As the holiday season draws to a close and everyone settles into the cold early nights at home, there’s one season I eagerly anticipate right from my living room couch. January marks awards season, and with the Oscar nomination date just around the corner, I find myself immersed in a binge-watching spree of all the contenders for this year.
Although released in early December, I managed to catch a post-Christmas showing of the intriguing “Poor Things,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. The film unfolds as a beautifully bizarre cinematic art show, portraying the journey of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a whimsical and awkward Victorian woman peculiarly under the care of the ominous Dr. Godwin Baxter (William Dafoe).
Dr. Godwin Baxter, a prominent anatomy professor and unorthodox scientist, behaves more like a butcher in his laboratory, where he assembles parts of the living and dead. Bella, or “God” as she fondly refers to Baxter, lives a childlike existence within the confines of an opulent London mansion. However, when Baxter enlists his student Max McCandles (Remy Youssef) to monitor Bella’s progress, and McCandles develops feelings for her, he unveils a shocking truth—Bella herself is an experiment of Baxter’s.
Despite Bella’s outwardly adult appearance, she possesses the mental capacity of a baby but is adapting rapidly to her surroundings. Her clumsy, sea-leg walk mirrors the speed of a child on a sugar high, and her unsettling behavior includes random bursts of violence and difficulty connecting body and brain. Yet, Bella is also curious, witty, and thoughtful—a work-in-progress, much like any other modern woman.
The film changes course when Bella’s life takes an unexpected turn when she puts her engagement to McCandles on hold, opting to explore the outside world with the daring and devious Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Together, they traverse extravagant places, engaging in experience-building activities for Bella.
The exploration of Bella’s sexual desires becomes a prominent theme in the film. Untrained and unconditioned in her life with Baxter, Bella shamelessly expresses her curiosity about sex and her sexuality. Her inability to conform to social norms allows her to refuse manipulation and gaslighting, standing up for herself without hesitation, especially against Wedderburn.
Throughout the film, Bella embraces the chaos of the world, bending the laws of social conduct as she grows and learns every day. Her character becomes a representation of female sexual liberation and the ability to dictate one’s future.
The witty screenplay by Tony McNamara, loosely inspired by the 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, presents a female Frankenstein premise that translates seamlessly to the screen. McNamara transforms this premise into a social and political allegory, highlighting satirical ironies parallel to our world. Bella’s dialogue, particularly her humorously candid remarks about sex, showcases McNamara’s exceptional writing.
Lanthimos takes this script and creates an unusually brilliant visual showcase of the female experience. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan and Lanthimos achieve Bella’s childlike visual narrative through a fisheye lens, enlarging and curving her viewpoint to display her curiosity and wonderment. The decision to film the initial portion in black and white, transitioning to color after Bella discovers sex, symbolizes her bright new journey into her new life and sexual liberation.
Production designers Shona Heath and James Price construct perfect Victorian steampunk sets for Bella’s world, utilizing various era techniques from the 1930s to modern-day high-tech LED screens, creating a vibrant and colorful space for her exploration. Costume designer Holly Waddington complements this aesthetic with cleverly assembled outfits, matching untimely period pieces to echo the twisted period of the film.
Actors Ruffalo and Defoe give outstanding performances, conveying eccentric and comical characters who have much more emotional substance buried underneath. However, Emma Stone steals the show, striking a perfect balance between comedy and seriousness. Her portrayal of Bella’s metamorphosis is marked by brilliant wit, charm, and a tender horror, rather than the explicit sex scenes the media has chosen to focus on.
In an interview with the New York Film Festival, Lanthimos described the film as “exploding. There’s no direct message, I think. It’s mostly creating conditions for characters in situations where you reveal conflicts in human behavior, society around humans, and humans themselves.” At its core, the film forces viewers to turn inward by highlighting the flaws and triumphs of humanity. “Poor Things” is a beautifully told story of getting a second chance at life and defying the expectations of an unrelenting society.
“Poor Things” offers viewers a unique cinematic experience characterized by Lanthimos’ signature dark humor and unconventional storytelling. Most viewers will gain a sense of intrigue and fascination as they navigate through the bizarre narrative, filled with unexpected twists and turns. Lanthimos’ distinct visual style and stellar performances from the cast create a compelling atmosphere that challenges traditional storytelling conventions. Overall, watching “Poor Things” is an opportunity to immerse oneself in a cinematic journey that defies expectations and invites contemplation on the complexities of human nature.