Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023)

Style, Substance, Inventiveness

by Donato Totaro Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 11 minutes (2624 words)

Poor Things (photo source Searchlight Pictures)

Poor Things may not be the best film I’ve seen this year (though it is at the top) but it is among the funniest. And remains a feast for the eyes and ears. Although there is nothing shatteringly original about the Frankenstein story, director Lanthimos and his creative team have erected a film brimming with brilliant visual and conceptual ideas, taking us on a fantastic journey (both literal and figurative for Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter) into a world that appears “unstuck in time” (to use a term from Kurt Vonnegut’s time travel classic Slaughterhouse Five) with real world places (Lisbon, Alexandria, Paris, London) that are wedged in between the past (Victorian era), the future (Metropolis-era vibe) and the imagination.

Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter (Victoria in her previous, pre-suicide life, seen in the opening scene) a Frankenstein monster created by the eccentric but brilliant surgeon Godwin Baxter, played Willem Dafoe, whose grotesque heavily made-up face makes him look like a garishly granite Kirk Douglas. Godwin is eccentric in the Victor Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau sense but is simply committed to the truth of science. Recalling the tortured Mark from Peeping Tom,  whose father used the young Mark as test subject for his cruel experiments on fear, Godwin’s own facial disfigurement and overall bodily malfunctions (he is castrated, inexplicably burbs out air balloons) were a result of being experimented on by his mad genius surgeon father. We learn that Bella/Victoria, who was pregnant when she died, was found by Godwin who replaced her brain with that of her unborn baby and revived her through electricity. This single scene, with the close of up Bella surrounded by metallic bars and her body singing electric is a direct homage to the reanimation of Maria the Robot in Fritz Lang’s 1926 Metropolis. Which ‘explains’ her slow cognitive development and child-woman behaviour. Godwin hires a medical student, the only one who acknowledges his genius, while the other students cannot see behind his monstruous face,  Max McCandles (Ramy Youseff) to be his assistant. His chores at first are to chart Bella’s cognitive growth, but he falls madly in love with the walking human Id, Bella.

Forget what some studio executives may tell you about the death of celluloid. Half of the 10 films Nominated for Best Film at this year’s Oscar’s were shot on celluloid:  Oppenheimer, Past Lives, The Zone of Interest, The Holdovers, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Poor Things.  Yes digital is here to stay but so is analog. Although Poor Things was completed and projected digitally, the texture of celluloid still comes through in the rich colors and luminous black and white. Visually Poor Things is one of the ‘busiest’ films of the year, with radical changes in aspect ratio (from 1.33:1 to a European widescreen 1.66:1), texture (color to black & white), and lens perspective (from extreme wide angle, to telephoto to prime lens). The camera list on IMDb technical credits is as long if not longer than any film this year: ARRICAM ST, ARRICAM LT, ARRIFLEX 765, ARRIFLEX 416 Plus, Beaumont VistaVision Camera, Leitz APO Summicron-R and APO Telyt-R Lenses (some shots), Zeiss Vintage 765 Prime Lens set, Optex 4mm T2 S16, Nikon 6mm T2.8, ARRI/Zeiss 8mm T3.6, ARRI/ Zeiss Master Primes, Angeneiux Optimo EZ-2 Zoom, ARRI/Zeiss 16.5-110mm T2.6 Master Zoom, Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm T2.8 Zoom, ARRI/Zeiss Ultra 16mm Lens Set. A literal candy store for any budding camera operator!

The opening scene immediately establishes the wildly inventive and surreal reality shaped by Lanthimos’ stylistic touches of barely contained lunacy. Godwin’s 19th century looking home is filmed in absurdly wide angles and in perverse camera angles. Filmed in 35mm in both black and white and color with what I imagine is a large amount of digital post enhancement, each scene is eye candy for anyone who loves their art bold and beautiful. But the art here is also played broadly and with none of the refined subtlety you might expect in an “art house” film. Lanthimos layers the elements of beauty with a certain crassness that you will only find in exploitation cinema, with moments of surprising violence and frank sexuality filmed in full sensual beauty. Hence we are treated to lots of violence, sex, baudy (and body) humour and over-the-top performances, especially from Emma Stone as Bella Baxter and Mark Ruffalo as cad extraordinaire Duncan Wedderburn (can there be a more pretentious name?), who are absolutely hilarious in all their scenes together.

