Poor Things (2023)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Tony McNamara
Starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Rami Youssef
Release Date December 8th, 2023
Published November 29th, 2023
Poor Things is a deeply odd experience. The film stars Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a woman who died and was brought back to life through highly questionable science, by a mad scientist named Godwin 'God' Baxter. Having rescued Bella following her attempted suicide, Godwin Baxter has made her his daughter and is teaching her how to live again. Bella appears to have the mental age of a toddler as Godwin introduces her to one of his medical students and his newest assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef).
It will be Max's job to chart the course of Bella's progress in learning to live again. In the process, Max will fall in love with Bella and invite her to be his bride. But, before the marriage can occur, Bella wants to see the world. She gets the chance to do just that when she meets a lawyer named Duncan Wedderburn, a caddish man who sweeps Bella off her feet and takes her around the world. He introduces her to sex, and she takes to the act with gusto and glee.
The trip has the effect of expanding Bella's interest in expanding her mind. She becomes an avid and eager reader and even takes to philosophy. This proves to be the downfall of Duncan who can't keep up with Bella's insatiable hungers for learning and for sex. While on a cruise, Bella makes new friends in Miss Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) and Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael), each of whom encourage Bella to keep studying and improving herself. Astley is the impetus for Bella to give away all of Duncan's money to the poor leading to the next chapter in her life, moving to Paris.
In Paris, Bella abandons Duncan and finds work in a Paris brothel. It sounds sexier than it truly is. Yorgos Lanthimos seems to be going out of his way to remove the mystery and excitement from sex. Bella still appreciates sex as an activity but sex with gross, smelly, ungainly men does become somewhat meaningless and mechanical for her. She eventually tries spicing things up by getting the men she sleeps with for money to open up a little and even bathe before coming to see her.
Meanwhile, back home in England, Dr. Baxter and Max have found a replacement for Bella, a young woman they've named Felicity (Margaret Qualley), but it's not the same. Where Bella was inquisitive and a quick learner, Felicity is a dullard who appears to make little progress. Felicity mostly goes to show just how much Bella meant to both Dr. Baxter and Max and they long for her return, especially as Dr. Baxter's health takes a turn for the worse.
And that's a rather sanitary and safe description of the plot of Poor Things. I assure you, dear reader, things are far crazier than my description let's on. Through inventive camera work and Emma Stone's unique and instinctual performance, Poor Things is an oddly engaging and similarly off-putting film. Poor Things is highly unconventional and even those who admire or prefer the unconventional to what we typically see from a Hollywood movie, Poor Things is a bit much.
That said, if you are on the wavelength of this movie, you may find things to enjoy about it. Emma Stone's performance is wildly complicated and distinctive. We've seen this kind of performance from male actors who risk being mocked to go fully mental in a role and Stone matches that energy. She is taking big risks and big swings with a performance that requires her to be nude for long stretches and carry a strange staccato rhythm to her voice that could not have been easy to maintain.
It's an example of what I have often called 'the most acting' as opposed to the best acting. She's doing the most acting in the movie. That said, this movie calls for a big, broad, weird lead performance and Stone goes for it in admirable fashion. It's the kind of performance Nicolas Cage could admire, a full bodied, deeply committed performance, risky in its broad strokes. That it works in Poor Things is both a testament to Stone's talent and the wild and strange world building of Yorgos Lanthimos who makes Stone feel at home in his strange universe.
There is no question in my mind that Yorgos Lanthimos is a visionary director. Lanthimos is a deeply committed artist who single-mindedly pursues his vision, damn the consequences. It's easy to admire his artistry and risk taking. And yet, I can completely understand why some audiences might not take to Lanthimos and Poor Things. Much like his contemporary, Wes Anderson, Lanthimos' work is an acquired taste. Either you are all in for his nutty visionary approach to filmmaking or you quickly grow weary of his oddity.
I am in the camp of loving his nutty visionary approach. I enjoyed the use of a fisheye lens and the strange visuals it produces. I loved the wild production design which renders an otherworldly Europe straight out of a dream. I truly loved the visual references to classic horror movies; the work of Tod Browning and James Whale appear to get visual shout outs from Lanthimos in Poor Things. Indeed, Lanthimos would have been right at home in the silent age, using cards to cover necessary dialogue while his visuals work to tell the story.
Is Poor Things a masterpiece on par with Lanthimos' Academy Award nominated The Favourite or, my personal favorite, The Killing of a Sacred Deer? Not quite. But it's quite well accomplished. Poor Things is a gorgeous looking movie, it's ambitious and unique. The film is both an homage to early silent film and a completely unique vision all its own. That is remarkable if not completely satisfying for me. The film lacks the emotions that drove The Killing of a Sacred Deer. That film also had a shock factor that is far stronger than Poor Things which has plenty of surprises, but they are more humorous surprises rather than stunning shocks.
Trigger Warning: If you have issues with screen depictions of sex or nudity, you should know that Poor Things is filled with both. That said, there is a strangely distant quality to the sex and nudity of Poor Things. Lanthimos' direction works to drain the eroticism from the sex of Poor Things. And star Emma Stone is nude so often in Poor Things that the sight of her nudity doesn't so much become commonplace, but it's not directed as something to excite or titillate. The nudity of Poor Things is strangely yet intentionally functional. You'd need to see it for yourself to fully understand and I do recommend the movie but if sex and nudity are something you take issue with in a mainstream movie, you've been warned.
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