Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | Written by Tony McNamara, based on the novel by Alasdair Gray | 141 min | ▲▲▲▲△
The team of Lanthimos and McNamara, responsible for the wonderful The Favourite, have paired up again for this adaptation of the 1992 book by Scot writer Gray. It’s about a Frankenstein-like creation, where a recently dead woman has a baby’s brain inserted into her head — she’s reanimated and unleashed on the world. Lanthimos and his collaborators — including, and full credit to, Emma Stone as a producer — have made a deeply artificial-looking and phantasmagorical comedy with a strong feminist bent.
If you haven’t thought of it yet, having read that last line, I’ll be explicit: Poor Things would make a great double-feature with Barbie for the way their themes overlap.
Willem Dafoe is the deeply disfigured Dr Godwin Baxter, “God” to his creations, who in Victorian, or perhaps Edwardian, London, is an obsessive surgeon looking to explore the limits of science, whether it’s giving a dog a goose’s head or it’s creating Bella Baxter, the woman with the baby brain. God raises Bella in his fantastic mansion and before long she’s gone from being a willful toddler in a grown woman’s body to perhaps ready for primary school. It’s then he wants to marry her off to his student and Bella’s caretaker, Max (Ramy Youssef).
Bella quickly discovers the joy of auto-eroticism, and soon wants to have sex with men. Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn is happy to oblige, and off they go to Lisbon, where Bella’s resistance to “polite society” outrages some and intrigues others — complicating her relationship with Duncan.
I won’t say more than that, simply because there’s a lot of joy in seeing what a woman completely free of patriarchal shame will do to experience the world, where it leads her, and how it includes a concerted effort to educate herself and understand her rights to self-determination. It’s also a film that gets funnier as it goes along — the wit and surprise in the plotting is a big part of the fun.
Naturally, the take on the Frankenstein story channels ye olde promethean themes, and with that the questions of what makes someone human, but what’s predominant here is Bella’s drive to be free as a woman, to do what she chooses no matter what any man, including her creator, might insist upon — and at no time will she sacrifice her need for sex. Poor Things is a deeply, wonderfully horny film, and Stone’s commitment to the part is next level.
In comparison, Ruffalo plugs into his scene-partner and his director’s love of energized chaos but isn’t quite as successful — his accent is slippery as an eel and you get the sense that every time they called cut he dissolved into giggles. Other performers, including Hanna Schygulla, Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott (a Sanctuary reunion!), have a better time of it.
The look of the film is surreal and beautiful, from the wide-to-fish-eyed lenses to the expressionist cities in miniature, a roiling purple sea and sky just outside every window. Special mention goes to the designer of Bella’s incredible costumes that don’t look as if they belong to any particular era. Somewhere Delicatessen‘s Jean-Pierre Jeunet must be smiling at what he’s wrought, and perhaps another Frenchman, fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.