Shortly after accepting Max McCandles’ (Ramy Youseff) wedding proposal, in perhaps a nod to Frankenstein where the monster tries to kidnap Victor’s bride on her wedding night, Duncan Wedderburn whisks Bella away to experience the hedonistic pleasures of Europe. Wedderburn is not a modest or humble man. When Bella tells him that her housekeeper Mrs. Prim (the excellent Vicki Pepperdine) told her that “….you are wolf with scent of 100 women on you,” he responds, “she undersells it!” First up on their travails is Lisbon, where Bella learns that Duncan’s sexual skills are as good as he claims; that the Portuguese sweet delicacy pasteis de nata are exquisite; that lovers can argue; that Fado singing can take your breath away; and that bourgeois people make boring dinner guests.

Bella also learns that her sexual desire is greater potentially than any man, and is tiring of Duncan’s increasingly suffocating nature, so she ventures off alone to experience what Lisbon has to offer. The hyper stylized Production Design of the cities, with Lisbon saddled with overhead cable cars out of Metropolis or The Jetsons, seem like they are a projection of Bella’s ever hungry-to-learn mind. As Duncan senses that Bella is beginning to desire him less and less he stows her away in a suitcase to a luxury ship on its way to Athens. This interlude, obviously titled “The Ship”, includes some wonderful scenes between Stone, Ruffalo and the great German actress Hanna Schygulla as the aristocratic Martha von Kurtzroc and her young handsome travelling partner, Jerrod Carmichael (Harry Astley).

Bella’s intellectual and political self is awakened by these two characters, especially the philosophical nihilist Jerrod, who teaches Bella about the harsh reality of poverty when he takes her to the port of Alexandria and shows her a scorching pit of dead babies and lifeless slaves, a sort of Bruegelian paint-by-numbers hell on earth. Bella is shattered by the revelation of a world this cruel and indifferent to life. She collects Duncan’s gambling winnings and naively hands the money over to two ship hands who promise they will pass the money over to the poor. Unable to pay for their ship accommodations Bella and Duncan are forced off the boat at the port of Marseille, where they eventually end up penniless in Paris. While Duncan has no means of surviving, Bella discovers a brothel led by a sly Madame named Swiney (Kathryn Hunter), and joins the family of wage earning prostitutes.

The next half dozen or so scenes are perhaps the most controversial in the film, with Bella quickly becoming the favorite of Swiney’s odd collection of patrons: a thin, rakish man, a butcher, a one-armed man, a priest, a father on a sex-ed visit with his two adolescent sons, and a Quasimodo look-a-like. Bella also sidesteps into the French New Wave when she sleeps with the lesbian socialist prostitute Toinette (Suzy Bemba). While there is lots of sex, it is played wholly for laughs; just as Lanthimos reduces the richness of  France to two things: prostitution and socialism! While Bella thrives in Paris, Duncan becomes a sniveling, whiny street urchin, even resorting to a Marlon Brando homage (A Streetcar Named Desire) when he grovels outside Bella’s hotel balcony yelling out “Bella”. When Bella learns of Godwin’s ill health she returns to London, in the film’s final scenes. 

Emma Stone is ravishing in this role, taking advantage of Lanthimos’ unrealistic style to go all out with her performance. Stone excels equally with her physical command and verbal control, recalling Karloff’s ability to perform under his heavy Jack Pierce monster makeup. Whereas Karloff’s hindrance was mainly makeup, Stone is restrained by her infant and adolescent brain and must manage her body as it evolves from uncoordinated toddler, excitable adolescent to fully adult mania. One of the funniest physical body scenes is the dance scene at the restaurant where she flings herself around with Duncan to the spasmic rhythms of the Portuguese folk music (choreographed by Constanza Macros). Her movements exasperate Duncan who tries his best to control and contain her. While Stone’s acting is filled with large gestures she also excels when the occasion calls for more subtle facial expressions. Like her blinks across the room at an elderly male admirer. Her understated acknowledgments of enjoyment when it comes to sex. Or attempts to censor her thoughts when her mind wants to throw an insult.

