Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things could be one of the sharpest cinematic satires of the year and a film that makes you rethink how you watch movies. The latest by the director of Dogtooth, The Favorite and The Lobster has him pairing off with the writer of Cruella of all films – Tony McNamara to adapt the tome by Alasdair Gray Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D.. As the film begins in a fantastical take on the 1920s a young med student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) is recruited by his horribly disfigured, yet charismatic Frankenstein-esque looking teacher Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) to observe an “experiment”. This just happens to be his “daughter” Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a beautiful young woman who appears to be severely mentally disabled. It’s even remarked upon “how beautiful she is for a retard”. The film predictably has the med student falling for the beautiful young mentally impaired ingénue.
And because we’ve been conditioned by Hollywood, we as an audience think almost nothing of it.
In the beginning this romance feels very much like many others we’ve seen until now. That is until it’s revealed that Bella was reanimated by Dr. Baxter after jumping to her death and wasn’t his daughter, he just acquired her recently deceased body. She was however pregnant at the time of her death, and the doctor not wanting to bring back the tainted mind of a suicidal woman, instead removes the mind of her unborn child from her womb and inserts that brain inside the of her mother. This shocking reveal really imbues the rest of the film with a searing subtext as Hollywood loves to infantilize its naive female protagonists in film, and here we discover the wide-eyed Emma Stone literally has the brain of an infant. The film then chooses to operate as you would expect in a Hollywood movie, comically and earth scorchingly so, and by doing so contaminates and annihilates every other film you’ve seen by having her possible suitors happy with Bella simply as she is, as she dreams of bettering herself.
In short order Bella is basically offered up by her “father”, who she refers to as “God”, in a loaded bit of subtext – to her caregiver as a wife. It’s here the silver tongued playboy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) comes into play to write up a prenup, not knowing about Bella’s origin.This is just as the woman discovers her first vice, which is sex and she is seduced by Duncan, who convinces her to run away with him immediately after being betrothed and start this weird and surreal journey of self discovery through this fairy tale world of Lanthimos’ creation. Dafoe’s character, who only wants what’s best for his creation, reluctantly lets her leave and the film goes back and forth as we see the doctors attempt to trap lightning in a bottle again with another “experiment” once again attempting to tame the female spirit.
In Bella’s travels she’s a trophy wife, a literal whore, and a student. All of these are used to explore these ideas of women on film by Lanthimos and Stone and how they are pretty much all broken. While the first act explores the infantilization of women on screen the second act digs into female sexuality and how it’s portrayed on screen and the double standard and slutshaming that results. The third and final act explores from a character standpoint while we have Bella attending med school and thereby ascending to godhood in a manner of speaking, in a man’s world. Interspersed are some rather frank discussions as Bella owns every part of her journey to where she was going unapologetically and the film uses this sort of bizarre 1920s-esque setting to really hammer home some of these points, since while a lot has changed it’s still the same.
The character of Bella has Emma Stone using the medium of cinema to essentially deconstruct how women and their bodies have been infantilized, exploited and then considered damaged goods because they “bore it all”, even though that’s what they’re essentially pressured/groomed to do. It’s her performance that at times borders on performance art, that is attempting to dissect and deconstruct these archaic constructs that drives this story that to some might simply be a funny story about a girl who does a lot of terrible things, but to others something much more profound. Bella is never sorry and that’s the point, she never apologizes and when she finally comes face to face with her “God” at the end, surprisingly he is nothing but proud of how she was able to break free of her many limitations and pursue her path of enlightenment.
My only real knock on the film is the use of cinematographic styles that has Lanthimos utilizing fish-eye, pinhole, black and white and color in the same 10 minute span. It can be a bit distracting and I really couldn’t grasp why this is narratively important to the film or the story, but trust me I was trying. That said Poor Things is a masterpiece and a very important film that hit particularly hard for me as the symbolism started to click in, and the metaphors and satirical underpinnings started to reveal themselves and its lessons are something that are now more apparent than ever. This all rested on Emma Stone’s capable shoulders who really masterfully takes us on this journey with her and evolves this character from a literal infant to a med student in a two hour span in some seriously impressive character work. While some may get hung up on either the raunchy humor, or the nudity, these are simply distractions aimed at those not ready to tackle the film on its own terms.
Think of Poor Things as the level 2 to the feminism in cinema discourse that started with Gerwig’s Barbie earlier this year.