Poor Things | Review by: Amanda Guarragi

When asked to engage with media, we must look beyond what’s on the surface. There needs to be this human connection to ground the characters in the reality they are surrounded by. No matter how obscure the production or how the characters look, the commentary about feelings, society and life will make the project more effective. The one director who consistently subverts expectations but explores the human condition through absurdity is Yorgos Lanthimos. His films like The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite all have characters in odd situations as they explore connections with those around them. In his most recent feature, Poor Things, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is a science experiment; she is a woman brought back to life by the unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). The film is experimental and brilliant in every sense as Bella starts her life from scratch in an adult body. The film is based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, a postmodern revision of Frankenstein through a feminist lens. 

Lanthimos begins his film in stunning colour with a steely blue overtop as a woman climbs out of a window onto a rooftop. She is wearing this rich, royal blue gown with her long raven hair wrapped in an up-do. She emptily stares at the horizon, hopeless. She takes her own life, and Dr. Godwin Baxter finds her washed up on shore. The film then cuts to black and white while Bella Baxter is reborn in her new life. Dr. Goodwin Baxter appeared as a God to Bella, the only father figure who would protect her. The obscurity of the first act was Bella acting and speaking like a newborn. Even the production design within Dr. Goodwin’s home felt large in scale compared to the size of Bella. Lanthimos played with the scale to create that connection of Bella being perceived as an infant. For example, the wooden chair at the dinner table was twice her size. Emma Stone felt free to do whatever she felt would physically work at this stage in Bella’s life. Her physicality, outbursts and diction all worked for the newborn she was trying to convey. It was fascinating to see Bella absorbing everything and becoming more intelligent. 

Once Bella moved into her adolescent years, she posed challenging questions about life that Dr. Goodwin refused to answer. He saw her as his creation and wanted to keep her in a safe bubble because she was his. Bella’s curiosity is the driving force of this film as she keeps pushing the boundaries. Dr. Goodwin would even monitor a simple walk in the park for Bella, and she had grown tired of being sheltered. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan creates beautiful symmetry in each frame as Bella becomes the centre of her world. The fish eye lens that was used symbolizes Bella being trapped physically or mentally as she attempts to break through the rules of Dr. Goodwin and society. There are moments throughout where Bella is stuck in a situation, and the lens appears, or spheres are very prominent around her. Each time she learned new information and came to a new realization about gender norms and the patriarchy, her bubble would pop. The fish eye lens is used to show Bella feeling small in the world, and when she breaks free, her spirit fills the screen. 

By the third act, Bella holds full autonomy, and the world feels large in scale. She feels like she can do anything without holding back. This is where Tony McNamara’s script truly shines. His writing is sharp, hilarious, and educational. Through the eyes of Bella, McNamara highlights the patriarchal society that everyone abides by. Bella is accustomed to doing what she wants and being outspoken when defying these rules. McNamara questions the definition of freedom and what it means to be part of society. When Bella has her sexual awakening as a sex worker in Paris, she uses her body as her tool. This shows her growth from being an experiment and not having control of her body to understanding her body and sexual urges. Stone’s performance is the best of her career because of the lengths she goes with her physical acting and how abrupt her line delivery is. The chemistry between Bella and Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) is absolute perfection, especially when they start arguing about class structure. Ruffalo hasn’t been this good since Zodiac, and it was incredible to watch. Wedderburn wants a wife and doesn’t understand that Bella has a younger mindset. 

Poor Things is one of the most daring films this year. Lanthimos explores the life of a woman who was given a second chance to live a life she wanted. In her past life, Bella had to make a decision based on how unhappy she was in her marriage, and she unfortunately had to make the decision again. What McNamara and Lanthimos express is that women can be anything they want. They can learn, adapt, and grow. They are constantly changing because of the world around them, and it’s important to have the opportunity to explore every avenue. For Bella to become a well-rounded person, she must experience different feelings of joy, pain, grief, and love. Stone gives the performance of her career in her most physical role to date. On the surface, like many Lanthimos films, it may be too absurd for people unfamiliar with his work. But the discussions about class, feminism, agency, and how the patriarchy destroys the evolution of the world are all incredibly well-written and executed for audiences to connect with the characters. This has one of the best final scenes this year, as it accurately depicts the perception of men and women. 


Review by: Amanda Guarragi

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