Identity. The meaning of personal experience. What makes somebody an individual. These are the main general subjects director Yorgos Lanthimos explores in his bizarre, funny, consistently captivating, thought-provoking new movie, Poor Things. Adapted from the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, it uses Frankenstein as its conceptual jumping-off point, but isn’t necessarily interested in ideas of creation or religion (despite the fact that the doctor in this instance is literally referred to as God). It is about a newly (re-)born woman seeing the world for the first time, in a way that is baffling, frustrating and fascinating to those around her.
Poor Things (136 minutes, without the end credits) gives its audience Bella’s viewpoint. The world she sees is one of strange, fantastical sights, bright colors and the occasional grotesque visual. There are elements of horror, fantasy, comedy and science-fiction, though it is mostly a journey by this woman to understand life and her place in it. Lanthimos doesn’t shy away from the potentially off-putting bluntness of his protagonist. She doesn’t even know there is a line, let alone when she is crossing it. Terms like “polite society” or “inappropriate behavior” are hard to grasp for her.
It is a compelling story, very well-directed, with excellent performances and a clever, almost fairytale-like, design. I haven’t loved everything I’ve seen from Yorgos Lanthimos, yet he never bores me. The Favourite, which was nominated for 10 Oscars in 2019, was a fantastic period piece/satire. Poor Things takes more risks and is, in some ways, as successful. It is a remarkable movie.
In Victorian London, Dr. Godwin Baxter finds a woman washed up on the shore, having taken her own life after jumping off a bridge. He reanimates her as Bella Baxter, with no memories of her prior life. With the help of medical student Max McCandles, Godwin studies her while teaching her about life. Stuck at home as a science experiment, Bella yearns to see the world, eventually escaping with scoundrel Duncan Wedderburn for a sex-filled adventure in Europe, where she attempts to explore human existence.
The look of the movie is somewhere between magical and horrific, which is probably what the world would look like to an adult who had never seen it before. Lanthimos and his team’s use of color and perspective are very creative. Some images seem straight from a storybook; others, from a nightmare. The first section of Poor Things, taking place in Godwin (God for short) Baxter’s home/laboratory, is in black and white. Once Bella leaves on her quest for freedom and enlightenment, the color kicks in, seemingly signifying her curiosity in, and enjoyment of, these new sensations.
Bella is played by Emma Stone, a three-time Oscar nominee who definitely seems on her way to a fourth nomination. She balances a childlike naivete with a voracious sexual appetite and a healthy need for discovery. We see the character grow up from what is essentially a baby into a mature adult. Stone is never less than completely convincing every step of the way. The wide-eyed interest with which she approaches everything is amusing, believable and a great vehicle for the themes this story is delving into. Love, sex, agency, sense of self, purpose, etc. Bella wants to know about all of it. Stone throws herself into the role, perfectly embodying every aspect of her.
Speaking of throwing yourself into a role, Mark Ruffalo is borderline unhinged as the manipulative Duncan Wedderburn. Brought in as a lawyer by Godwin, he is instantly taken by Bella’s beauty, acting quickly in getting her to run away with him, using her desire to see the cities of Europe as an alluring tool. He thinks he’ll be the experienced man who entrances her and then drops her when he gets bored. He doesn’t expect her unpredictable decisions and refusal to follow his orders. As Duncan becomes more infatuated with Bella’s unorthodox independence, Ruffalo leans fully into losing control of his emotions. His odd line deliveries and exaggerated body movements can be hilarious. In any other movie, Ruffalo’s performance would be a distracting scene stealer. Here, he fits right in, advancing the narrative and satirizing the effect a strong woman can have on a man who merely thinks he’s strong, especially during that period in history.
The rest of the main actors, William Dafoe as a scientist/father figure and Ramy Youssef as a nearly equally naïve man charmed by Bella’s innocence, are also very good. Poor Things is a triumph of directing, acting, writing (the screenplay is by Tony McNamara), music (by Jerskin Fendrix) and overall production design (by Shona Heath and James Price). It is thoughtful, ambitious, original, smart and weird in all the right ways.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ movies aren’t always easy to watch, but he seems to produce the exact results he wants (probably the types of reactions he is looking for as well). This is a case where premise + subject matter + style + production + cast = one of the best movies of the year.
4¾ out of 5
Emma Stone as Bella Baxter
Willem Dafoe as Dr. Godwin Baxter
Mark Ruffalo as Duncan Wedderburn
Ramy Youssef as Max McCandles
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay by Tony McNamara