2023 | rated R | starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, Ramy Youssef, Jarrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott | directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | 2h 21m |
In Victorian London, a scientist and professor, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) creates new life in a young woman he names Bella (Emma Stone). Bella’s mind is young and motor skills haven’t caught up with the rest of her body when a student of the processor’s, Max (Ramy Youssef) is invited to document her growth. As he falls in love with Bella, a chance encounter with slimy attorney Duncan Webberburn (Mark Ruffalo) sparks her in her a desire for adventure and sends Bella and Duncan on an odyssey of self discovery, each stop growing Bella’s body, mind and soul as she navigates a strange world.
If you sat down with the entire filmography of Yorgos Lanthimos you would be treating yourself to some of the most original, expertly-crafted and challenging movies of the last decade. The man is an auteur who, unlike the recent Wes Anderson output, grows and evolves and meets the challenges of each new story he tackles. Poor Things is his biggest and most ambitious film yet. It’s also, probably his most accessible. Again teaming with Emma Stone and writer Tony McNamera from the Victorian dark comedy The Favorite (and his own play-turned-TV series The Great) shifts entirely from the dark, dry, autistic satires of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer to a full-blown adult fairy tale. Poor Things is adult, it’s sexually explicit and it swims around in issues of gender control and human nature (both fateful and economic), but it’s also whimsical, a bright beautiful, lavish film with astounding sets and art direction and an inventive surprise around every corner. From Godwin’s dinner table to the seaside town of Lisbon to the snow-covered Paris city square, this movie unfolds a delicious new set piece to explore and it’s creativity never flags in almost 2 and a half hours.
Whimsical odyssey movies are a bit of a brass ring for an ambitious filmmakers and they range from duds like Tim Burton’s Big Fish to the Cohen Brother’s southern odyssey O’Brother Where Art Thou to Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (and last year’s Pinocchio). Poor Things, however, is a blender of ideas I have never seen before and it deserves to rank with the best of these moves. It’s something of a Frankenstein or Pinocchio story, a quest to become a real person, something of an Emmanuel movie, a soft core adventure with all the sexiness drained out of it, and something of a around-the-world cartoon adventure, finding port in Lisbon, Athens, Paris and an art deco cruise ship where Duncan’s attempt to imprison Bella come up against an introduction to literature and a young philosopher (Jarrod Carmichael) who shows her the dark side of human nature. I can find hints of inspiration here and there, but it zigs and zags away from those inspirations to do it’s own thing. It’s not quite Frankenstein. Every detail is original and uniquely Lanthimos.
I laughed a lot during the film. Lanthimos’ pension for having “polite society” members devolve into desperate brawls while in proper period attire is regularly pretty funny, as is Dafoe’s performance of the drug-addled doctor who keeps unfolding a horrific new detail in his relationship with his father. Ruffalo’s increasingly manic descent into desperation is also a point where the movie is funny, without being more clever than funny (as you could have accused Lanthimos of being in the past).
And yet, I’m not completely enamored with the film. Impressed and very entertained. A few little things are nagging at me, keeping this movie from outrunning this year’s other, more down-to-earth, odyssey Beau is Afraid. For instance, the film’s feminism, the recurring theme of men trying to control Bella, while conveyed much more clever than it is in Barbie, is still pretty honk-honk on the nose. But I guess my biggest issue is with the third act, and the pacing leap it makes. The movie for most of it’s runtime explores Bella’s interaction with the outside world, but doesn’t produce an antagonist for her. You could say Duncan is one, but he is easily humiliated at nearly every turn. Now, the movie doesn’t necessarily need one, which is fine, but in the third act Lanthimos produces one – and because it hasn’t been set up in the previous 2 hours, he crams in a whole lot of villainy in a very short amount of time. It’s rushed and it’s over the top at a point when the movie should be steaming toward a finale. Even this section I enjoyed, but it doesn’t mesh smoothly with the rest of the film. If Lanthimos had used his numerous cut-aways back to Godwin and Max to thread this villain throughout the movie, the payoff would have been a lot more satisfying. As it is, it’s an ending that just works, attached to a movie that’s damn near brilliant.
The film doesn’t have, perhaps ironically, much of a forward thrust. Chugging from one episodic encounter after another. But these are holes poked in an otherwise immaculate achievement. Poor Things is both a creative and technical wonder. It’s weird, but not for the sake of it. It’s characters are weird, but also fully fleshed out (even the ones we meet along the way). It’s world is detailed, idiosyncratic, visceral and wonderful. With a big studio stage quality to it. Lanthimos strikes a nice note here, appealing to something broader than he usually does, but in a distinctly unique way. One of the best movies of the year.