Poor Things is a Curious Phantasmagoria
Olivia Rutigliano on Yorgos Lanthimos’s (Best) New Film
Regardless of however else you regard them, you cannot deny that Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language films subsist, to a degree, on shock. The shock is the point. Lanthimos is the successor to the legacy of experimental filmmaker Peter Greenaway for his commitment to making films that marry the baroque, the revolting, and even the random. His films abstract interpersonal relationships to extremes, boil people down to urges and desires and bodies and smells and residues and build narratives out of all of that. What results is often shocking.
The problem, though, with a style that boils things down so much to grubby, garish, arresting metaphor, is that Lanthimos’s films often end up saying the same thing as what they are already showing. I’ll explain: in The Lobster (2015), the shock of humans being transformed into animals as punishment for not having a romantic partner is a metaphor for… how, in society, people are shamed for not having a romantic partner. In The Favourite (2018), the shock wrought from an endless barrage of dirt and shit and smut in the early 18th-century English court of Queen Anne underscores… the ickiness and dysfunction of the rich and powerful, a class critique that might feel vanguard if you’ve never read a class critique before. You see what I mean?
These films’ arguments are identical to their narratives, without underlying investigation or inquiry. Lanthimos’s experimental thematic playgrounds and wild luxuriations in the taboo might seem to yield bold movies which are limitless in what they are saying, but, in reality, profoundly are limited to saying only one big thing. And that one thing is really obvious because… it’s the thing the movie is about, upfront.
If that doesn’t bother you, cool. There are, after all, plenty of other reasons to watch (or enjoy, or appreciate) all films/his films, and Lanthimos’s particular talent for milking compelling performances from the talented roster of actors who attach themselves to him might be fulfilling enough. Perhaps his films’ postmodern pessimism interests you: maybe you like movies that are about the depths and depravities that humankind will go to get what they want. Or, maybe you really, really like a wide angle lens. It doesn’t matter. But what I’m saying is that, if you find Lanthimos’s films to be overwrought to the point of simplicity, perhaps you will be intrigued by Poor Things, a film which at least has more than one thing to say.Poor Things argues that kindness, empathy, compassion are intellectual responses and products of conditioning, rather than natural, human urges.
Poor Things is Lanthimos’s best film (beating out The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and this is because it mobilizes its shocks to push out a thesis statement that is more than a gesture back at its own narrative. Perhaps this is due to the film’s incredibly rich, weird source text, the 1992 novel Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer by the postmodern writer Alasdair Gray. Perhaps it’s the adaptive stylings of screenwriter Tony McNamara.
The story is about a woman named Bella (Emma Stone) who lives in the palatial London home of the scientist and professor Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Despite her adult body, she has a child’s brain; one that appears to be learning and growing and developing the way a child’s brain would be. She is Baxter’s daughter, but more than that—she is his creation, his experiment. Baxter, part Dr. Frankenstein, part Dr. Moreau (and really reminding me, in visage and voice, of William Hickey’s Dr. Finkelstein from The Nightmare Before Christmas), has built her, and now he is raising her. She is brash, blunt, silly, grabby, and (possibly because of her adult endocrine system) extremely horny.
This poses some challenges for Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), Baxter’s assistant, because he’s already fallen in love with her, even though her brain is still maturing. It poses no challenges for Baxter’s libertine lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, having fun), who invites Bella to go on a European cruise with him. He promises to show her the sights, but it’s clear they’re mostly going to take turns looking at his bedroom ceiling.
Nonetheless, the cruise does expand her horizons—she begins to hash ideas with worldly fellow passengers, played by Jerrod Carmichael and New German Cinema icon Hanna Schygulla (a fun cameo, since she played the eponymous sexual adventuress in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun), and explore various European cities. She begins to become interested in books. And she decides to make her own way in the world, putting her in the employ of a skeletal Parisian madam (the incomparable Kathryn Hunter). There’s a lot more, but rather than spoil, I’ll say that it all falls under the parasol of Bella’s self-propelled journey toward autonomy and achievement.
Poor Things is a coming-of-age story at its core, brought to life by Stone’s committed, vigorous performance. She deftly captures numerous stages of human development—waddling and babbling as a toddler, awkwardly embracing language as a young child, complaining and whining as a preteen, rebelling as a teenager, and coming into her own as a young woman—not only effectively, but seamlessly and coherently.
She grows and learns before our eyes—discovering her body first, and then her mind. Poor Things is a story about a woman who develops by chasing her own interests and desires without having those tamped down, hampered, or abashed by society. In fact, Bella seems rather immune to shame or humiliation or most negative outside pressures; she picks and chooses the hallmarks of society that she will allow to influence and shape her.
