Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things is probably his most accessible film, and features an incredible performance by Emma Stone.
PLOT: A woman (Emma Stone) is revived and given a new brain by a mad doctor (Willem Dafoe). Initially childlike and naive, she’s seduced into a sexual journey of discovery by a lothario (Mark Ruffalo), only to eventually come into her own as a woman.
REVIEW: Poor Things is similar – in many ways – to Barbie. Well, ok, Barbie didn’t flirt with the boundaries of an R-rating or feature a deformed Willem Dafoe, but it was about a woman who was ostensibly a naive creation coming into her own as a person. Like that movie, Poor Things, which is based on the book by Alasdair Gray, feels like a film very much of its time without making the message at its heart overly didactic. More than anything, Poor Things is delirious, provocative entertainment.
It’s the kind of movie only someone like Yorgos Lanthimos could have ever gotten made, and then only with an A-lister, such as Emma Stone, who’s brave enough to throw herself full-on into the part. Indeed, Stone is incredible in one of the bravest performances of the year. Much will be written about the amount of sex and nudity, but Stone’s performance is more than that, with her expertly evoking a woman who, essentially, is an infant that’s been born with the body of a full-grown woman.
Many will compare Poor Things to David Lynch. Still, it’s probably more like a vintage Ken Russell movie from the seventies, seemingly influenced most strongly by his still hard-to-find religious epic, The Devils. Stone is extraordinary as Bella, who we watch evolve throughout the film, with her evoking the character’s speedy growth into a woman of substance, finding herself, provocatively, through her hypersexuality.
While this Stone’s film through and through, the film benefits from an impressive supporting cast. Willem Dafoe is excellent as the “mad,” deformed scientist who resurrects her. In a more straightforward film, he would have been a Frankenstein-esque character, but he’s ultimately sympathetic, with him developing a fatherly affection for Bella that he tries to suppress. Dafoe also masters a certain degree of dark, deadpan comedy, especially as his character nonchalantly explains to his naive young assistant (played by Ramy Youssef) the ways his father used to torture him as a boy in the name of science.
Mark Ruffalo also seems to be having a whale of a time, adopting a deliberately cheesy English accent and a permanent leer as the caddish Duncan Wedderburn, who seduces Bella into a life of indulgence. His character is intentionally cartoonish in that he’s almost a Snidely Whiplash-style villain who does everything but tie Bella to railroad tracks. Still, the delirious performance works perfectly with the tone of the film. Christopher Abbott also has a strong bad guy turn very late in the film, evoking a sadism that Bella doesn’t initially recognize, while Margaret Qualley has a cameo as another, somewhat less evolved, experiment of Dafoe’s.
The movie is beautifully put together, looking deliberately artificial and dream-like. If this doesn’t win Best Production Design and Costuming at the Oscars this year, something will be quite wrong with the academy. It’s all tied together by DP Robbie Ryan’s dream-like visuals and a playful score by Jerskin Fendrix.
While Poor Things will not be to everyone’s tastes, it’s probably Lanthimos’s most accessible film, as it lacks the nihilism of The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, or The Favorite. It’s weird and ultra-graphic but also incredibly optimistic and uplifting. Even if you haven’t liked his previous films, you might want to try this one.