Emma Stone leads a joyous, bizarre journey that becomes director Yorgos Lanthimos’ best film
Ever since his feature Dogtooth propelled him to international heights, Yorgos Lanthimos has become our international laureate of provocative absurdity. There’s fiendish glee in how the Greek auteur exposes the ridiculous constructions of social niceties, whether it’s in the distant past of The Favourite’s Stuart-era England or more modern mundanity like The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster. Ranging such topics as sexual politics, conformity, and more overt systems of control, Lanthimos heightens the strange and outlandish nature of his characters’ self-made prisons, often crushing his characters under the very wheels they’ve built for themselves. Faced with such systemic, inescapable horror rife with all manner of grotesque, self-satisfying behavior; of course, the only rebellious response possible is to laugh.
But what makes Lanthimos’ latest, Poor Things, such an effective and divine miracle compared to his other work is the presence of the one thing that would have seemed so out of place among his past comic tragedies–hope.
Set in a phantasmagorical representation of the early 1900s, Poor Things follows the accelerated development of seemingly child-minded Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the live-in patient of the secretive, disfigured surgeon Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Newly-hired assistant Max (Ramy Youssef) charts Bella’s astonishing progress re-learning words, concepts, and the basics of human behavior seemingly as a child’s mind trapped in the body of an adult. While Max grows to love Bella, God sees her as a benevolent experiment, one where he may push humanity’s understanding of their own behavior into uncharted territory. A philandering lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), sees an insidious opportunity in Bella as an infantilized woman, and spirits her off across the globe as his pet as much as his lover. Finally free of the house that’s been a comfortable prison, however, Bella seizes the chance to explore and indulge in whatever pleasures and horrors life has to offer. Her rapturous journey sets ablaze whatever normalcies Bella’s captors and companions have constructed…and radically transforms how both they and she see the world.
Past Lanthimos films have centered on a feverish embrace of inanimate objects to create meaning–including the Wikipedia-esque lists of hobbies as dating profiles of The Lobster, the insulating security found in the objects of Sacred Deer, and how personal items left behind allow actors to impersonate the dead in Alps. Lanthimos and frequent writing collaborator Tony McNamara elevate this to fantastic new heights with Poor Things, charting the beautifully surreal journey of how a Victorian woman with a literal child’s brain recognizes and champions a developing sense of agency and self-determination. Over time, Bella repudiates the idea that she can be treated like a controllable object because she’s a woman; instead, Bella uses her sense of freedom and choice as the most subversive weapon she can wield. Emma Stone is fiendishly funny in this film precisely because of how straight she plays what would be an cartoonish character elsewhere. Even as she learns concepts the world has already embraced, it’s the world that’s absurd to Bella, with its ritualistically backward notions of how people of any gender are expected to behave in “polite society.” Stone thrusts Bella into ridiculous and provocative situations with fitting childlike wonder and confidence that quickly rubs off on the audience, even if it’s derailing a dinner party to jerkingly dance a solo waltz or threatening to punch a loud baby.
Equally entertaining is the film’s supporting cast, who all approach their roles with outlandish aplomb. Dafoe’s towering persona is wonderfully maniacal, hidden under overlapping scars and makeup as if he escaped from his own Frankenstein feature, and embracing his traumatic past and consequential medical quirks with scientific curiosity (a repeating gag involving bubbles is beautifully bizarre). The cracked mirror image of Ryan Gosling’s Ken in Barbie, Ruffalo’s Wedderburn is a revolting himbo whose imagined status as a Victorian sex symbol is undercut at every turn by his buffoonery. Duncan may suck down oysters and champagne with the best of them, but his sense of power and status exists only as far as others can support it. The dynamic between Bella and Duncan quickly reveals just how fast both are preceding along tracks of adulthood and infancy–especially as Bella’s independence takes a fitting blowtorch to Duncan’s masculinity and ego.
The world is also wondrously realized as how Bella must see it–full of alien and extravagant beauty and wonder. There are almost no straight lines to any of the architecture, as if using children’s drawings as blueprints willed to fantastical reality, while colorful red and green smoke billows into skies of stars that appear like firing synapses. The gratingly inventive score by Jerskin Fendrix also tracks alongside Bella’s development, evolving from surreal plinks and thrums to an eventual symphonic blast of triumph, with all of the frantic strings and synths that can accompany her highs and lows.
While it’s hilarious to see Bella break taboo after taboo, it’s nothing but inspiring to see how she translates that rebellious drive into her fledgling sense of independence. Defying the expectations of her rakish captor, her magnanimous creator, and everyone along her path, Bella is resolute in her belief that only she will decide her fate. She strikes up conversations with strangers (lovely to see Jerrod Carmichael and Hanna Schygulla here), embracing new perspectives even if they initially terrify her. Bella embraces the financial and sexual freedom of being a prostitute, to the gut-busting horror of Wedderburn. Every experience, regardless of whether it may affect how the world sees Bella or how Bella sees the world, is one with the potential for growth. Kathryn Hunter, the gem of Joel Coen’s Macbeth, is equally magnetic as Madam Swiney, who oversees Bella’s career as a sex worker–imparting to her how horror, sadness, and corruption are necessary elements of life that make all of us more well-rounded people. While Bella does face some of humanity’s worst during this stretch of her journey, Swiney’s self-serving wisdom does aid Bella in confronting and overcoming humanity’s worst aspects and actions–transforming her into the epitome of a well-rounded, independent hero.
In Poor Things, the rigorous pursuit of knowledge inside and out becomes the surprising antidote to whatever damage the world and its cruel systems might inflict. The strange and alien elements across Dogtooth and The Favorite may be united in their unflinching cruelty–but Poor Things’ embrace of self-actualization is an armor of hope that provides a potential path to survival. It’s a marked point of growth for filmmaker Lanthimos, one befitting his central character: he’s evolved his signature incisive absurdity by tempering it with new optimism, all without sacrificing any of his love of the horrific or macabre. This cinematic transformation, coupled with a fantastic ensemble and jaw-dropping results from talent behind the camera, makes Poor Things one of the best films of 2023.
Poor Things is currently in limited release from Searchlight Pictures, with an expanded wide release on December 22, 2023.