Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Poor Things (2023) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos



There’s a lot to laugh about when it comes to the so-called “Dark Universe”– Universal Pictures’ infamously ill-fated attempt to unite their Famous Monsters of Filmland into a Marvel-style shared universe of action comedies– but to me the funniest part is what happened a few months later. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, an original fantasy about a monster who bears a more than passing resemblance to Universal’s Creature of the Black Lagoon, became a runaway success, charming critics and becoming the first science fiction film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The difference, of course, is that del Toro understood that the magic of the classic Universal Monster movies can’t be replicated by slapping their titles onto yet another round of faux-superhero films; it lies in the atmosphere, and in the themes embodied by those beloved boogeymen. Despite not being produced by Universal and never once mentioning that notorious body of water, The Shape of Water is almost certainly a better Black Lagoon movie than anything we were ever going to get out of the Dark Universe.

Likewise, Poor Things, the new satirical bonbon from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, is the best Frankenstein movie we’ve seen in decades, official or otherwise. Victorian med student Jack McCandles (Ramy Youssef) is summoned to the home of standard-issue mad scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, craggier than usual under mountains of scarred prosthetics) to monitor the education and progress of his “daughter,” Bella (Emma Stone). It doesn’t take much monitoring to see that Bella Baxter is no ordinary woman, stomping and brutish yet lovably childlike (“What a very pretty retard!” McCandles exclaims, not unkindly– different times). Sure enough, she’s been Frankensteined: her body is that of a pregnant young woman who leapt to her death into the Thames, while her brain was saved from her own unborn infant. Fortunately for all, something in the process has accelerated her development, allowing her to rapidly gain a cockeyed understanding of the world around her– and of her own sexuality. Before the inevitably smitten McCandles can marry her, however, Bella elopes with raffish lawyer Duncan Wedderbaum (a hilariously over-the-top Mark Ruffalo) and begins an odyssey of both inner and outer discovery.

Just as Poor Things envisions a reality in which steam-powered carriages clog the streets of Victorian London, so too does the film itself suggest an alternate present in which Tim Burton never lost the juice and Terry Gilliam never lost the plot (either likely would have cast Johnny Depp in the Ruffalo role– thank goodness for small favors). It recalls both directors in its visual wit and madcap energy, yet feels more fresh and alive than either has in ages. Lanthimos and his team of technicians make the film look and move just as ethereally as its heroine periodically jumping between stark black-and-white and eye-popping color. Many–perhaps most– of the scenes are shot through a fisheye lens, either vignetted in a tight iris or stretched across every inch of the screen, the backgrounds blurred and shaded like a pencil or pastel sketch. Likewise, Jerskin Fendrix’s score sounds like Herrmann played back over a broken tape recorder, all skittering strings pitch-bent into something strange and haunting. If all Poor Things had going for it were its look and sound, it would stand as one of the most memorable films of the year.

But the best and most distinctive element of Poor Things is its freewheeling sense of humor, embodied by a truly jaw-dropping Emma Stone. Stone is rarely not great, of course, but little in her filmography would suggest she had this particular performance in her. Her Bella Baxter is a maelstrom of comic physicality, whether bashing soulfully yet tunelessly on a grand piano or matter-of-factly announcing “I must go punch that baby” when bothered at a restaurant. Stone commands each and every scene in which she appears (which is very nearly every scene in the movie), and I strongly suspect that Bella Baxter will go down in the pantheon of unforgettable screen characters. When McCandles questions Godwin* on the ethics of his experiment, the doctor shrugs: “Would you rather the world did not have Bella?” McCandles instantly understands his point, and so do we.

Watching Poor Things, I found myself thinking of a somewhat unlikely point of reference: Candy, the classic 1958 countercultural novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. That book, of course, was itself largely structured after Candide, but I’m specifically referring to Southern and Hoffenberg’s smutty reimagining, which recast Voltaire’s hapless hero as a schoolgirl who learns the ways of the world through a series of unseemly sexual encounters with a wide range of authority figures. (I should probably mention here that it’s been about twenty years since I’ve read Candy, and I strongly suspect it’s aged horrendously). Like Candy, Bella begins her journey with a child’s understanding of the world, and like Candy her hard lessons on the patriarchy often come with a sexual bent. But Bella Baxter is far too wily and strong-willed to be stepped on, and with each encounter she manages to bend society to suit her needs. Though Wedderbaum initially sees her as an easy mark, he is wholly unprepared for the plainspoken ease with which she takes control of each situation (Ruffalo is very nearly as funny as Stone here, his smooth-talking lothario spiraling into ruin and madness as his partner continues to blithely stomp through life). By the film’s end, Bella is socially conscious, sexually liberated, and in complete command of her surroundings. It’s Bella’s world, and, the film suggests, we would be better off if we were all living in it.

Poor Things exists on a very particular wavelength, and I suspect those not on board with its peculiar mix of whimsy, frank sexuality, and casual violence may find it a rough two and a half hours. To be sure, the pacing of the screenplay (adapted from the cult novel by Alisdair Gray) is episodic to a fault, and by the time Christopher Abbott pops up as a brand new adversary in the film’s final act one might be forgiven for glancing at their watch. But I was fully charmed by this strange cocktail of lighthearted gallows humor, strident social commentary, and creepy-cute animal hybrid monstrosities. This is a film bursting with more invention and irreverence than we’ve been programmed to believe possible in the current cinematic landscape (much less from a company owned by Disney!), and I have little doubt those who love it will do so intensely. Like its stitched-together heroine, Poor Things almost seems too improbable for this world.

* – Who, not incidentally, shares a name with the father of Frankenstein’s mother.

Poor Things
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
141 min.

Opens Friday, 12/15 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema

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