Yorgos Lanthimos (dir)
USA / UK / Ireland, 2023
Poor Things, a continuation of Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone’s creative collaboration (The Favourite (2018) and Bleat (2022)), is a strange yet intoxicating wonderland, full of soul, humour and sex. An adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name, the film is set in a 19th century reimagined through the aesthetics of fantasy. It follows the mental growth of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a woman reborn after Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) implants the mind of an unborn baby into the head of its dead mother. In many ways, the movie is the story of a woman reborn without social shame and baggage and it’s just a whole lot of fun watching what unfolds as we follow a character completely unencumbered by conventions.
Despite its 19th century setting, Poor Things feels utterly fresh and new, particularly in its representation of female sexuality. Upon Bella’s discovering sex, the black and white screen gives way to colour and never goes back. Bella’s realised a fundamental part of herself and the confidence she has gained follows her through the world. Bella’s sexuality is empowered as a science experiment; her approach to life is much the same, curious, and experimental. Female autonomy is found in the unconventional, fitting into conventional modes is presented as a losing game.
Lanthimos’ use of fisheye lenses distorts the world in wonderfully effective ways; the world literally revolves around Bella as the fisheye lenses wrap the background around her. The distortion brings us closer to the character’s emotions, presenting us with their sense of wonder, isolation or confusion. It also compliments Stone’s compelling acting, particularly her control over her movement, for example her toddler-like walking early in the film which is both monstrous and endearing.
The power the men have over Bella’s developing mind becomes symbol of patriarchal control; this is clear in the costuming, with designer Holly Waddington matching the clothes to Bella’s stages of development. The costumes echo the period but they, much like the setting, are also an extension of character. Waddington wanted to convey the character’s development from the innocence and safety net of childhood to a blossoming sexuality and maturity. When living with Godwin, Bella is all quilted fabric and puffy sleeves, but as she travels, she must dress herself, and her lack of a felt obligation to societal norms shines through.
The set is also characteristically unconventional, matching the curiosity, experimentation and idealism of the characters. Setting isn’t approached as an analytical space; it is fused with perspective. The scenes in Lisbon are a perfect example of this. The overall setting is a fusion of the real and the fantastical, with the realistic architecture of the streets contrasted with the bright colour palette and floating trams. Lisbon is really the first place in Bella’s adventure to the outside world, and the fairytale-esque setting encapsulates that feeling of wonderment.
The film often follows tropes one may expect from a horror film – the darkly comic tone, the gore, the slow dissolves that linger like a ghost – yet they also endear me to the eccentricities of the film and its characters. The score is no different; it is haunting, captivating and uncomfortable. Scored by Jerskin Fendrix, an experimental pop musician, the soundscape is all at once ominous, whimsical and character driven. The soundscape is connected to her emotions, with Fendrix translating Bella’s pain into composition. His skill really shines through at the end of Bella’s trip to Alexandria. Bella and Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael), a proud cynic, watch the suffering of the poor people from up above; torn apart by what she sees, Bella runs to the end of the ledge, and as she does, a crescendo of strings playing the same four notes, collide and collapse, muting Bella’s screaming.
This film is alchemic and powerful, with compelling performances all round. Mark Ruffalo’s performance as the hapless Duncan Wedderburn is particularly enjoyable. Poor Things is intoxicating; I could have sat all day just watching Bella travel around the world.