'Poor Things' Review
December 4, 2023
Stripping away the artifice of society and the exertion of power over another person are two things that director Yorgos Lanthimos, the lead figure behind the Greek Weird Wave movement, has consistently explored throughout his wacky career. Whether it be parents going to extreme lengths to manipulate their children’s worldview in Dogtooth, the threat of being turned into an animal if you don’t fall in love in The Lobster, or an omniscient Barry Keoghan terrorizing Colin Farrell’s family in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos has always taken the road less traveled to tell his twisted tales of morality. Marking as his reunification with The Favourite star Emma Stone and writer Tony McNamara, Poor Things attempts to wrap all of Lanthimos’ earlier work into one lavishly produced feature, a move that both creates a wondrously unique film and wholly exemplifies the idea of having too much of a good thing.
In another life, Bella Baxter (Stone) could have been the world’s greatest poker player. She’s a master at calling out people’s bluffs through her inquisitive nature and unfamiliarity with modern life. Why don’t people have sex all the time? Why do we eat things that are revolting? Why do we make meaningless small talk with people we care little about? Everyone regurgitates the usual “because it’s polite” or “because that’s just the way things are” answer, but both they and Bella know that it’s all bullshit.
Bella is a science experiment by the mad scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Once she was a woman named Victoria who threw herself off the London Bridge because of perinatal depression. The opportunistic doctor seized the moment to do something that had never been done before, something that “was obvious once I thought more about it”: Take the brain out of Victoria’s unborn child and put it into her own skull. She is now a woman with a clean slate, unchained from the tethers of Victorian society and free to form a path of her own.
This version of London has the usual trademarks we expect: smog, brick roads, and cockney accents. But then there are electrified cable cars, dogs with duck heads, ducks with dog heads (brought to you by our boundless doctor), and cruise ships emitting green smoke. The influences of Terry Gilliam are apparent, even down to cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s employment of peephole lenses and crazy angles to go along with his reintroduction of the fisheye lens from The Favourite.
Those orgiastic visuals go hand-in-hand with Bella’s extraordinary journey around Europe. Her companion for much of the adventure is Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a chauvinistic lawyer who whisked her away from her safely guarded cage. He’s a himbo who thinks of himself as an intellectual, which makes him the antithesis of Bella’s burning passion to understand the world. Fortunately, there are other people (Hanna Schygulla, Jerrod Carmichael, Suzy Bemba) who are more open to uncovering the backwardness of the patriarchy.
There does become a point where McNamara’s script starts to run out of ideas. A few too many retreads about Bella’s observations artificially elongate the 141-minute runtime and grind down the final third, a common minor problem within Lanthimos’ filmography (I say that as one of his biggest fans). But then he always closes the book with gusto, this being no exception.
Poor Things is also not an exception to the rule that Stone and Lanthimos have formed one of the most exciting actor-director partnerships of the modern era. Stone turns in one of the finest performances of the year, playfully illustrating the transition from an amusing child to a full-fledged intellectual, all while flawlessly carrying the film’s emotional core. Her burden is lightened by her great supporting cast: Dafoe an idyllic partner for Lanthimos’ vision, Ruffalo appears as if he thought this was a Monty Python sketch, Ramy Youseff plays the terrifyingly intrigued rookie doctor, and Kathryn Hunter’s brothel owner opens up Bella’s view on pain and pleasure.
It’s a true testament to Lanthimos’ pedigree as a director for me to say that this is my least favorite of his English-language features. It will surely land somewhere at the tail end of my Best of 2023 Top 10, and will just as surely pick up a bevy of nominations and wins at the Oscars. Lanthimos has already finished production on his next film, AND (Also starring Stone and Dafoe), which will presumably be released sometime in 2024. If that film continues this winning streak, we may very well need to start having the conversation about him being the best director working today.