Poor Things (2023)

Poor Things is going to be a lot to many people. It is a lot, and that’s kind of the larger message because ultimately, for all its peculiarities and perversions, the movie is also an inspiring fable about living one’s life to the fullest and embracing the choices that make us happy and content. It’s a feminist Frankenstein allegory as well as an invitation to see the world with new eyes and a fresh perspective, to embrace the same hunger for a life that defines the journey of Bella Baxter from woman to child to woman again. Under the unique care of director Yorgos Lanthimos and screenwriter Terry McNamara (reuniting after 2018’s triumphant and irreverent The Favourite), Poor Things proves to be an invigorating drama, a hilarious comedy, a stunning visual experience, and one of the year’s finest films.

Bella (Emma Stone) lives a life of solitude with her caregiver, a brilliant but disfigured surgeon named Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who Bella refers to as “God,” and for good reason. Bella is herself one of the doctor’s experiments. Her body belongs to an adult woman of a different name who killed herself. Her mind belongs to the baby that had lived through its mother’s suicide. “God” resuscitated the body of the mother by giving her the brain of her child. She’s curious and defiant and soon yearns for independence and discovering the outside world. A caddish lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), is drawn to Bella and offers to take her on a grand adventure to parts of the world. She agrees, and from there Bella gets an education on the plentiful pleasures and pains and puzzles of being a human being.

In many ways, Poor Things serves as a fish-out-of-water fairy tale that invites the audience to question and analyze the Way Things Are. Bella’s childlike perspective allows her to strip away the assumptions of adulthood and the cynicism of disappointment. Everything is new and potentially exciting, but she can also cut through the cultural hang-ups and repressive rules of polite Victorian society. This is expressed perhaps most memorably in her embrace of sexuality and the pursuit of physical pleasure. She’s told not to seek out this pleasure except for very specific settings and situations, and this confounds her. Why aren’t people doing this all the time, she asks after an extensive session of vigorous sexual activity. She is a person incapable of shame during a modest time of conditioned shame. This brashly hedonistic reality might prove too morally demented for many viewers uncomfortable with the premise. In context, it is a grown woman’s body being operated by the mind of a child. We are told that she grows and matures as she accumulates her worldly experiences, but the movie keeps it purposely vague how analogous her brain-age might be and whether that maturation is of a pace with traditional aging. It’s a reverse of 1979’s The Tin Drum, a German movie where a child refuses to grow up once he hears the drudgery of the adult world, and so he remains three years old in appearance but continues maturing intellectually and emotionally. There’s a cliché about looking at the world with a child’s unassuming eyes, and that doesn’t necessarily mean only looking at the things that are safe and appropriate for children.

Bella responds with wonder to the many pleasures of being human, but, sadly, it’s not all puff pastries and orgasms. The world is also filled with horrors and injustices, and Bella’s personal journey of discovery is also one discovering the human capacity for cruelty and selfishness. Some of this is a response to Bella wanting to assert herself and independence, as she very reasonably doesn’t understand why all these men get to tell her what to do or expect that they should. At one point, Duncan literally hurls her books into the sea so that she will not continue educating herself. This extends to later in the movie when Bella looks at prostitution in a Parisian brothel as a means of earning a living. Her same sexual appetites, that were enthusiastically encouraged by Duncan, are now paradoxically looked at by the same man as wicked. Absent riches, Bella is treated as a disposable commodity and she’s trying to make sense of why one version of her receives respect and adoration and another version is looked with disgust. It seems that an essential part of maturation is acknowledging the faults of this world and its entrenched systems of thought, but does giving in to these systems make one more human or merely more cynical? Is it a matter of learning or is it a matter of giving up on changing the status quo? These are many of the questions that the movie inspires as we join Bella on her fantastic journey of self-discovery.

This movie would not work nearly as well without the fearless performance from Stone (Cruella). She gives everything of herself for this role and rewires the very movements of her body to better portray such a unique elding of a character at so many crossroads. Her early physicality is gangly like she’s learning how to operate this adult body of hers that appears too ungainly, and her expressions are without restraint, as if she’s peeled back every acting impulse to instead find a purity of perception. There is a transparent and transcendent joy in her performance as well as an ache when Bella discovers the awful shortcomings of this world. Lanthimos movies exist in a different world than ours, a cracked mirror universe of deadpan detachment and casual cruelty, so it requires a commitment to a very specific tone of performance. And yet, the requirements of this role work against that Lanthimos model of acting because Bella cannot be detached from this world. As a result, there is the same matter-of-fact reaction to the world but channeled through an idealistic innocence rather than the sarcastic skepticism that can dominate the director’s oeuvre.

The supporting cast contributes wonderfully. Dafoe (The Lighthouse) is a natural at being a weirdo, but he exhibits a paternal love for his creation that is surprisingly earnest. I laughed every time he went into one of his extended wails when he was disconnecting himself from a machine to handle his bodily gasses. Ruffalo (The Adam Project) is devilishly amusing as he abandons all pretense of likeability to play a deeply manipulative but fascinating louse, a character that is almost as transparent about his desires as Bella. His faux elitism is a constant source of comedy. Kathryn Hunter (The Tragedy of Macbeth) has a memorable and sinister turn as the brothel madame who teaches Bella about the nature of capitalism and socialism. Christopher Abbott (Black Bear) appears late as a privileged man from Bella’s past reappearing with his own demands, and his is the most terrifying portrait in the entire wacky movie, an antagonist that’s all too real and scary in a movie given to such brilliantly quixotic flights of fancy.

Under Lanthimos’ direction, the movie presents the world as an awesome discovery and the lurches into the surreal allow the viewers to see the marvels of existence with the same awe as Bella. The movie feels like it takes place in a science fiction universe of crazy visuals and the avant garde incorporation of past, present, and future. It makes every scene something to behold. This is his most visually decadent film of his career. The musical score by Jerskin Fendrix, a first-time film composer, and it works on a thematic level as trying to discover new kinds of sounds along with the journey of its heroine. However, there are sequences where the music feels like an assault on your ears. While intentional, the detours into abrasive dissonance can make one long for something less experimental and more traditional at least for the sake of your own sensitive eardrums.

Life can be decadent, it can be confusing, it can be ridiculous, it can be heartbreaking, it can be terrifying, but it’s an experience worth savoring and embracing, and this ultimately is the message of Poor Things. Stone is brilliant as she confidently carries us along for every moment of an exploration of what it means to be human, and with an ending that is so fitting and satisfying that I wanted to stand and applaud. For those squeamish from the heavy amounts of sexuality, Poor Things is at its core a very pro-life movie. It’s an inspiration to make you think one minute while making you snort laughing the next. May we all see the world with the voracious hunger and curiosity and boldness of Bella Baxter with her second chance at this one life.

Nate’s Grade: A

This review originally ran on Nate’s own review site Nathanzoebl. Check it out for hundreds of excellent reviews!

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