This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie/series/feature being covered here wouldn't exist.
BY ALEX GILSTON OCTOBER 20, 2023
Yorgos Lanthimos is drawn in by stories that are bizarre and outlandish. A father holding his children hostage, people getting turned into animals if they don’t find love, or an overbearing child inserting himself into a surgeon’s seemingly perfect family, all narratives that lend themselves to his sickening mode of exploration. It was only a matter of time before Lanthimos would find himself diving into the mythos of Frankenstein and Poor Things finds the auteur well within the realm of his macabre playground that has made all of his films to date shine with a demented sparkle.
Poor Things sees Yorgos Lanthimos take Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name and adapt it for the screen. Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is a scientist who brings Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) back to life using the brain of a baby. After learning basic things like walking and talking she decides she wants to explore the world around her. Unhappy with the confines of Baxter’s estate, she runs away with lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) and travels across different countries trying to find where she fits in amongst the people she comes across on her journey.
Poor Things explores freedom and liberation through a female lens, because Bella doesn’t have any concept of the world and its socio-political standing; she is naïve to the way that people who identify as her gender are treated. The women she meets are generally subservient to men like Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine) who is Dr, Baxter’s maid, and she is often told off for not exhibiting ‘proper behaviours’ in public. Bella is very inquisitive and always looking to break out of this set of values that women are reduced to. She finds her liberation through various means including through sex, through furthering her knowledge of the world by reading, and constantly challenging the status quo when engaging in conversations with her male peers.
It’s always great to see female agency take center stage narratively. Bella finding her place beyond the constraints of “polite society” is satisfying to watch, however there is a technical aspect that juxtaposes this message that seeks to empower. Poor Things splits the opening act and the rest of the film into black and white and colour. Granted the monochrome cinematography lends itself well to Bella’s new life in which she sees things in a simple way. Bella’s initial “liberation” comes with the switch to colour, but it’s at a moment that could be construed as being at the hands of a man. This creative choice is at odds with Bella’s journey which makes it feel contradictory.
Without Emma Stone, Poor Things would not exist as it does. She lays out a wholly convincing performance that takes her character, Bella, from a surface-level oddity to a complex, three-dimensional person. It’s fun to see her play as a protagonist in one of Lanthimos’ worlds and hopefully this won’t be the last time. Mark Ruffalo is also a stand-out in Poor Things. His comedic timing, mixed with his dedication to being the most pathetic man possible, is golden.
The score is an integral aspect of Poor Things, stitching things together and offering an undercurrent of emotion. Jerskin Fendrix, incredibly, makes his film scoring debut with here. From the beginning it has a life of its own. It grows up and gains maturity right alongside Bella, starting off with messy sharp notes, eventually evolving into a beautiful melody as Bella journeys through the world. It cleverly matches her inquisitive nature, seeking out answers to where it fits into the world like Bella does.
Although Poor Things sometimes leans into mean-spirited language and outdated ideas; Yorgos Lanthimos has another masterpiece on his hands. Poor Things lands perfectly in Lanthimos' canon of unconventional, unpleasant filmmaking, which makes him one of the most interesting working directors in this day and age.