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PLOT: Bella, a mad scientist’s creation with the mind of a child (literally), runs off with a rakish attorney to explore the world.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: A bizarre reanimation of Frankenstein played as a sexually-charged, surreal social satire, Poor Things is packed with mad science and madder art. There’s even a crazy dance scene that trumps the one from Dogtooth.
COMMENTS: In Poor Things, Emma Stone embodies Bella, an experiment of the Frankensteinish Dr. Godwin (whom she calls “God”). She begins the tale with the mind of a child, for extraordinary reasons that may already have been spoiled for you by the online conversation (I won’t spoil things further, in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid them). Since this is a darkly whimsical fantasy/science fiction hybrid, her mind races towards adulthood at an allegorical pace: she goes from throwing tantrums and delighting in the sponginess of a squished frog to sipping gin and studying for anatomy exams in mere months. She begins the film clunking humorously around Godwin’s estate, cared for by the beyond-eccentric doctor and his meek assistant Max, who becomes smitten with the “very pretty retard”; but as she gains self-awareness (including, crucially, awareness of her clitoris), she demands to see the outside world. In the company of hedonistic playboy (a brilliantly foppish and comic Ruffalo), she adventures through a steampunk 19th-century Lisbon, takes a trip on a cruise ship, and interns at Parisian brothel before returning to London a wiser woman, ready to face what she is and to wrap up the first act’s carefully planted plot points.
It’s easy to see why the three supporting males are all mesmerized by Bella in their own ways: she is an utterly unique creation, unburdened by society’s expectations of proper behavior— especially in regards to sex, which she refers to as “furious jumping.” She journeys from childlike innocence to an outsider’s adulthood in the course of two-an-a-half hours. Joining her on her quest of self-discovery are the aforementioned Ruffalo (who will likely earn a best supporting actor nod), Max (Youssef, likable if largely inefficacious, he’s the character using a conventional moral lens to examine the questionable ethics of the entire scenario), and the astoundingly conceived Godwin (Dafoe). The good (?) doctor sports a face crisscrossed with a lattice of scars that makes him look like a mad surgeon gave up trying to make his head into a jigsaw puzzle halfway through, has a gastric disorder that makes him belch large bubbles after eating, and reveals a fancifully cruel backstory that explains his bizarrely empirical outlook on life. Stone, Ruffalo and Dafoe are all great; Youssef is more than adequate; and while a few of the supporting performers have difficulty striking the odd comic tone Lanthimos is going for, the acting in general is astonishingly good. Based on Alasdair Grey’s novel, the script mixes overly-elaborate locutions (“Hence, I seek employment at your musty-smelling establishment of good-time fornication”) with punchy one-liners (like, “I must go punch that baby,”) mostly delivered by Stone—although the increasingly frustrated Ruffalo gets off some fine obscenity-laced tirades.
The production design keeps pace with the acting quality, capturing the insanity of the scenario. Godwin’s mansion is a Victorian cabinet of curiosities (including such curiosities as a chicken-dog); Lisbon has a touch of steampunk with cable cars in the sky; the snowy streets of Paris house brothels with facades like cathedrals. Sets are elaborate, with yellow and blue trompe l’oeil clouds blanketing the sky. The short intertitles separating the chapters are minature works of art. Lanthimos continues to indulge the cinematographic experiments he began in 2018’s The Favourite. Some are purposeful: the film is in black and white while Bella is protected in Godwin’s care, and turns to vivid color once she seizes her independence. Others seem arbitrary: we sometimes view the action through a peephole matte (which sometimes signals imprisonment, but not always), or through an ultra-wide fisheye lens (used for panoramas—I think this look has become part of Lanthimos’ standard toolkit at this point). The visual switches suggest Bella’s disorientation in a world that’s entirely new to her, but I confess I found them sometimes distracting. Jerskin Fendrix’s nearly-atonal score, which sounding like classical snippets designed by avant-garde A.I., played by automatons on faulty pump organs or badly-tuned guitars, accomplishes the same distancing feat more efficiently.
Poor Things is a meticulously-created world, a twisted Victorian fairy tale set inside a fanciful snow globe. Gleefully disdaining polite manners and amoral on its surface, it gradually develops empathy and posits one value as supreme above all: freedom of choice. Like the Portuguese custard tarts Bella learns to scarf in one bite, Poor Things is incredibly rich.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I’ve heard a few people say that, based on the trailer, Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, Poor Things, looks too weird for their tastes. To be honest, the trailer made me think this ‘gender-bending Frankenstein’, as it’s being sold, looked too weird for my tastes… It is weird, no doubt. But it is the sort of weird we can do. And not so weird that I had to Google it afterwards.”–Deborah Ross, The Spectator (contemporaneous)