Yorgos Lanthimos is known for helming movies that are bizarre and weird. Once you’ve seen Colin Farrell in “The Lobster” (2015) you get the idea that Lanthimos’s films will be far-out. That is certainly true of “Poor Things.”
Having said that, it is such a pleasure to have an original concept that is so well executed. This film (and Nicolas Cage’s “Dream Sequential”) are two of the most original films of the year 2023. In a world of Marvel comics and endless sequels, the originality of Lanthimos is refreshing; this film is truly entertaining, if you’re open to the weird. (I write this from Austin where the town motto is “Keep Austin weird.”)
This adaptation of Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s novel “Poor Things” was something that Lanthimos had been working on even before the author’s death in 2019. Poor Things (1992) discusses Scottish colonial history using a Frankenstein-like drama set in 19th-century Glasgow, where Gray spent his entire life. Godwin ‘God’ Baxter is a scientist (Willem Dafoe) who implants Bella Baxter with the brain of her own unborn child after Bella’s suicide.
“Poor Things” was Gray’s most commercially successful work. The London Review of Books considered it his funniest novel. It won a Whitbread Novel Award and a Guardian Fiction Prize. There is Oscar buzz for the adapted screenplay by Tony McNamara. And there should be, as he has done a fantastic job of creating just the right blend of language for the child-becoming-adult-female. Listening to the scripted lines reminded me of hearing your child “create” language of his (or her) very own. It’s amusing, until you think about the wisdom that the lines convey. At that point you realize that this script is perfect for the material (which doesn’t always happen) , just as your son’s “pasghetti” misstep is precious and somehow perfect.
The opening scene is a close-up of an embroidered satin blanket, which, in itself, is unusual. After that, we see Emma Stone jump off a bridge. Just as Gray’s work was compared to that of George Orwell and Franz Kafka, this off-beat novel is a logical fit for Yorgos Lanthimos (although some Scottish folk may not care for the director’s poetic license). The film put Willem Dafoe in a make-up chair for 6 hours as his character’s Frankenstein-like facial scars were applied for 4 hours and then removed at the end of the shoot, during an additional 2 hours.
With the plot concept of a fully-grown female’s body, but the brain of an infant, Emma Stone was given the role of a lifetime. Her childlike infatuation with life is conveyed through her sparse vocabulary (she is learning 15 new words a day) and her awkward, ungainly gate, is almost like a newborn deer.
Bella Baxter articulates thoughts like, “Bella nowhere girl.” (Kudos to McNamara,) Her fresh, unjaded perspective on life and society makes Bella yearn to experience everything. She has been told by her guardian (Godwin “God” Baxter) that she should “push the boundaries of what is known. That is the only way to live.”
A pure-hearted admirer, Godwin’s assistant Max McAndles, played by Ramy Youssef, proposes to Bella, but she runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Their time together leads Bella to say, “What a confusing person you are, Duncan Wedderburn” and, ultimately to conclude, “I shall need a husband with a more forgiving personality.”
As for Duncan’s assessment of Bella after they travel the world engaging in “furious jumping” (a euphemism for non-stop fornicating), Duncan says, “You don’t know what bananas are and yet you know what empirically means.” Both Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe deserve praise for their Oscar-caliber trio. Ruffalo has already won for Best Actor at at least two film festivals, including the National Board of Review awards and the Santa Monica Film Festival.
Lines like “Your sad face makes me discover angry feelings for you,” “We are all cruel beasts,” and “Protect yourself with the truth” are fresh, original, timely, and display childlike wisdom. Watching Bella’s growth as an adventurous adult female is inspiring to other adult females; each male she encounters seems to represent yet more ways of keeping the female of the species down and preventing Bella (as their representative) from reaching her full potential.
At the beginning of the story, Bella dresses in more traditional clothing of the Victorian era. Following her transformation, begins to dress herself in more bizarre clothes or more corseted styles. Costume designer Holly Waddington should snag an Oscar nod, but she will have some competition from “Napoleon’s” costumes.
The set designs are also Oscar-worthy, with a pastel sci-fi steampunk fantasy look created by set designer Zsuzsa Mihalek. There are, literally, eleven other art direction folk credited, and they deserve accolades for the entrancing sets meant to represent a variety of cities that Bella and Duncan visit, including time spent on an ocean liner.
Principal photography took place in Hungary. It began in August 2021 at Origo Studios in Budapest. The film wrapped in December of 2021 having coped with preparation during the pandemic. According to cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Francis Ford Coppola‘s Bram Stoker’s Dracula served as the main source of inspiration for many things in the film.
Poor Things had its world premiere at the 80th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2023, and was also screened at the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, the Busan International Film Festival, and the Sitges Film Festival.
The film is an over-the-top, creative criticism of how men try to keep women in their place. Even the good-hearted Max attempts to curb Bella’s adventurous spirit. Considering the message which we also saw in this year’s “Barbie” (and in last year’s “Women Talking”) this Oscar-worthy acting tour de force from Emma Stone is going to be tough to beat at Oscar-time this year, although I’d expect “Maestro’s” Cary Mulligan to be nominated, as well.
It’s such a hilarious romp and packs so much wisdom into the brilliant and amusing screenplay, but be warned if you’re squeamish about nudity and sex, because, during her adventure with Duncan, Bella works as a prostitute in a brothel. There is also a fair amount of gore, including surgery on dead bodies, as Willem Dafoe as a sort of mad scientist surgeon is constantly operating in his Frankenstein-ian lab.
But the film’s happy ending sees Bella returning to the terminally ill Godwin and preparing to marry Max McCandles. Does that work out? You’ll have to watch the film to the end to find out. It’s definitely one of the year’s Ten Best, so, for me, it was a pleasure.