Review | Poor Things | 2023

Yorgos Lanthimos's aesthetic of marrying the awkward with the bizarre to explore human nature seems a perfect fit for a retelling of the "Frankenstein" story, and while Poor Things may not be a direct adaptation of Mary Shelley's gothic novel, its DNA can be found all over Lanthimos' latest cinematic oddity.

Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter, a woman reanimated after committing suicide by replacing her brain with the brain of her unborn infant daughter. The result is a kind of child in an adult's body, developing like an infant but perceived as an adult. Despite developing more rapidly than the average baby, her innocence leads her to be exploited by the men around her almost immediately, whether its the somewhat naive medical student who seeks her hand in marriage (Ramy Youssef) or the gambler (Mark Ruffalo) who is enthralled by her lack or sexual inhibition, or even her creator, a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) who has likewise been an experiment all his life.

This leads her on a journey of discovery - uninhibited by typical social mores, she moves through the world on her own terms, a kind of blank slate in a fantastical world that is somehow both old fashioned and modern, a kind of Victorian, Jules Verne view of the past as future. Just like Bella, it feels wholly out of time, dancing to a unique tune of its own making. Lanthimos is a master of conjuring discomfort in films like Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Favourite, and Poor Things is no different - it unsettles and upsets in equal measure, giving us a heroine who is both child and adult, and it is through her eyes that we're able to truly see the machinations of the men around her.

Bella's slow realization that she is being treated as a sex object, even by those who claim to care about her, is certainly unnerving, made even more so by her childlike qualities - but it also reinforces just how insidious the exploitation truly is. Stone's performance is often jaw-dropping - growing Bella from an infant to an adolescent to an adult. Taking everything at face value, she is able to take her life and her future into her own hands and craft her own destiny, unmoored by the expectations the world around her. It's a fascinating, feminist spin on the Frankenstein myth, and while I think Lanthimos' love of the unusual and macabre can at times put something of a distance between his film and his audience, making it a more intellectual exercise than an emotional one, it's so fantastically conceived that it's hard not to admire the craft and skill involved in bringing this delightfully demented tale to life. 

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

POOR THINGS | Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | Stars Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Margaret Qualley, Suzy Bemba, Kathryn Hunter | Rated R for strong and pervasive sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing material, gore, and language | Now playing in select theaters.


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