EZMM 2024 Day 8.2: Poor Things (2023)

It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 20082009 (a bad year), 201020112012 (when we left the blog behind), 201320142015201620172018201920202021,  2022, and 2023.

Poor Things is the first Yorgos Lanthimos film I’ve seen and I’m not sure if it’s the most effective entry-level starting point. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it was so densely packed with visual, auditory, thematic, philosophical, social, and sexual levels of engagement that it was more of an experience than a film. It’s a work that really demands multiple viewings to really dig into the variety of critical possibilities, but I don’t have the opportunity to do that, so expect this to be more on the shallow end of the spectrum.

This is one of the stranger Frankenstein-inspired films we’ve watched in the marathon. The story follows the intellectual, sexual, and spiritual development of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), whose real name was Victoria Blessington, a woman who in the opening moments of the film, commits suicide while very, very pregnant. Before too long we discover that a brilliant but horribly scarred scientist name Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), or God for short, found her body, and transferred the baby’s brain into the mother’s body, then reanimated her, essentially adopting her as his own daughter.

We are first introduced to Bella when God introduces her to his new protégé Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). At this point, she basically has the mind of a toddler, staggering around, learning language, and having no filter whatsoever – an issue that will continue throughout most of the film. Max’s job is to watch over Bella and document her development. It is clear that she is learning at a fantastic rate, and she develops mentally from a child to an adult over the course of the film, which raises some interesting questions with the way the plot unfolds.

One of the most controversial elements of the film, on the internet at least, is Bella’s sexual behavior. As her intelligence rapidly develops, she begins to want to explore outside of God’s home, then discovers masturbation and sexual pleasure. When she runs off to Lisbon with the sleazy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) there are many fairly explicit sex scenes as he takes advantage of her eagerness to indulge her senses. While I can understand someone being concerned about the idea that she’s got the mind of a child/teen at this point, the more controversial element, in my mind, is how attracted Duncan is to this child/woman. More people need to start unpacking that than worrying about a sexually precocious young woman. And if the sex was controversial up to this point, then hold onto your butts.

At this point we get the third visual stylistic change. The opening suicide scene is in deep, rich color, but then we switch to black and white for our time in God’s house. Once Bella is out in the world, we go back to color, but it’s a much more intense, heightened color, emphasizing the fact that she’s seeing and experiencing the outside world for the first time.

While all of the performances are excellent, the stand-outs are Stone and Ruffalo. Ruffalo is filled with a slimy, arrogant energy that quickly turns to frustration when he discovers that he cannot control Bella and that she rejects nearly all of the social boundaries that he lays out for her. She hasn’t grown up in the systems of control, particularly patriarchal and economic, that force women into playing certain roles. And Emma Stone is a wonder, playing each awakening with a bluntly direct honesty. Her physicality is especially impressive as she goes from moving like a toddler to eventually having full control over her body, in every sense of the word. She even goes so far as to incorporate some of the birdlike movements that Elsa Lanchester brought to her portrayal of the Bride in 1935. It’s no wonder Stone is winning all the awards for her acting. She earned them.

With no way to force Bella to conform, Duncan makes a decision that changes the trajectory of the entire film. He basically kidnaps her, puts her on a boat where she can’t escape, and continues with his attempts to control her. However, it is here that she makes another developmental leap, discovering literature and philosophy, as well as getting a heartbreaking introduction to inequality.

Kicked off the boat with Duncan, penniless in Paris, Bella discovers that the sex she enjoys so much has other applications and can be used to make a living while continuing her education. It is here that she is also introduced to Marxism and “controlling the means of production” if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

With this heightened sense of self-awareness, Bella eventually returns home as God is dying, and we get another tonal shift as the colors become more realistic, echoing that opening shot. Which brings us to the final act, where a jealous Duncan tracks down the husband that Victoria was escaping, Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott), who happens to be a vicious little sadist with enough money to treat anyone any way he pleases. It becomes obvious that suicide was the only way out for Victoria and her coming baby. But Bella is better prepared to deal with Alfie, having never allowed anyone to define her, shame her, or control her.

After threatening Bella at gunpoint, demanding she submit to genital mutilation and rape, I was entirely satisfied with Alfie’s final fate, with his brain replaced by a goat’s. The only thing better would have been to turn him into one of the remarkably believable animal hybrids that wander God’s estate. I forgot to mention them, but they’re a treat whenever they appear. The effects are so naturalistic that I often had to do a double-take when they would stroll through a scene.

Literally every scene in this film is a work of art. The set design is grand and operatic, taking, according to cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its main source of inspiration. The sets are massive and mostly practical, built on soundstages in Budapest, but miniatures and painted backdrops are also utilized to create a fully-realized Victorian fantasy world. It’s no wonder Poor Things is winning all the awards for Production Design. They earned them.

Jerskin Fendrix was brought in to craft the score after Lanthimos heard his debut album Winterreise, and it is as otherworldly as every other aspect of the film. It is at times discordant then ethereal, abstract then beautiful, building in complexity over the course of the film. Even the costume design carries on this level of storytelling. Literally every aspect of the film is crafted to express Bella’s development as she, essentially, gives birth to herself.

Poor Things isn’t the most easily accessible film, and the overt sexuality is going to put off a number of viewers, particularly younger ones – this current generation seems to be a bit sex-averse, which is understandable. That said, however, it is such a gloriously over-the-top sensory immersion that it practically demands to be seen at least once. I’d recommend seeing it a few times, even with its 142-minute runtime. I’ve only barely scraped the surface of the storytelling mastery that Lanthimos has put on display here.

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