Movie Curiosities: Poor Things

If you only know Yorgos Lanthimos from The Favourite, you barely know him at all.

Sure, it makes sense that was the movie to finally bring Lanthimos significant Oscar recognition and mainstream acclaim. But even then, that had more to do with Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Coleman in a three-way grudge match. It was the stars who really sold that movie, and not the director. In fact, the movie bore little resemblance to Lanthimos’ prior works, all of which were too batshit to cross over like the relatively straightforward The Favourite did.

If you’ve never seen Dogtooth, The Lobster, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, you have no idea what you’re missing. And even after sitting through those movies, you may not have any idea what the ever-living fuck you just saw. Lanthimos came up through works of bizarre, opaque, deeply layered cinematic allegories, all told by way of deeply broken characters struggling to live in a batshit world.

When I first saw the trailers for Poor Things, I knew immediately that we’d be getting Lanthimos back in his wheelhouse. He got his Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay nominations, he got nominations for Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in addition to a Best Actress win for Olivia Colman. And now Lanthimos is making and releasing a film in his thoughtful and bugfuck style, but with more resources and greater visibility than he could’ve gotten without all that mainstream success. That glorious bastard.

We open with an unnamed young woman played by Emma Stone (also a producer), who leaps to her death while pregnant. By a stroke of luck, her body finds its way to Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe under heavy prosthetic makeup), a mad scientist with a specialty in fusing animals together into hybrid monstrosities. So naturally, Baxter gets the bright idea of scooping out the dead woman’s fetus, scooping out the dead woman’s brains, and then transplanting the dead infant’s brain into the dead mother’s skull.

Go ahead and read that last part again. As many times as it takes to fully wrap your head around the concept. I’ll wait.

The end result is Bella Baxter, a fully-grown young woman with the mind of a child. At the start of the film, she acts and talks like a common toddler. I might add that she obsessively dotes on her father figure, whom she obliviously refers to as “God”.

Long story short, the time eventually comes when Bella must leave home so she can learn more about herself and the outside world. Hilarity ensues.

Of course the obvious point of comparison here is Frankenstein, and we do get a bit of that with regards to scientific ethics, the nature of Bella’s identity as a new person made from old parts, what free will she has as someone else’s creation, her status as something new in a world that doesn’t really know what to do with her, and so on and so forth.

That said, the film is primarily focused on how Bella travels all over Europe, meeting new people as she tries to parse out right from wrong and grows into a functional adult. Moreover, while Bella has an inherent naivete that makes her easy prey for the unscrupulous, it’s that same innocence and her inquisitive nature that challenge other people and the way they believe the world works.

So basically, what we’ve got here is more akin to a riff on Pinocchio. It certainly helps that the whole movie is made to look like a fairy tale, with heightened and fantastic designs that don’t look remotely like any particular place or time. (For instance, while I’ve never been to Alexandria, I’m pretty damn sure it’s never looked like that.) Unfortunately, Lanthimos doubles down on his bizarre fixation with fish-eye lenses. What’s worse, there are some shots that look like they were literally shot through a pinhole. I don’t get it.

Anyway, of course the main hook with this Pinocchio riff is that our lead character is a woman. What’s more, she’s a woman surrounded by men who insist on controlling her or using her in some capacity. That said, given that Bella is working with the intelligence and experience of a newborn, it’s not always easy to tell when certain characters are controlling her behavior in the interest of her safety and education, or when they’re manipulating her for their own self-interest.

Speaking of which, it’s worth commenting on the sexist behavior of men who treat women as ignorant and helpless little girls. That takes on a whole new dimension with regard to a woman who really does literally have the brain of a helpless and ignorant little girl. So the men in Bella’s life are justified in treating her as such… but only to a point. It’s deeply satisfying to watch Bella learn and develop faster than everyone else can keep up.

Before anyone realizes it, Bella has not only outgrown her would-be father figures and paramours, but broken them down to the molecular level and exposed all their deepest failings. Thus the male characters keep trying to put Bella in her place and talk to her like she’s the child she used to be, but then Bella skillfully maneuvers out of her old box and shatters her adversaries in the process. It’s beautiful to watch.

