Cinema Review: Poor Things

Posted 5 months ago in Cinema Reviews

The bildungsroman has a special charge: it allows us to vicariously experience the formative years like it’s the first time.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, is no ordinary bildungsroman. For starters, it concerns a full-grown woman whose brain has been switched with that of a baby’s; secondly, her explorations are primarily carnal. So, these frank sex scenes require a committed lead actress. Happily, Emma Stone delivers in spades – to say her performance is committed would be a gross understatement. It’d be so easy for the Oscar winner to rest on her laurels, taking on roles in much safer fare, but commendably, she keeps upping the ante – she’s also currently starring in the brilliantly uncomfortable TV show, The Curse. Stone possesses the same adventurous spirit as Bella Baxter, Poor Thing’s protagonist.

Bella is the Frankensteinian creation of the heavily disfigured Dr. Godwin Baxter (Dafoe), a father figure whom Bella refers to as “God”. The most gleefully enjoyable scenes come from Bella’s lurching attempts to embrace the world. Stone’s off-kilter performance is exceptional on many levels, but what strikes you first is her physicality: her gait wide, she walks waywardly, occasionally tottering like a toddler; her speech is all discombobulated, with her confusing verbs for nouns. By turns, Bella is prone to impetuous violence and endearing, guileless enthusiasm. She’s awestruck by the pleasures of any given moment, like a more wilful Dougie in Twin Peaks: The Return.

Before long, she has a sexual awakening, or what she refers to as “working on herself to get happiness”. (The dialogue is a scream throughout.) Flouting polite Victorian society, despite being betrothed to the mild-mannered Max McCandles (Youssef), Bella elopes with a lecherous dandy called Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo in hysterical form) to Lisbon and then to Paris, all the while partaking in much rutting – or, as Bella calls it,“ furious jumping”. These scenes recall the joyous transgressions of von Trier’s Nymphomanic Volume 1. Meanwhile, we learn that Bella wasn’t always Bella: her body was previously a corpse Godwin operated on.

Von Trier’s influence is also evident in the interstitial tableaux separating the film’s chapters. Visually striking, the film uses claustrophobic fish-eye lenses in early, monochrome scenes of confinement, and later, when Bella’s perspective widens, we get gorgeous hyperreal vistas in Technicolour, depicting an alternate world that’s vaguely steampunk. Jerskin Fendrix’s atonal, detuned score perfectly complements Bella’s bockety lack of coordination.

What’s even more unexpected than Stone’s staggeringly game performance is how the absurdism gives way to poignancy. Bella, like Buddha, is aghast to find the suffering of the poor. This moment is emotionally resonant because it’s the first time Bella isn’t invulnerable to the world, but it also points out what’s lacking in the third act.

Bella works in a brothel to raise funds. When she returns home, the narrative takes a late swerve: a man (Abbot) from her previous life before becoming a corpse insists on taking back what’s his. The inherent darkness of these events is kept at arm’s length, as the feisty, exploratory feminism must never wane – can a protagonist truly be feminist if you don’t get a real sense of what she’s up against? Every scene is merely a way for Bella to exercise her agency. The darkness and Bella’s enduring levity cancel each other out.

The film remains fun, but it could’ve been deepened. It’s certainly more memorable than Lanthimos’s previous film, The Favourite, but he could’ve used more of von Trier’s pitilessness. Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara, having fallen for Bella, are hellbent on keeping proceedings rollicking.

Words: Rory Kiberd

Illustration: Natoman

Poor Things

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Talent: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott

Release Date: January 12


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