Poor Things Review: Lanthimos and Stone Deliver One of 2023’s Best

A founding member of the “Greek Weird Wave,” filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos was a relative unknown outside his native Greece before gaining international prominence with his third feature, Dogtooth, in 2009. An absurdist exploration of family dynamics and authoritarianism, Dogtooth won the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. His idiosyncratic Greek-language film, Alps, followed in 2011. It was his last Greek-language film before his well-received English-language debut, The Lobster, in 2015. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, followed two years later, but it was 2018’s The Favourite, which won a Best Actress Oscar for Olivia Colman and scored Lanthimos nominations for Best Picture and Director, proved a crossover hit for the auteur filmmaker.

Lanthimos long wanted, however, to bring one of his favourite novels, Alasdair Gray’s 1992 satirical dark fantasy, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, to the screen. Once again collaborating with Oscar winner Emma Stone – also a producer here – Lanthimos shortened the novel’s unwieldy title to Poor Things. He also shifted the focus from Gray’s twice-told tale approach and centred the adaptation on Stone’s proto-feminist character, Bella Baxter, and her singular coming-of-age/coming-into-being story.

When we first meet the reanimated Bella in this boldly provocative and visually stunning feat, she’s playing the piano (poorly) with her hands and feet in a lushly appointed Victorian mansion. As both “daughter” and science experiment to Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), Bella enjoys almost limitless rein inside the confines of her adopted home. The horrific victim of a lifetime of experimentation, the physically, emotionally, and mentally scarred Dr. Baxter doubles as both Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Hoping to both duplicate and surpass his father’s experiments, Dr. Baxter selected the recently expired Bella, a pregnant bridge-jumper briefly shown in Poor Things’ enigmatic opening scene, as the subject for his next experiment in resurrection.

Bella, however, returns to the world of the living not as an adult, but as an infant in an adult woman’s body. Stumbling awkwardly around the elder Baxter’s mansion, she takes childish glee in touching everything and, on occasion, breaking whatever briefly catches her attention. A frequent terror and constant annoyance to Baxter’s housekeeper, Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine), Bella also gradually acquires speech at roughly “15 new words a day.” Her interests grow from simply playing – or breaking – objects to learning what they signify or symbolize and how to manipulate them as intended by their makers.

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As Bella matures emotionally, mentally, and intellectually, so too does her willful, independent nature. In response, Baxter hires one of his medical students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), ostensibly as a research assistant. Max soon becomes Bella’s primary companion and caretaker. Concerned with the eccentric Bella’s entry into Victorian London’s judgmental society, Baxter proposes a romantic and legal union between Bella and Max, but Bella and her newfound sense of self, rejects Max and Baxter’s offer. Instead, she embraces Baxter’s unscrupulous attorney, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), and his offer of a grand, adventure-filled tour of Europe. Duncan, more self-centered than Bella, but just as pleasure-seeking, promises her new sights, new experiences, and above all else, an exit from the comfortable, suffocating prison of the elder Baxter’s home.

Poor Things charts Bella’s coming-into-being across in a globe-trotting odyssey. It begins in a highly stylized Lisbon where Bella, new to the pleasures of the flesh, engages repeatedly and continuously in “furious jumping” with Duncan. Broadly, Bella finds herself repeatedly restrained, restricted, and even physically confined by the men she encounters across Lanthimos’s steampunk-inspired cityscapes. Whether it’s the well-meaning paternalism of the Dr. Baxter and his desire to protect her, Duncan’s sexual possessiveness, or the transactional nature of sex work that she later enjoys, containment and control are everywhere Bella turns. Agency and autonomy become goals of Bella’s adventures in the “real” world, as do some hilarious obstacles.

As Bella, Stone fearlessly embraces every single aspect of Bella’s evolution. She creates Bella’s journey from infantilized experiment to a fully developed,  shrewd, sharp, and self-aware woman. Lanthimos smartly utilizes Stone’s natural gift for physical comedy, and aligns the star with Tony McNamara’s wry script and some career-best performances from one of the most talented casts assembled this or any other year. Add Shona Heath and James Price’s hyper-stylized production design — inspired by Federico Fellini, Terry Gilliam, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, among others — and Poor Things is not just one of the most original films of the year, but also one of its most gleefully provocative works, too.

Poor Things opens theatrically in limited release in the USA on December 8 and expands December 15.

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