Set in Victorian London — despite that being a nebulous classification given the imaginative articulation of various cityscapes — Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things introduces us to Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter. She lives with her mad scientist father figure, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe boasting a horrible scarred visage). Bella is a fully grown woman, but initially behaves like a child, throwing tantrums and babbling out nonsense. She refers to Baxter as “God,” which is not simply an indulgent nickname, but accurate seeing as she’s a creation of the career surgeon.
How Bella got here is for you to find out. Poor Things‘ backstory is too rich to spoil. Eventually, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), one of Godwin’s students, moves in to assist with his professor’s research, but ends up falling in love with Bella. Despite asking for her hand in marriage, Bella pivots and shacks up with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a caddish aristocrat who whisks her away on a tour of the world. Their journey together is defined by vigorous sex — which Bella refers to as “furious jumping” as soon as she discovers masturbation and intercourse — as Bella’s mind and mannerisms begin to mature.
Poor Things is the work of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, the same man who gave us such unapologetic weirdness with The Lobster and The Favourite (2018), and it’s his best film to date. As is the case with many of his films, the theme of Poor Things is one revolving around self-discovery and the human desire of connection. Bella simply wants to become her best self, and is unwilling to be controlled by God, Duncan, or anyone. She wants to be appreciated and loved, and once again Lanthimos creates an elegantly designed and decorated world only to fill it with ugly and unsavory human behavior.
Unlike in his past efforts, which were left untidy either due to their concepts not entirely converging with their themes or, in the case of The Favourite, found themselves a little too buttoned up, every aspect of Poor Things is fully realized and delightful. For one, this is one of the funniest movies of the year. Gut-bustingly hilarious, with lines of dialog from Bella and Duncan that left me laughing for minutes, screenwriter Tony McNamara (working off of Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name) finds humor in language both crass and proper.
These lines of dialog wouldn’t nearly be as comedically effective if they weren’t delivered by fine performers. Emma Stone gives a tour-de-force performance in a role that’s almost impossibly difficult. Stone starts out tasked with playing infantile and disorderly, and gradually must develop into a character that becomes more socialized. She accomplishes this while honing her fierce comic timing and retaining the childlike wonder integral to the character of Bella. Even when she’s a slob or a brat, Stone wins us over with her impeccable performative abilities.
Mark Ruffalo is unlike you’ve ever seen him before; equal parts charismatic and pathetic. The more time Duncan spends with Bella, and the more she becomes increasingly knowing and sexually liberate, the more desperate and unhinged he becomes. One of Ruffalo’s funniest moments comes on a cruise ship en route to Athens. After being perturbed by the sights of starving, enslaved children, Bella takes Duncan’s casino riches and does the unthinkable, sending her man into a tirade and rendering the two penniless in Paris.
It’s on this cruise ship where Bella meets a pair of traveling companions played by comedian Jerrod Carmichael and veteran actress Hanna Schygulla, who pack their extended cameos with charm and perspective that furthers our lead’s growth. In typical Lanthimos/McNamara fashion, there’s more than meets the eye with these characters, as Bella initially approaches the two of them at dinner and asks Schygulla how long it’s been since she’s had sex.
This is also Lanthimos’ most technically immersive film thus far. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is gorgeous and inspired with its various colors and textures. Poor Things initially begins in black and white when Bella is more infantile; fish-eye lenses give us a voyeuristic perspective that calls to attention the most obvious details of a scene. Soon, Ryan’s camera starts to imbue green and yellow hues on opposite ends of the screen, and eventually, when the setting opens up on the seas, the ensuing oceanic photography is liable to dazzle or haunt you, depending on how much you’ve bought into Lanthimos’ vision.
Holly Waddington’s costume design makes Emma Stone’s gowns a character themselves, be it simple puritanical dresses or ballgowns with enormously puffy sleeves. Production designers Shona Heath and James Price do an exceptional job at accentuating the differences in the various settings, such as a Lisbon hotel and resort versus a stuffy Paris brothel. Finally, Jerskin Fendrix’s explosively stringy score knows precisely when to chime in or suddenly stop for dramatic effect.
Lanthimos’ Poor Things actually has quite a bit in common with Barbie, another story of a woman’s quest for liberation and contentment with herself. This is the depraved and uncouth version of said story, but it’s all the means to a similar end. This one just so happens to involve the living personification of a suffocating patriarchy, a chloroform/gin cocktail, and a goat. Do yourself a favor and see this exquisite picture to solve that riddle.
NOTE: Poor Things is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, and Hanna Schygulla. Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!