The weird, the freaky and the fantastical are some of the most vital properties in art. They make you look at the real world with sliced vision, vivifying the pixie dust between tarmac and concrete. Even if you’re left speechless by the end of Yorgos Lanthimos’s adult, anatomical fairytale Poor Things, its shapes and colours and spectacular syntax superimpose themselves on your reality and enrich it.
Since emerging from the Greek Weird Wave film movement, Lanthimos has earned cult status with his surrealist English-language films The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer before turning down the bafflement (if only a little) for The Favourite. Poor Things returns the volume to where it was, but with a larger studio budget usually unthinkable for a film so bizarre and sexual.
Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo as Bella and Duncan. Photo: Searchlight Pictures
The film tells of a dead woman brought back to life with a child’s brain, transplanted by the physically scarred Dr Godwin ‘God’ Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who’s openly derided by the ableist Victorian society. With a developed body and an infantile mind, Bella Baxter (an electrifying Emma Stone, perhaps her best role to date) lives among hybrid creatures like chicken-dogs in the doctor’s vast, scientific abode.
Bella grows curious about the outside world, and the sweet and smitten lab assistant McCandless (Ramy Youssef) empathises. But it’s only with the arrival of the sexually lascivious lawyer Duncan (Mark Ruffalo with a silly, wavering English accent) that she feels able to leave and explore. They venture as far as Lisbon and Bella throws herself into a gloriously erotic lifestyle. Soon, she discovers knowledge, philosophy and a greater understanding of everything around her.
Tony McNamara's screenplay, based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, unabashedly draws on Frankenstein. But he and Lanthimos also craft an unforgettable escape-the-cave story, resembling a confluence of the existential rites-of-passage in Swiss Army Man and the feminist journey of empowerment in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.
Because Bella hasn’t endured the process of becoming a woman in this period of history, she’s uninhibited and able to question the systems invented by men to control her. Duncan represents polite patriarchy – filled with appropriate responses and ways to behave – and despite his spotty infatuations with this mentally erratic woman, he’s still keen to tame her. But as she learns about the good and bad of the world, her individuality begins to sparkle.
Willem Dafoe as Dr Godwin Baxter. Photo: Searchlight Pictures
There's an unfortunate irony in having only male artists in charge of this film, which is about a woman taking back her narrative from men. Following this thought, you feel that Poor Things isn't as original or revolutionary as the outlandish decor suggests. Thankfully, along with Stone producing, Lanthimos and McNamara build such a wonderfully weird experience – detailed and childlike – that it’s easy to forget those issues once you’re inside that world.
McNamara’s biting and memorable dialogue resumes out of the ashes of his recently cancelled Hulu series The Great. And often with a hilariously sexual bent with phrases like ‘furious jumping’, ‘sporadic ejaculation’ and ‘hairy business’. This is bolstered by the insanely garish efforts of production designer Shona Heath and costume designer Holly Waddington, who create eccentric toy-town representations of 19th-century cities and sensibilities – shot with extraordinarily wide and circular eclecticism by cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
It's sometimes difficult to judge Poor Things’ attitude to mental and physical disability, constructed as part of the film’s constellation of strangeness. But it’s clear that the world and its more eugenically successful characters are the ones at fault. The outcasts and weirdos are the heroes in this tale, and so they should be.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2023. Poor Things is showing on Saturday 14 October at 5:30pm and Sunday 15 October at 10:30am in the Southbank Centre and on Sunday 15 October at 7:50pm in BFI Southbank. The general UK cinema release date is Friday 12 January 2024.
|What||Poor Things review|
12 Jan 24 – 12 Jan 25, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
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