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Poor Things

Directed by  Yorgos Lanthimos


Review by Zebib K. Abraham

Poor Things is the eighth feature film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, based on the 1992 novel of the same name by renowned Scottish author and artist Alisdair Gray. The film is a rapturous and off-kilter marvel which depicts one woman’s awakening within a patriarchal, restrictive era. The film follows Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a much prettier, more childlike version of Frankenstein’s monster. We watch Bella experience the world and her own body soon after being ‘born’ out of a bizarre scientific experiment  in which a recently deceased woman’s brain is replaced with the brain of the baby she was carrying, imbuing a grown woman’s body with newborn life. 

In Poor Things, Lanthimos brings a visionary interpretation of Gray’s novel, highlighting the internal perspective of Bella, instead of multiple points of view. She is not an experimental object, but a powerful feminine force; the world is seen through her fresh, strange eyes.  Lanthimos brings his usual bizarre charm and biting humour, as well as a new kind of vitality; Bella is both weird and innocent, raunchy and daring. His sweeping, artful direction, involving fast zooms and wide shots, along with brilliant performances, fantastical production design and costuming, and an inventive soundtrack, work together to create an immersive, sensory, visceral experience, one which conveys the new life pulsing through Bella’s veins.. 

Bella is ‘born’ immediately before the film begins, then raised by the eccentric scientist Godwin (Willem Dafoe). Bella often refers to Godwin as ‘God’ and William Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein), one of many moments of absurd yet unsettling humour throughout this dark comedy. Bella undergoes an accelerated development as she learns to walk, speak, and move about in the world. The viewer is pulled into Bella’s visceral experiences as she learns the functions of her body, her own desires, and continuously liberates herself from others’ attempts at control. In a way, she is born in a state of tabula rasa, free of preconceptions or inhibitions. At the same time, Bella seems to be driven by an innate, vibrant life force, a feminine power indifferent to masculine domination, and desires that flout societal conventions. Lanthimos seems to be arguing for the power of an individual’s drive towards freedom, the lack of shame once someone is unshackled from societal expectation, and how Bella’s fresh vision allows her to see the magic of the world more clearly. Lanthimos explores the joyous, radical reclaiming of physicality and pleasure.

Bella takes a lover in Duncan Wedderburn played by Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo hilariously depicts a pseudo-liberated rake, whose masculinity is soon threatened by Bella’s sexuality and her enjoyment of pleasure outside of his control. Emma Stone fully inhabits Bella. It’s an utterly convincing, physical performance that requires a totally new approach to moving, emoting, talking. Stone uses her whole body in stilted, awkward steps or a stiff swinging of her arms. Her expressions switch from intense curiosity, to anger, to wonder, to mischievous.  

The visuals of Poor Things  evoke Bella’s interior experience. Production designers James Price and Shona Heath have created sets that look vibrant but artificial; Lanthimos wanted to mirror old Hollywood films with a sense of grandeur but otherworldliness. The physical set backdrops are painted rather than always using CGI, evoking a fairytale surrealness. Colours are heightened. The viewer feels dropped into a world that isn’t simply futuristic or steampunk, but surreal and singular. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan and Lanthimos use analogue film instead of digital to create a richer quality to the visuals. Techniques such as using an atypical, rare ektrachrome film stock in some sequences create more saturated colors. Unexpected shots, such as dramatic and quick zooms, fish-eye lenses, and shots through peep holes heighten the drama of discovery and disorienting sensation, as Bella follows each shining new fact, stimulus, or emotion as if experiencing the world for the first time, as is the case.  Certain lens choices, such as using a 16mm lens with a 35mm camera,  re-create the look of old photography with dark borders, while Petzal lens from old projectors create a sense of wide portraiture with softened details..

Costume designer Holly Waddington reworks Victorian styles, with puffed sleeves and elaborate bodices on the top half of Bella’s body, but with the skirts missing because Bella often forgets to put them on, leaving only short, slip-like underskirts. Extravagant lace and frills are juxtaposed with bare legs, or combined with rich yellows and burgundies, creating a sense of playfulness and immodesty. The very unsettling score, with atonal notes and syncopated rhythms, fits perfectly with Bella’s surreal journey.

The film, at 2 hours and 21 minutes, still feels as if it moves along quickly  until its last portion. At the climax of the film, Bella faces a serious confrontation, but the sudden slowed pace and change in setting and palette briefly disrupt the film’s momentum. One might also have an underlying sense that Bella’s ability to escape societal expectations is to possible, within the film and from the perspective of the viewer, not just because Bella has ‘grown up’ unconventionally, but because of her beauty, thinness, and whiteness. An interesting question to ponder is whether Bella is imprisoned or emboldened by these innate privileges.

Poor Things is an entirely unique creation, warm and acerbic, told with a dramatic visual style, witty dialogue, and bold performances. Lanthimos brings his usual acerbic, dark humour and bizarre storytelling, along with a delightful emotional and visual extravagance.