In the history of cinema, many have tried to come up with an idea of what it means to be human. It's a bit of a difficult task as film has a level of artificiality that is hard to overcome, and sometimes can make certain efforts to tell an "authentic" or "true-to-life" story feel hollow or fake. Some filmmakers have been able to tell powerful stories while staying within the parameters of reality, adopting a more naturalistic style to drive their main points home. But acclaimed filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has taken a different approach with his latest film, Poor Things, playing to his strengths as one of film's most eccentric directors. The film functions as an odyssey through different European cities, but with a Frankenstein-esque twist. With stunning visuals, bawdy humor, and a surprising sweetness to it, Poor Things shows what it means to become human and to take agency of oneself in a highly peculiar, yet astonishingly affecting way.
Following her suicide, Bella (Emma Stone) is miraculously brought back to life by scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Godwin (whom Bella commonly refers to as "God") becomes her guardian, observing her child-like and naive nature and how she responds to basic human concepts that she is re-discovering. When Duncan (Mark Ruffalo), a smooth talking lawyer, enters the picture, Bella is intrigued by his worldliness, and decides to run off with him to see the world. This sends her on an odyssey to discover the good and bad of the world, find liberation within her body and her sexuality, and to begin to truly find herself once and for all.
One of the things that greatly fascinates me about Yorgos Lanthimos's work is how he explores power. Each of his films shows a shifting dynamic between the characters that makes for a compelling undercurrent for their respective narratives. There is a grimness to how he portrays this, which can certainly be felt in films such as Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and to a lesser extent, The Favourite. That grim energy is somewhat present in Poor Things, but its examination of power is largely more optimistic, making this Lanthimos's most hopeful film to date. I was pleasantly surprised by how life-affirming it is, yet Lanthimos doesn't sacrifice too much of his darker, weirder sensibilities to accomplish this. It still feels perfectly in line with his work, but it allows him to tread new ground in the process. The film's journey of having Bella begin the film as a blank slate, and for her to go from the care of Dr. Godwin to being Duncan's travel companion, to finding her own way in the world is so compelling, and seeing her begin to reclaim the power to be who she wants to be is one of the most triumphant acts I've seen in any film this year. It is pretty amazing that a film that features some dark material can also be so endearing, but that is the true magic of Yorgos Lanthimos.
Of course, it helps that he has reteamed with screenwriter Tony McNamara for this film, who previously penned the Oscar-nominated script for The Favourite. McNamara's penchant for witty dialogue and blending high society norms with crude humor is on full display here, and is so perfectly deployed in the film. Bella's journey to discover herself leads to some funny and heartbreaking revelations, from basic human movement, to dancing, to learning about "furious jumping" (i.e. sex), to experiencing confusing truths about humanity, we are with her every step of the way. Her discoveries in the film are framed as if we the viewer are experiencing them along with her, which are perfectly placed by McNamara, and given more emotional weight from Lanthimos's direction. The two are an excellent duo, as they add so much substance and color (literally and figuratively) to Bella's odyssey, which makes her a fascinating character, and makes her story so engaging.
When I saw The Favourite back in 2018, I was highly impressed by Emma Stone's performance, which at that time I considered the best of her career. After watching Poor Things, however, I think she has truly outdone herself. Stone and Lanthimos are clearly a great match, and this is truly some next level work on Stone's part. It is a highly physical performance, as she spends the early scenes as more of a child. This is reflected in the movement and the mentality of the character of Bella, which develops as she discovers new things. Stone gives herself so freely to the role, embracing Bella and depicting her transformation with such powerful grace. It is such a full-bodied performance that she completely nails, from the diction, to the movement, to the interiority of the character. Stone truly approaches the character in such a complete way, and her performance feels as liberating as what Bella experiences in the film. This is bound to be one of her most defining roles, and she is the true heart and soul of the entire film.
Beyond the character of Bella and her journey, the world of the film is so strangely alluring that it is hard not to get sucked into it. The first 30 minutes or so are largely in black and white, which evokes Universal monster movies and other sci-fi films of yesteryear. The look, along with the various experiments and strange imagery that includes hybrid animals, cadavers, and a grotesque Willem Dafoe, puts us right into Bella's perspective as some of the stranger aspects are treated with normalcy while simpler ones are met with a sense of novelty. These early moments also feel so confining, mirroring the small scope of Bella's knowledge of the world. Director of Photography Robbie Ryan's use of the fisheye lens helps with this tremendously, but it is what he does when the scope widens and color is introduced that really blew me away. Once Bella goes on her globehopping adventure, the world of the film becomes vibrant, and the scope widens significantly. The unusual color of the sky, the elegance of Lisbon and the cruise ship, and the griminess of Paris is all so arresting, due in part to Ryan's cinematography, as well as the incredible production design which is so detailed and so beautifully constructed. Also, the costume design from Holly Waddington is an integral part of the film and Bella's story, as her clothing changes along with her, and the gowns she wears are so fascinating, ranging from puffy to more form-fitting. There is so much detail and specificity to the world of the film, and it is so perfectly executed all around.
Another aspect that mirrors Bella's evolution as a character is shown in the music, with Jerskin Fendrix's score beautifully reflecting her experiences. The score is spare near the beginning, with new elements introduced as the film goes on. There is an almost avant-garde quality to the music, as it is almost as if Fendrix is experimenting in certain moments. The use of unusual instruments also heightens the new things Bella encounters, as if we are hearing the sound of her brain reacting to her discoveries. The way the score builds to a beautiful finale that plays over the film's credits truly stuck with me, and leaves a major impact on the film in general. Fendrix's music is so perfectly crafted for the film, and it is surprising that this is his first score for a film giving how masterful it sounds.
Circling back around to the film's performances, the supporting cast is exceptional and completely game for what the film asks of them. Willem Dafoe is great as always, giving a different take on the mad scientist archetype. There is a level of pure insanity to him, but it is offset by a somewhat gentler edge that I was not expecting. The fact that he truly cares about Bella is a sweet touch to the character, and contrasts nicely with his borderline sadistic qualities. I was pleasantly surprised by Ramy Youssef's performance, as I have only seen his work on the Hulu series Ramy where he plays a fictional version of himself. Youssef isn't doing anything too flashy with his performance, but he has a more understated tone that plays against the chaos of the film quite well. It is easy to lose sight of him in the shuffle, but he helps ground the film a little, and his scenes with Stone are interesting. Mark Ruffalo gets the opportunity to play against type with this film, and he fully seizes this chance. He is hilarious, and balances his character's charm and sleaziness so well. There is a goofiness to his performance that really sells it, and it is so refreshing to see him in a role that deviates his normal schtick. Kathryn Hunter also shines in a small, yet captivating role as the madam of a Parisian brothel, as she immerses herself in the character, and makes a meal out of it. I really appreciate the characterization of everyone across the board, as it adds so much dimension to the world of the film and brings so much more weight to the film's narrative as well.
Poor Things, like much of Yorgos Lanthimos's other work, isn't for everyone, but I was completely enchanted by it. It is such an odd, beguiling film that is such a enthralling journey of self-discovery and humanity that spoke so strongly to me. It is a rather optimistic effort from Lanthimos, and easily his most technically impressive film to date. It does such a beautiful job of showing a woman finding herself and reclaiming her agency in life, and it is explored in such an inventive way that left me in awe. There are some viewers that will write this film off as pretentious or even gratuitous to an extent, but for others like me, this is such a spectacular voyage that takes a look at what it means to be human, and what it takes to find oneself in a strange, strange world.