The enjoyably eccentric Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has a growing body of work that’s not easily dissected. His latest, Poor Things, is even funnier than The Lobster and even more provocative than The Favourite, with a visual style that could make Salvador Dali blush. Though the story can feel a bit bloated at times, the overall experience is more than satisfying. Coming off a huge win of the Venice Golden Lion, we can expect Poor Things to get a big awards push, but this obscenely gorgeous picture is the farthest thing from ‘Oscar bait’. It’s an acid trip, art film version of Barbie in some ways, and comparisons between Emma Stone and Margot Robbie’s performances—both of whom were heavily involved in their films’ pre-production—seem uncanny.
Loosely adapting a 1992 novel of the same name by Alisdair Gray, Lanthimos and his co-writer Tony McNamara (who also co-wrote The Favourite) give life to Bella Baxter, inhabited by Emma Stone. The surgeon, Dr. Godwin Baxter (or ‘God’ for short), played by a disfigured but strangely warm Willem Dafoe, pulls a woman’s body out of a river, and saves her unborn child by surgically implanting its brain inside the dead mother’s skull, bringing the body back to life with a surge of electricity. Bella’s mental growth is gradual at first, but quickly accelerates, alongside her motor skills, sex drive and conviction. At first she is taken advantage of by Dr. Godwin’s lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), and they ‘furiously’ pleasure each other for a while, but the tables quickly turn when Duncan realizes he got more than he bargained for. Rounding out the cast is Ramy Youssef as Dr. Godwin’s apprentice, Jerrod Carmichael as a cynic who opens Bella’s naïve eyes to the world’s despair, and Christopher Abbott as a general from her past life. In real life, these three dudes are all close friends (see On The Count of Three) and so it feels as though Lanthimos got a package deal. Not to mention we get the great Kathryn Hunter as a Madame, who was phenomenally tenacious in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of MacBeth, and similarly here instills an otherworldly essence into her brothel.
One could write an entire thesis on the many technical elements that coalesce in Lanthimos’ delirious vision, none more exciting than the fantastic production design by Shona Heath and James Price, both of whom were trotted out for the NYFF Q&A in lieu of the film’s stars. It seemed fitting as the sets in Poor Things are their own characters, as they say, especially a stunning take on Alexandria, zooming out from our protagonist as she almost topples down a crumbling staircase resembling an M.C. Escher painting. Equally stunning was Lisbon, Portugal, which was an enormously built set that the characters could walk around and get lost in. The music by Jerskin Fendrix is unlike anything you’ve heard before, probably because he had never done a film score before this one. In fact, he created the music before the shooting even took place, and then Lanthimos tried to match the rhythm of his scenes to Fendrix’s sounds. Where to start with Robbie Ryan’s cinematography? There is some black and white photography, but mostly he fills the scenes with vivid colors and stunning backdrops reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. Pushing way further the cinematic styles he and Lanthimos honed in The Favourite, Ryan’s fisheye and pinhole lenses make for a disorienting effect just right for a mushroom trip. Whether it’s a good or bad trip is up to the viewer.
There is so much going on in Poor Things that it can be a little hard to process. But if you don’t fight the logic too hard, you’re in for a hilarious treat, and perhaps a second or third viewing. On the other hand, if you’re a Fox News fan who thinks Barbie was too woke, then you’re really going to hate Poor Things. Whether you prefer Lanthimos and Stone’s brand of feminism or Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie’s, there is much to love in both films. There’s an army of talent behind Poor Things who helped the Greek auteur realize his vision, and although Emma Stone can’t currently promote it due to the actors’ strike, this film is just as much her baby, and what a magnificent creature it is.
– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)
2023 New York Film Festival; Yorgos Lanthimos ; Poor Things movie review