Bella Baxter––whose organic internal makeup I’ll leave to shocking reveal––was born an adult woman. The furiously beating heart of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, Poor Things, she was found dead at the bottom of a bridge, an unknown life left behind her, and reanimated from Jane Doe into Bella (Emma Stone) by a bubble-belching monster. Though, that’s not what he calls himself.
Dr. Godwin Baxter––a professor-scientist who looks more like Frankenstein’s monster than Dr. Frankenstein, trenches carved through his compartmentalized face––calls himself God. He means it as a lighthearted joke, but Bella doesn’t understand it that way. To her, he is Creator. Godwin (Willem Dafoe) teaches her how to eat, breathe, sleep, shit, laugh, go outside––all the essentials. No mind his grotesque appearance, or that he involuntarily yap-croaks large oily bubbles while he eats, or the apparent character flaws: a foreboding workaholism, a refusal to feel, a staunch caginess. She loves him like a pet loves their owner.
Max McCandles––one of the only students open to and intrigued by Dr. Baxter’s more experimental methods––is neither Creator nor created. In secrecy, Godwin asks Max (Rami Yousef) to be the surveyor, aid his research on Bella at the house, track her progress, and help her evolve. He agrees in excited anticipation and quickly takes a liking to the gig. Who wouldn’t? Bella is a riot in her baby phase and only continues to be in different ways as she evolves.
Under Godwin’s orders, Bella is confined to the house––one of cinema’s new coolest houses, and a magnificent example of Shona Heath and James Price’s boldly imaginative production design. Set sometime around 1900 on a steampunk impressionist Earth with galactic skies and a phantasmagorical bent (think: carriages, top hats, eclectic patterns, wild colors; The Knick through the looking glass), nearly every costume (Holly Waddington), set, and prop is something to behold. Just wait until you see their version of Lisbon, Alexandria, London, or Paris. It’s a feast for the eyes.
DP Robbie Ryan doesn’t let any of it go to waste, capturing sets brilliantly with a blend of lenses, movements, and styles as inspiring and eclectic as the design elements: a hefty section of the film shot in stunning black-and-white; another good chunk shot with lenses so wide open they stretch and squeeze the fantasyland into an ever-morphing fish-eye perspective whose aesthetic quality adds to the shot instead of rendering it ineffective; another good chunk photographed with a lens defined by a thick, distorting radial blur around the edges. Ryan’s put together a masterclass on how to creatively and effectively find the intersection between camerawork and theme.
Screenwriter Tony McNamara (in his second collaboration with Lanthimos and third-in-a-row with Stone) deserves a heap of praise for the gradual development of Bella’s diction, the early phases of linguistic chaos showcasing a mastery over precise language in the lack thereof. Sentence construction is all over the place, but terminology is more set at times. For example, she calls sex “furious jumping” the whole time, a callback to the misnaming of things in Lanthimos’s Dogtooth protagonists.
But the dizzying words would be nothing without Stone, whose explosiveness, attention to detail, and humanization of an otherwise totally outlandish character brings them to life in a fearless, side-splitting, all-consuming performance. Notice how her walk changes and keeps changing beyond the obvious, or how she mathematically evolves the composure in her voice over time while having to play in nearly every scene. As one of four lead producers, she knew the project inside and out; it shows.
Bella’s charming unpredictability is both socially disarming and scientifically singular. To the men in lab coats she might be unruly, but in essence, she’s a dream subject––until she starts perceiving herself as one. Then, just as Bella’s development and tandem curiosity get firmly ahead of the boys, a new fella waltzes in.
Duncan Wedderburn––a slimeball so wet with ooze you can hear him squish when he walks––is as despicable as he is hilarious. Mark Ruffalo gives a career-best performance that, strangely enough, evokes another one of his career-best: In the Cut’s Detective Malloy. Like Malloy, Duncan is a bawdy bachelor whose day-job revolves around the law despite a total lawlessness about him. He’s got one thing on the mind and he’s not afraid to talk about it: rampant, raunchy sex. Needless to say, he squares Bella, who’s recently discovered carnal pleasure, in his sights.
There hasn’t been such a delightfully strange and thoroughly developed cast of characters in years. There are more, of course––like Jerrod Carmichael’s sad-boy philosopher Harry Astley, or Vicki Pepperdine’s Mrs. Prim, who gets one of the best lines in the film––but I’ll leave them for personal discovery. Meanwhile, I scrolled through my top movies from each year since 2017 and none feel as well characterized in absurdity, comedy, (surprising) relatability, and depth except for, perhaps, the other Lanthimos films. In effect, it makes the characters’ every move a mystery, an intrigue. And Lanthimos ups the ante around each corner with heavy narrative stakes.
Last (but certainly not least) in line for kudos is composer Jerskin Fendrix, whose slow-dripping, pitch-wobbling score is still turning in my head in its music box manner. Grounded in a plucked ambience and an evolving quality much like the characters, camerawork, and scenery, Fendrix’s score lulls the viewer into a fugue state of wonder––muted harps, pizzicato-played violins, bells, chimes, angelic choirs, crunchy-deep bass, sound effects to boot, and, notably, a lot of negative space between sounds in the same track, which gives the score its own titillating unpredictability.
If Barbie reigned in an era of open discussion around male fragility in the highest echelon of pop culture, Poor Things will keep fuel in the tank indefinitely. Like Barbie, Poor Things is also about an undeveloped adult-child who leaves a marvelously designed house to go to the outside world for the first time, learns about its beauties and horrors, and evolves as she reflects newly upon herself in relation to what she’s learned.
Stone, Lanthimos, and McNamara use the subplots of frightened, territorial men in Bella’s life to confront once-normative autocratic gender philosophies and the way they still inform, if not guide, our world today. By placing the story in the context of a more bluntly suffocating old world (much like the three did in The Favourite), they reframe men’s disrespect toward women and imposed societal standards––and the lack of such in return––from societal expectation to cruel, primal weakness. And they do it to great effect, hitting the most important mark a film possibly could: a (soon-to-be) pervasive inspiration of thought, creativity, and discussion that lodges itself in your psyche.
Let’s hope they keep making movies together.
Poor Things premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and opens on December 8.