The episodic narrative structure along with the story plot of a young innocent (Bella Baxter) tossed out into a cruel world shows that screenwriter Tony McManara has read Voltaire’s 1759 novella Candide. In Candide the titular character is a young man living a sheltered life who gains a rude awakening when he is exposed to the cruelties of the real world. It is a common story in the sense that many films have borrowed from parts of this novel, to varying degree. Two films that show the influence of the story are Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1971) and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). In Andrei Rublev it is the titular painter who lives a secluded life as a painter in a monastery but when he is commissioned to paint a church in Moscow travels and is exposed to horrors he could never have imagined from within the cloistered walls of a monastery. Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! is a closer match to Poor Things because of its stylistic excesses. In Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! Malcolm McDowell plays an ambitious go-getter coffee salesman tasked with travelling across England and Scotland to grow the product. His ‘Epic’ (in the Brechtian sense of ‘Epic Theatre’) journey takes him on a series of wild and surreal adventures that expose him to the harsh and brutal realities of the class system. Anderson’s style assumes a Brechtian strategy of constantly breaking the fourth wall and interjecting Brechtian pop songs played by former Animals member Alan Price that comment on the film’s social and political themes. The film culminates with the character Mick Travis arriving on the set of O Lucky Man! and auditioning for the very role he has just played.

While Bella Baxter grows in her understanding of how the world works (whatever the time, place or context, a woman must learn to fend for herself), most of the men she meets are not up to her standards. Each new man she meets is in some way worse than the previous. The first man she meets is her creator/father Godwin Baxter, who she calls ‘god’ for short. Ironically, unlike most previous movie doctor Frankenstein’s, Godwin does not have a God Complex. Dafoe’s depiction of the classic Dr. Frankenstein character is one of the most interesting of the dozens of incarnations. Due to his father’s mantra of science above all else, Godwin’s hideous face looks more like the previous monsters than doctors. He seems like a hodgepodge of the various monsters from the Hammer Frankenstein cycle. But temperamentally he is the kindest and most sensible of the movie Doctor Frankensteins. Unlike most Dr. Frankenstein’s, Godwin has a genuine fatherly love toward Bella and wants nothing but to protect her, unlike the original Doctor who wants nothing to do with his creation. Yet when she shows signs of wanting to experience the world beyond his laboratory, he allows her to leave. The next man she meets is Max, a kind, polite and sufficiently proper to serve as Bella’s gateway into society. But deep down we know he is not up to Bella’s exacting standards. The next man Bella meets is an incompetent lawyer and all round heal Duncan Wedderburn, who fancies himself a ladies man. Duncan serves his purpose of nurturing Bella’s sexuality but he quickly outstays his worth to Bella.

It is hard to imagine a worse man than Duncan, but this is a movie, so there you have it, Bella does just that when her marriage to Max is disrupted by the appearance of a man who claims to be the previous incarnation of Bella, Victoria Blessingtone’s, husband, General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott). Blessington is given short screen time so his credentials as a war mongering, racist, misogynist wife-hater come quickly. Bella overhears Blessingtone talking with a doctor about performing a Clitoridectomy, which we learn he had intended on Victoria and which probably prompted her suicide. Bella demands to be released from Blessington’s clutches, but he refuses and threatens her at gunpoint. Bella tosses the glass of chloroform laced gin into his face causing him to misfire into his foot. Bella transports him to her home and plans surgery on Blessingtone aided by Max. We don’t see the surgery performed but a final zoom in to a goat provides the clue. Given the next scene where Bella lies next to Godwin as he gasps his last breathe, I was partly thinking that Bella might be inclined to put Godwin’s brain into Bessigntone’s body, restoring her creator back to a young life. But Bella’s final step in her journey is to remove her father figure and start afresh. Each man in Bella’s life has represented a different life stage. Godwin is Bella as a baby/toddler; Max is Bella as adolescent; Duncan is Bella entering full womanhood. Alfie is Bella at her fully formed independent self.  The exact nature of Blessigntone’s surgery is revealed in the next and final scene.

In the final scene Bella is overseeing her lovely garden, lying with a book in hand (no doubt it must be Voltaire’s Candide) seated next to her is socialist prostitute Toinette (Suzy Bemba). Nearby housemaid Mrs. Prim tosses a ball with Godwin’s last creation, Bella redux, Felicity (Margaret Qualley). Max is reduced to being the house waiter, as he serves Toinette a drink. Symbolically, Bella is the only character dressed in modern clothes, a white turtle neck shirt and slacks, which suggests her journey has come to an end. She has arrived into the present. We hear the off-screen sound of a goat. Bella suggests “we should get some water for the General.” We cut to the film’s final visual gag: General Alfie on all fours eating grass. The image is testament to Bella’s first successful surgery: transplanting a goat’s brain into the General’s body.  The final garden set scene of the film is a literal visualization of the final words of Voltaire's novel Candide, uttered by Candide after returning to his farm a different person, “we must cultivate our garden”.

Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023)

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Film Reviews   academy awards   greek cinema   yorgos lanthimos