Speaking of which, I should probably talk a bit more about the male characters. Willem Dafoe acts comfortably within his wheelhouse as the oddball Godwin Baxter, who only tries to control Bella until he realizes that he can’t keep her caged any longer, at which point he lets her go free with his blessing. And then he goes on to try and replicate the experiment with another poor young woman (played by Margaret Qualley). We’ve also got Ramy Youssef on hand as Godwin’s assistant Max McCandles. He starts off as a bit of a spineless twerp, but he always has the best intentions toward Bella and he eventually grows into a serviceable model for a male feminist ally. I do appreciate when a feminist film remembers to include such a character.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Jerrod Charmichael playing Harry Astley. He’s cynical to the point of nihilism, challenging Bella’s optimistic viewpoints in a way that ultimately strengthens them in spite of him. And of course we can’t forget Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), the quintessentially evil personification of toxic masculinity who pretty much serves as the “final boss” of the film.

And then there’s Mark Ruffalo, whose character deserves his own deep dive. He plays Duncan Wedderburn, a sleazy lawyer who plans to bed Bella and abandon her has he’s done so many times with countless other women. Trouble is, Bella is so gorgeous and so sexually ravenous (more on that in just a minute) that Duncan keeps Bella around for way longer than he’d initially expected and he can’t quite bring himself to let go of her. That proves to be his undoing, as Bella repeatedly proves how pathetic and hypocritical and self-destructive he truly is. My personal favorite example comes when Bella sleeps around with other men as Duncan has slept around with other women. So it’s okay when he has random meaningless sex, but Bella’s a dirty filthy whore when she does the same.

The film devotes a lot of time to Bella’s sexual awakening and enlightenment. This is primarily how Bella learns about the concept of bodily autonomy, as well as how she learns about her mental/emotional well-being and how to manage healthy relationships and boundaries with others. That’s a lot of ground to cover in the span of a sex scene, and it’s done while we watch Emma Stone naked and humping. I’ll take it.

(Side note: It bears remembering that Bella’s screwing around with a body that got a fetus cut out of it post mortem. While it’s certainly possible that supergenius Godwin Baxter might’ve taken steps to restore and preserve the uterus, it’s more likely that Bella is incapable of getting pregnant. The film never confirms this one way or another, but it’s a highly significant factor to consider, given all the sex Bella has throughout the picture.)

It’s genuinely impressive how sex-positive the movie is. In particular, the film is refreshingly pragmatic and progressive in its attitude toward sex workers. It really speaks volumes that of all the characters who try to take Bella under their wing or use her towards their own ends, it’s the brothel madam (Kathryn Hunter) who’s the only woman, and by far the most empowering and nurturing of the lot. With the debatable exception of Martha (Hanna Schygulla), one of the precious few characters to address Bella as a friend and a peer.

And then of course we have Emma Stone herself. She took on a tremendously dynamic role, tasked with playing a character at all stages from toddler to early twenties and all points in between. She plays the role with fearless aplomb, captivating and confident from start to finish. I can’t possibly overstate how impressive it is to watch Bella’s growth and development by way of Stone’s voice and movements. I love watching Stone go from a babbling toddler to an eloquent academic, I love watching Stone move like an uptight plastic doll until she’s walking like an everyday person, and comparing her steps in development from one scene to another is fascinating.

Moreover, this is a film that could’ve gone insufferably preachy with its moralizing, its feminism, and so forth. Yet Stone and Lanthimos find various ways to keep it all compelling and heartfelt, even amusing. It’s really quite beautifully done.

Poor Things will not be for all tastes, but then, neither is Yorgos Lanthimos. The fantastic production design might be a little too over-the-top for its own good, the pacing suffers for the overlong runtime and the “road movie” plot structure, and fuck if I know why Lanthimos loves fish-eye lenses and pinhole photography like Zack Snyder loves speed-ramping.

That said, this is still a marvelous work of feminist cinema, with Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo leading a phenomenal cast. The premise is as fascinating as it is batshit, and the filmmakers use it to convey all sorts of fascinating statements about growing and living, most especially as a woman in a misogynist world.

For better or weirder, Lanthimos has made his masterpiece. I’d dare say this is his defining work to date. Definitely give it a try.

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