Poor Things is a coming-of-age story at its core, brought to life by Stone’s committed, vigorous performance.
The emotional connection she has to the quirky mad scientist Baxter is a secondary (but still important) motivator for her; as in Edward Scissorhands, another movie about a Frankenstien’s monster-type who goes out into the world, the creator is a benevolent father (literally, Bella abbreviates “Godwin” to “God”; it’s also the last name of Mary Shelley’s father, a rich and knowing allusion). Buried in strata of comically disfiguring prosthetics, Dafoe gives a heart-melting performance as a worried and admiring guardian.
His relationship to Bella, which involves teaching her, germinates the film’s productive and fascinating thesis statement: Poor Things argues that kindness, empathy, compassion are intellectual (read: learned) responses and products of conditioning, rather than natural, human urges. Again, this productive dimension might be a vestigial hypothesis from its very clever source text, but it does helpfully buoy the film with meaning beyond its carnival of references.
Poor Things‘ question of “nature vs. nurture” underscores the work of Victorian scientist Francis Galton, which keeps it in line with its Victorian setting. But Poor Things doesn’t have a historical setting like The Favourite does; the late Victorian world of Poor Things is a dream, a pastel, futuristic wonderland full of kooky and supercilious technologies and an architectural style that only can be described as “Antoni Gaudí on acid.” (At times, it’s “Gaudí on DALL-E.”) Except of course for the black-and-white sequences in Godwin’s laboratory-cum-home, which are heavily indebted to James Whale’s films Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
It’s worth saying that the production design of Poor Things is phenomenal; from sets to costumes to hair and makeup, the film creates its own fascinating, mixed-up, carried-away aesthetic that feels childlike in its wonderment and expert in its precision. And Stone’s physical transformation into Bella, with a stream of long black hair and a pair of enormous eyebrows setting a proscenium for her giant, expressive, alien eyes, produces a whole new genre of facial expressions. This is, by the way, Stone’s best dramatic performance.
Poor Things presents a dreamlike, imaginary history of the era that birthed the modern Western world. As Bella bounces around the great ideas of the moment, like a philosophical Forrest Gump, she assimilates them. The story of the moment becomes her story. And it’s a good story, most of the time.
But as with every one of Lanthimos’s films, I kept noticing little moments that felt extradiegetically callous or unethical, beyond his films’ usual habits of, say, gratuitous animal abuse. When Max McCandless sees the nonverbal Bella for the first time, he exclaims, “what a very pretty retard!” This isn’t a line from the book, and it is unclear why this phrase would be in the script except to trigger surprised laughter; any attempt to claim a defense of historical commitment for that kind of derogatory language is debunked by the film’s general reveling in historical inaccuracy (see Dr. Baxter’s stomach-acid-generating machine or all of the brain transplants that take place). Lanthimos’s films, in their gleeful commitment to the filthy, smutty, illicit, vulgar, appalling, indecorous, verboten, and scandalous sides of human existence, inevitably take things too far into the realm of bad taste. (To be clear, I’m not talking about the film’s millions of sex scenes. Good for her!)
Narratively, at times, Poor Things also becomes too much, too excited to see what happens when Bella is turned loose on X situation or presented with Y variables. Bella drives the film to its own most shocking moments, with her own unbothered attitudes making them feel as surprising or weird or fun or silly as they are. I am curious, without having access to the script, how many of the film’s sequences were ad-libbed with Stone firmly strapped into character, navigating the world like an audacious child.
While it’s helpful how committed the film is to following her character, sometimes parts of her adventure feel bloated and redundant, especially at the expense of the film’s very quick but crucial third act. That third act careens the film into themes, questions, and conclusions that I don’t think (despite Bella’s maturation) it’s ready for, leading towards an oversimplified conclusion that reduces the whole experience. Towards the end, I felt like a teacher disappointed at the final exam grade of a promising student.
But I’ve been thinking fondly about Poor Things since I saw it almost two months ago, something I’ve never experienced with regard to any other of Lanthimos’s English-language films. Mostly, I think, this is because of the strength of the film’s playful reworking of the all-too-familiar Frankenstein story in its first act, and its character-driven experimentation in its second. And because of the performances of Stone and Dafoe, which seem to promise caricature but burst with memorable individuality and personality. It’s a whirlwind of a film, but, as it spins round and round and round, it reveals a center that might be porous but isn’t hollow.