Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working in the industry. His films are anything but conventional and redefine weirdness in ways that might make Tim Burton envious. With his latest film, Poor Things, the director continues to explore humanistic themes through comedic and body horror/humor aesthetics.
The Lobster (2015) deals with romance through the eyes of characters having to find a soulmate or risk changing into animals. Here, we see a woman with the brain of an infant, forced to experience the world through the body of a mature woman. It’s a bizarre premise that should be problematic (it still might be), but with Emma Stone at the wheel, it is wonderfully hilarious in all the right ways.
[Warning: Possible mild spoilers and impressions for Poor Things below.]
Poor Things: The story
Based on a 1992 book by Alasdair Gray and adapted by Cruella screenwriter Tony McNamara, the film begins on an ominous note as we see a woman (Emma Stone) seemingly commit suicide. In this shot, we get the first glimpse of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s rich, colorful film aesthetic. The sky and landscapes are as vibrant as a Van Gogh painting. However, the color scheme transitions to black and white for the film’s first portion. Soon after, we see the same woman under the care of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Baxter is a research doctor, surgeon, and scientist with horrendous facial disfigurements, the result of being used by his father for research. An abusive notion. Godwin forgives his father because it was for science.
The mysterious woman is now referred to as Bella and exhibits infantile mannerisms. Her speech is underdeveloped; she walks like she has never walked before and has an overwhelming curiosity about everything. Godwin implores his student Max (Ramy Youssef) to oversee Bella’s changes as she develops. What we soon learn is Bella has been rescued from death by surgically placing a newborn’s brain inside the adult body she inhabits. And to Godwin’s surprise (and dismay), his Frankenstein adult toddler is evolving fast into a rapid-fire, fast-talking creature of curiosity and impulse. Godwin wishes to shelter Bella but is unable to do so. When Godwin’s sleazy lawyer Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) sees Bella and promises her adventure, Bella jumps at the chance.
Emma Stone is a gem in Poor Things
From here, we get a hilarious and bizarre glimpse of Bella’s journey towards self-discovery. She explores various pleasures and gradually becomes an out-of-control annoyance for Duncan. Their connection evolves from savage sexual chemistry to a relationship similar to Steve Martin and John Candy’s in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Stone portrays Bella as an unpredictable wildcard in a world that seeks manners. She is so impulsive in her naivety that even a man like Duncan, who has the moral compass of a pizza rat, finds himself blushing. The more he tries to control Bella, the more animated she becomes, and the more he loses his mind.
Emma Stone deserves all the awards coming to her with this performance. Only Stone could inhabit the weirdness, humor, and emotional complexity of an overgrown child seeing the world for the first time. This role requires Stone to do heavy lifting at every plot turn, whether it involves discovering the pleasures of the human body or threatening to punch a baby; it’s a role most performers dream of but never have the privilege of obtaining. The impressiveness goes further with Stone’s evolution of Bella. She authentically portrays growth with each passing circumstance. Whether Bella is reading a book or making a new friend, the sharp progression feels organic in a method comfortable for a star like Emma Stone.
An achievement in costume and production design
Poor Things is a movie boasting a stunning production design, art direction, and much more. The story’s setting is in the Victorian era, and the team behind the film did a fantastic job creating authentic sets and locations. The decor also has a Frankenstein influence, fitting the movie’s throwback nature. One of the unique aspects of the film is the choice to build sets instead of using real locations. The director, Lanthimos, along with production designers Shona Heath and James Price, created cities out of thin air and placed the actors inside these artificial landscapes. The settings feel small and artificial but add to the film’s personality. Bella is the only genuine person in an otherwise superficial and overly proper world, and the manufactured locations emphasize this idea.
The costumes are expertly brought to life with fun and inventive 19th-century fashion splashing across the runtime. The colors feel clean and vibrant, as costume designer Holly Waddington makes the wardrobe changes feel anything but boring. Waddington was the perfect choice, having extensive experience with period pieces such as Lady Macbeth and the television series The Great. The style is exuberant, playful, and unashamed, much like Bella.
Poor Things is a bizarre and comical Frankenstein sex comedy
Numerous concepts and themes involving age vs. youth are discussed in Poor Things. It has a lot on its mind about the nature of growing old and the cynicism that slowly bubbles as one ages. The movie explores this sentiment infectiously as Bella represents a mirror personality to this world. But at the same time, one can see Poor Things as the most wonderfully bizarre coming-of-age story adapted to screen. If this were The Graduate, Mark Ruffalo might be considered Mrs. Robinson.
But even with all the ambition and noteworthy moments in Poor Things, some aspects feel problematic. Bella has an infant’s brain yet she has extracurricular activities with adults. And when one is not glamorized by the massive swings of the film, the thought of this might make some feel rather uncomfortable.
Even so, there is a lot to admire in Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest feature. It’s attempting many ambitious swings and colliding numerous genres. It manages to work due to the perfect marriage of Emma Stone’s talent and Lanthimos’ vision. Poor Things is the greatest coming-of-age, Frankenstein-inspired, sex-positive, body horror comedy ever made, and Stone deserves recognition for making it all come together.
My rating for this film
Poor Things from Searchlight Pictures releases in theaters on December 8, 2023. Do you plan to see this film? Let us know what you think of it when it comes out, on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord!