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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Poor Things // Film Review

"So you wish to marry me or kill me. Is that the proposal?

There are two things that people love to tell you about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The first is that the title refers to the man, rather than the monster, and the second is that the boarish Frankenstein we know from Boris Karloff’s 1931 film bares little resemblance to Shelley’s more poetic wandering figure. Poor Things plays on both these pieces of trivia; here it is the man - Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe) - who is the disfigured outcast, taking pleasure in relaying the anecdotes behind his many scars, while the ‘monster’ is in fact a beautiful woman with the mind of an infant - Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) - who rapidly matures upon discovering her twin passions of sex and philosophy. How Byronic.

Poor Things is the latest effort from Yorgos Lanthimos, the founding father of a movement generally referred to as Weird Greek Cinema. True to form, there is no easing-in period here, as we are immediately introduced to Bella - already in the image of a grown woman - playing piano with her feet and imitating the duck-dogs (not a typo) that roam her and Godwin’s home. She loves her life and even refers to Godwin by the affectionate nickname of ‘God’, but also yearns to see the outside world, especially once her accelerated maturation turns her into a teenager who discovers masturbation as “a way to make happy” whenever she wants.

Bella soon emerges as a sexually promiscuous young woman, hungry to discover more about pleasure without any real interest in the men used in her “experiments”. Chief among these is Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a womanising lawyer who offers to take Bella away from Godwin on a tour of Europe, with plenty of hotel stops along the way. Like nearly every man in the film, Wedderburn sees Bella as an easily impressed target for his charms, but there is nothing ditzy about Emma Stone’s performance, even in these early scenes.

Stone does play Bella as childlike at first, a necessity given that she begins with the surgically-implanted brain of a newborn baby, but what this innocence really allows her to do is poke holes in the methods of her suitors. Wedderburn and those like him are utterly disarmed by her disinterest in “polite society” beyond what’s offered between their legs, only gradually realising that they are in fact the ones now being objectified.

It’s a devilishly lewd conceit for a star-powered fantasy film, which is certain to draw controversy. The nudity is frequent and intense, amplified all the further by Lanthimos’ fisheye and peephole lenses which turn the camera into an eye, never allowing us to forget our voyeurism. In the bedroom and beyond, Bella is typically centred in wide frames which give her the look of a video game character exploring the world all around her. To Bella, romance and sex are as much a scientific process as any of the hybrid animals in Godwin’s lab, and so her many flirtations and nighttime activities become a journey of discovery and growth rather than anything more perverse.

It helps that Baxter’s various misadventures are supported by an ensemble of very-game actors and a characteristically hilarious script from Lanthimos. These strengths converge in the character of Wedderburn, a sleazy fast-talking “gentleman” who quickly becomes hung-up or, in his own words, a “succubus” to Bella’s icy means of love. Ruffalo is phenomenal in the role, breaking down the archetypical ‘evil man’ into something utterly pitiful in parallel with Stone’s subversion of the ‘wide-eyed woman’.

Also in need of a mention are the gorgeous sets used to recreate cities like Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris across Bella’s many travels. Each has a distinctive art style; Paris is overtly Gothic and frosted over, while Alexandria is graded exclusively in shades of orange. There is an air of Powell & Pressburger to the sharp contrasts here, including an opening shot which appears to be a direct homage to Black Narcissus. Given the conjoined themes of mental illness and femininity across many of the Archers’ works, it is as good a touchpoint as any here, while also giving the film a painted quality which captures exactly the view of a girl experiencing its every sensation for the first time.

Poor Things is the sort of Frankenstein story one suspects Mary Shelley might have adored. Though Lanthimos’ auteur-touch is unmistakable, it is primarily carried entirely on the shoulders of the role Emma Stone has called her all-time favourite to date. It is a work of modern mythology, the tale of a woman thrust without warning into a man’s world and defying expectations to somehow rule it. Sexual liberation is the sort of phrase that, if used poorly, can cause many to shrink into their seats, but Poor Things is never pornographic in its exploration of physical intimacy.

The result is a fitting follow-up to The Favourite, Lanthimos’ Oscar-winning previous film, which was itself fascinated by the power dynamics of feminine sexuality. Poor Things is undoubtedly the more obvious work - Bella Baxter might be a lab experiment, but her male suitors are the real monsters - yet the execution remains a deliriously surreal piece of black comedy that will no doubt cause mass panic on Twitter when it hits screens later this year. It’s worth a look, but for God’s sake don’t bring your parents.

Reviewed at the Venice Film Festival.


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