Film: Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos is one of modern cinema’s most provocative, interesting directors, and when you combine his talents with the silver-tongued dialogue of Tony McNamara, a certain magic happens. Adapting an Alasdair Gray novel, Poor Things (2023) is the duo’s second collaboration (after The Favourite), once again combining McNamara’s razor-sharp dialogue with Lanthimos’ inventive eye and deeply strange aesthetic.

Poor Things delivers us to Victorian England, into the strange, steampunky abode of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), an experimental physician. Godwin, himself something of a Frankenstein’s monster thanks to his father’s physiological tinkering, has carried on a deranged family tradition by “creating” Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). Bella was revivified from the near-dead body of a pregnant woman, whose infant’s brain was transplanted into it. Consequently, Bella is a tabula rasa possessing a weird, child-like view of the world. She’s developing quickly, so Godwin recruits medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to assist him with documenting Bella’s progress. Max awkwardly falls for Bella’s peculiar charms, but Bella has a mind and body of her own. Soon enough, her physical appetites lead her to run off with dashing lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), but as her intellectual appetite catches up with her libido, she forges her own path, increasingly gaining insight into the mysterious workings of an unfair world.

Lanthimos has a proclivity for approaching his films like experiments, so the set-up of Poor Things is perfect for his playful, exploratory vision, and lends a sense of artistic metacommentary to the project. One can’t help but think of his film Dogtooth, wherein two cloistered children are psychologically experimented on by deceptive parents. “God” and Bella in Poor Things follow very much in that tradition, and one gets the sense Lanthimos relates to Godwin—who never allows the squicky discomforts of the world prevent him from looking at it deeply. That’s what Poor Things does, brilliantly: it looks at the world deeply, through Bella’s fresh eyes. Stone accesses an uninhibited wildness in this role previously unexplored, and the results are sensational, as her character enacts a lifetime of growth and transformation in the course of months. The narrative uses this compressed time to ruminate on sociopolitical norms by hurling Bella awkwardly against them, giving the unpredictable journey scads of loaded subtext. From hedonism to cynicism, pragmatism to depression, resigned existentialism to enraged idealism, Bella’s accelerated experience is the canvas on which Lanthimos and McNamara inscribe their analysis of her world—and by extension, as in all great science fiction, our own. The commentary is packaged skillfully, delivering wildly funny moments, stunning visuals, shocking turns, and heartfelt insights. Both Lanthimos and McNamara are well worth following on the worst day, but Poor Things may well be the joint masterpiece of their careers.

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