’s welcome a touch, even though at this point in Bella’s in journey, what occurs is incredibly formative to her experience. And, as entertaining as the final scenes are, the pacing and editing is at it’s most choppy here with a few moments that feel like the climax is approaching, but another scene or tangent extends the run time.
Poor Things is weird as fuck, but it’s fantastic. The exploration of self-discovery and sexual awakenings feels universal and relatable through its unique and odd specificity. As a director, Yorgos Lanthimos leans into his most unhinged nature to create a epic, over-the-top setting for the story of Bella, who is played to perfection by an unashamed and committed performance that is a career standout for her.
Poor Things is playing at this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival, with the festival running from October 26 to November 5. You can buy tickets at www.biff.com.au . Poor Things will release nationally in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.
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