From one epoch to another, humans have been governed by the customs, traditions, and etiquette of their age. As we forge towards modernity, we are forced to balance and attune our most primal of instincts to a more acceptable, palatable breed of manner. The more we adhere to the unwritten, and often unquestioned, norms of society we continue to lose a connection with our most innate and intimate desires, ultimately diluting a path towards self-discovery and self-acceptance. It’s an experience that’s often multiplied in women, historically considered the property and prize of men who contort them into their ideas of what a proper companion should be.
None of this sounds revelatory, often the subject of many modern Hollywood projects, but never has it been captured with such wanton oddity and thrilling perversity as in Yorgos Lanthimos’ masterful Poor Things. Defiance is of utmost importance to the Greek writer-director, crafting a film as unbridled in its creativity as taboo in its subject matter, resulting in an experience that makes one wriggle with disgust in one breath and giggle with excitement the next. It’s a cinematic tour de force, both utterly revealing about subtle, oft-neglected truths and armed with one of the most eccentric steampunk visions in recent memory—unfolding like a phantasmagorical sex odyssey that challenges the ways in which we view the dynamics of intercourse, relationships, and decorum. All the while feasting on every emotion available in the spectrum.
Playing out like a twisted riff on Frankenstein, Poor Things centres on a young woman named Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) who is brought to life by her disfigured guardian, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Said method of re-animation is too bizarre and ingenious to reveal here, but its understandable why she’s eager to learn more about the world, especially its more carnal delights after she discovers masturbation. It’s a moment brought to life by both Lanthimos and his heroine, rendering the basest of emotions and impulses utterly engrossing, hilarious, and liberating— a testament to the artistic duo’s pure command of their craft as they make us just as excited to face the big ugly wide world as Bella.
Though Bella is betrothed to Godwin’s kind-mannered assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), she’s quickly seduced by the debauched charlatan Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) and whisked away on a trip across Europe. From there Poor Things takes on a chapter-based structure (replete with some of the greatest chapter titles committed to film), taking us from the whimsical coast of Lisbon to the snowy, unforgiving brothels of Paris. It’s a journey that frees her from the prejudices of her times, and in turn confronts us with the hypocrisies embedded in sex (or “Furious Jumping” as Bella calls it) and bodily autonomy, making us question how we too exert control over our partners and stop them from simply being themselves.
Lanthimos and company create a fantasy world out of industrial age Europe, with all manner of contraptions clashing against a bold, kaleidoscopic palette. He paints a dark comic wonder on an epic canvas, cementing a steampunk wonderland like never captured before. It may sound hyperbolic, but Lanthimos gives us both “sugar and violence” at each turn, imbuing even the most peculiar and outlandish of moments with an odd sense of humanity—of which there are many. From a crazed, riotously funny dance scene to a heartbreaking encounter with classism to a cornucopia of sex scenes, each stranger and revealing than the next.
The crisp, monochromatic cinematography recalls Hollywood’s silent age, as if a warped, provocative work once lost time has just now been uncovered. Soon after, Poor Things gives way to a fairytale aesthetic that packs in every hue imaginable, rendering the word “gaudy” a positive descriptor, from its striking period-appropriate costume design to its off-putting use of the fisheye lens. Along with Director of Photography Robbie Ryan, Lanthimos crafts a work that is as funny as it is visually inventive, evoking the same wide-eyed wonder of the protagonist in its audience. Jerskin Fendrix’s twinkling, discordant score is a wonderous accompaniment, injecting an undercurrent of whimsy to each salacious act.
As much as its bravura is tied to its sonic-visual prowess, It’s also the result of a stellar ensemble. Stone, at first, is lust and violence personified, an infantile creature ready to be moulded by outside forces. But as we journey with her, inheriting new modes of belief and perception, she commands an arc so expansive and dynamic that most actors could only dream of taking it on. She’s completely changed by the film’s end, a woman of rare intelligence and independence who just a few months ago couldn’t stop speaking in the third person. Its her mismatched knowledge that makes her so engrossing to witness, spouting off the most complex and technical of terms one minute, and not comprehending the simplest of concepts the next. It’s a fearless performance that lays it all on the line, and one so deeply integral to its story’s underlying power.
Ruffalo brings forward his strongest turn in years, as a mustachioed cad who epitomizes man’s every insecurity. He’s despicable, goofy, hysterical, and oh-so-slappable— a tonal tightrope of a character that Ruffalo walks impeccably. Dafoe also does great work in playing a mad scientist-type, one that he never allows to be pigeonholed. Instead, he conjures a figure who, behind his matter-of-fact persona and gastrointestinal folly, is man struggling to cling onto his newfound fatherhood. While Youssef, is charming and hilarious as the friendly McCandles, who at one point, awestricken, refers to Bella as a “beautiful retard.”
By the time the credits roll, Poor Things already feels like an instant classic, making every use of the medium’s tools. In a late scene, a character tells Bella “We must experience everything”, and it’s a message both she and her film take to heart, traversing every spectrum of emotion and sensation en route to a devilishly winking finale. Poor Things is truly a cinematic feast, and easily one of the greatest movies of the year. Though it may be too bizarre for Oscar glory, it will sit firmly and boldly in the minds of cinephiles for years to come.