It’s easy to question the legitimacy of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things in the first few minutes. Is it the story of a mad disfigured scientist holding a young woman hostage under the guise of science and fatherhood? Is it designed simply to shock the audience with ribaud behavior in an amalgam of harlequin, steampunk, and Victorian styles?
The answer is that Poor Things does exist in all of those truths, but it’s so much more than what’s on the surface.
We first meet “God” aka Dr. Godwin Baxter as he performs in a medical theater full of prospective students. One devotee, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), in particular, follows Dr. Baxter home to help with a project. The project in question is Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a mysterious young woman absent several mental facilities. Max must track her progress and, over weeks, begins to develop feelings for her. Though these feelings are primarily of possessiveness, Max has his charm and utter sincerity. Bella still harbors many childlike behaviors, but she also has independence and worldly wisdom. This turns out to be an advantage as she has little to no knowledge of how society treats women, or how they are expected to behave in “polite company.”
Bella accepts Max’s proposal but then informs him that before they get married, she needs to go on an adventure with the guileless cad, Duncan Wedderburn, Esq. (Mark Ruffalo) where she plans to discover more about carnal pleasure. Seeing no choice, Max agrees. Duncan and Bella venture out into the world, where Bella perplexes and titillates Duncan. Duncan soon wears out his welcome.
A bit into their escapade, we learn God has fallen ill, and Bella must return. Poor Things uses its supporting actors wisely and doesn't hesitate to be tongue-in-cheek with the narrative. Margaret Qualley as Felicity and Christopher Abbott as Alfie Blessington show up late in the film. Jerrod Carmichael cameos as the misanthropic Harry Astley and Vivienne Soan as The Duchess. In a bit of fun trivia, both star in the Amazon film Sanctuary, a twisted rom-com about a dom-sub relationship gone sour; themes not so far removed from Poor Things.
Layers of More Than Fabric
Poor Things has many layers, but Bella’s liberation stands out from the rest. In the process, it asks the viewer to examine their own hypocrisies when it comes to accepting Bella as a human being. With so many limitations that women are born into, it can cause conflicting feelings to see a woman who refuses to give into the status quo.
Personally speaking, I found Bella to be selfish, dangerous, and intolerable at first. As the film progressed, she became my favorite character and a reminder that society places so many limitations on women to placate and subdue them. Poor Things showcases this beautifully without heavy-handed posturing and makes for an absolutely entertaining watch.
Stone and Lanthimos have a blossoming working relationship. The two worked together in Lanthimos’s acclaimed short, Bleat, and in the Oscar-winning The Favourite. Lanthimos has a habit of reusing actors he likes and has created a troupe unlike Mike Flanagan or Orson Welles. It’s a practice that used to be considered vintage, but has risen again in popularity to great effect. A group of actors who instantly speak the same language can create a solid and thrilling on-screen experience. Of course, a little bit of diversity goes a long way, but so far, Lanthimos has been thoughtful in his casting.
The actor-director rapport is especially important as Poor Things requires not only unabashed nakedness from Stone, but also intimate yet brazen scenes of intimacy, both with others and herself. Stone employs a comfort altogether real, easy, and true and wholly supported by Lanthimos. It’s hard for a man to shoot a woman’s body in a way that is not solely for the male gaze. Without the underlying aggression such shots can take, the audience is left with the simple fact of nature. Bella’s body is perfect not because it fits some vintage standard of classic beauty, but rather because it is hers and she delights in it.
A Slam Duncan
The confidence Stone exudes has a way of permeating the screen and really allows the audience to understand the character more intimately than before. In this understanding, the viewer develops an appreciation for Bella’s interaction with the other characters. Dafoe’s Godwin loses a bit of his rough edge, and he becomes more forthcoming about his trauma, even if he’s not fully ready to admit to having it. Youssef gives McCandles a quiet strength that can read as wimpiness, but is really a thirst for knowledge and experience. When needed he shows up, but he also knows the value of backing down. Duncan Wedderburn is forever changed by Bella, and it’s a reaction that is earned and portrayed perfectly by Mark Ruffalo.
Part fop, part cad, part dandy, part rake, Ruffalo has woven a character both unforgettable and unforgivable, and also extremely fun. Duncan doesn’t need nor does he receive a redemption story. He begins his and Bella’s journey by cautioning her not to fall in love with him, and soon, he finds himself hoisted by a petard of his own making. Bella’s mix of indifference and interest in Duncan both titillates and infuriates him. The dynamic shows the ways that women are homogenized and the absolute frenzy caused when Bella marks her independence and individuality.
Poor Things also offers a feast for the eyes, employing dream-like surreal Victorian sets with something to delight the senses in every corner. Lanthimos told Empire Magazine that three films influenced the look and feel of the film: The Ship Sails On, a Fellini film that portrays the early 1900s; Belle de Jour – a sensual French film starring Catherine Deneuve; and Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. The Victorian by way of steampunk style fits the aesthetic of the story exceptionally well. Holly Waddington's costumes further bolster the aesthetic. The costumes aren't just lovely to look at, but also track Bella’s development and growth throughout the film.
As the film ventures on, life’s experiences separate Bella from her naivete, but one scene seeks to define her moral center–it just shows how much inborn naivete she has. It’s a confusing turn, and rather than further showing Bella’s growth, it seemed like a last minute insert to further the plot. Though the scene felt lacking, it doesn’t take away from an otherwise dependable piece of art. A lot of films this cycle have started strong but didn’t quite stick the landing. Poor Things is a generous outlier and well worth the watch.
Poor Things premiered at the 80th Venice Film Festival on September 1st of 2023. The film won the Gold Lion which is the highest prize that is given. Poor Things will be available nationwide in theaters on December 8th, 2023 and in the United Kingdom on January 12th, 2024. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.
Score: 8.5/10 SPECS.