Director: Yorgos Lanthimos Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael Running Time: 142 minutes
Yorgos Lanthimos’ rise to the status of a relative household name, awards darling and crowd-pleaser is an improbable one. Absurd and sadomasochistic dark comedies (in Greek) aren’t generally building blocks to beloved box office success, and yet Lanthimos has built a profile and steadily expanded his scope, and become a bigger name for doing so. Though the affirmative messages, meme-ready punchlines and boldly big performances of his latest feature Poor Things seem a world away from the artfully off-putting ignorance and incest of Dogtooth, a throughline remains all along the director’s work, earnestly and entertainingly explored here by the enterprising Bella Baxter.
The absurdities of conventional society, rules of propriety and the unspoken agreements of the way things should be are highlighted here, and though they’re more plainly stated than in the Greek’s earlier work, that remains on a relative scale – Poor Things‘ guide to living outside polite society after all is a reanimated cadaver with the brain of a baby. Invigorated by the acting challenge of that character, Emma Stone is appropriately electric in bringing Yorgos’ vision to life, a devoted Bride of Frankenstein.
Bella’s life begins at death, her brain and body swap the latest in a line of experiments by the reclusive, brilliant and apparently abused into amorality Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, whose Scottish accent nods to the setting of the Alasdair Gray novel the film is adapted from). She’s observed and assisted by the newest protégé of ‘God’, Ramy Youssef as Max McCandles, a nice and innocent young man with a strong moral centre who is nevertheless utterly and damningly besotted with the combination of Bella’s mind of a toddler and body of Emma Stone. We see who Bella was as blank, miserable and alienated, and we see her start over again, crudely catching up her spirit with her body, Stone all exaggerated movement and stunted speech. Poor Things firmly places itself as Bella’s self-actualising story,
‘God’ and Max are benevolent captors in their own minds, but Bella’s rapid development and independent streak soon outgrow the confines of the literal and figurative walls they presuppose to be around her. With everything being new to her, Bella is unfettered in embracing what works for her and chucking aside what doesn’t, so her father and her fiancé reluctantly let her depart to see the world with the rakish rogue Duncan Wedderburn, Bella becoming a participant rather than just subject of experimenting.
As Duncan, Mark Ruffalo devours scenery with the same insatiable lust his character has for Bella; not only for him to bed her over and over for what she calls “furious jumping”, but for him to project the very male fantasy of playing cultured patron to a lithe and pliable muse. His moustache curling cad turned sullen sop is a heightened version of every man who wants to show a girl his experiences more than he wants her to experience them. Seeing how pathetic such behaviour is, Poor Things mocks it and moves on, remaining firmly committed to Bella’s viewpoint, rather than getting stuck tutting the man in her wake.
The filmmaking is all moulded to follow her character’s lead. The picture goes from monochrome to garishly colourful as her worldview grows, the music teeters from beautifully strange to strangely beautiful. Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, working again with Lanthimos, brings back his fisheye lenses and voyeuristic zooms from The Favourite, capturing Bella’s atypical point of view, the audience becoming more used to it as we go along with her, wide-eyed but uninhibited, she learns more about the world to reshape it in her own image. With Lanthimos’ deadpan blunt dialogue (as shaped by Tony McNamara, another Favourite favourite), the unmistakable but dreamily reshaped sets of Bella and Duncan’s European tour, delightedly excited actors allowed off the leash, we get a silly but insightful, sincere but bluntly confrontational odyssey.
The heightened rules of the worlds of Dogtooth or The Lobster begged the question, if these things make no sense, how much sense do the real-life social structures they’re drawing from make? Lanthimos revelled in the tension between his worlds and reality, the naughty boy who knows he’s got a class-derailing question loaded in the chamber. His muse here sees everything as absurdly as those worlds are to us, and balks, questions and abandons accordingly, and sure why shouldn’t we do the same? The director’s enthusiasm is infectious, breathlessly explaining that they can’t give us all detention via a spectacularly over-stimulated story; strange, funny and still as darkly arch as its creator has ever been.
Scoffing down pastel de nata, enjoying sex liberally and developing her education at her leisure, it’s hard not to look at Bella Baxter as an engagingly aspirational figure, despite her abominable upbringing. Scenic and silly but backed by a genuine emotional weight, Lanthimos offers an Eat, Pray, Love twisted through his own sensibilities, self-actualisation through deadpan dismissal of the niceties and normality. He might see something of himself in Bella; changing ever onwards from his strange origins, but retaining the same curiosity, creativity and vicarious cruelty. As his budgets increase, Lanthimos becomes more eager to swing big, experiment and discover. Poor Things is perhaps his broadest film yet, but all the better to allow for its gorgeously garish sets, the polished odd acting, and the messily myriad, engaged ideas, sparks of exciting innovation in its monstrous assembly, a Frankenstein dancing freely across the floor.(4 / 5)
Poor Things is in Irish cinemas now.