In his second consecutive collaboration with Emma Stone, director Yorgos Lanthimos returns weirder than ever with his latest film, “Poor Things.”
“Poor Things” is the story of Bella Baxter (Stone), the brainchild of the unusual scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Holed up in his castle, Godwin’s new assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), is tasked with tracking Bella’s development, as her infantile brain tries to catch up with her grown body.
As Bella continues to rapidly mature, Godwin attempts to keep her in his custody by marrying her off to Max. While drawing up an alarmingly strict contract of marriage under Godwin’s orders, lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) investigates the castle to meet the elusive Bella Baxter for himself. With flowing black hair that grows an inch per day, the enigmatic Stone shines as Bella. Seeing the world through Bella’s eyes, and Lanthimos’ lens, we’re led on a phantasmal journey of self-discovery.
Deviating from his usual roles of soft spoken good guys (or green guys), Ruffalo is funnier than ever as the debaucherous lawyer, Duncan. Immediately intrigued by Bella, the sly Duncan aims to sweep her away from the Baxter castle, embarking on an adventure of hedonistic pleasures and lavish spoils. Quickly smitten, Duncan becomes yet another man who tries to contain and confine an unquenchably curious woman, hellbent on experiencing everything the world has to offer.
In “Poor Things,” Lanthimos paints the skies, exaggerates the architecture, and embellishes his players with dramatic costumes in ornately decorated rooms. He creates an over-the-top, theatrical world with intense visuals and outlandish set designs to show us how the newborn Bella sees the world. Despite the splendors that first surround her, Bella eventually learns that not everything is sunshine and roses; storms form, flowers wilt.
As Bella discovers darker truths, she stumbles upon the beguiling Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) in Paris. Hunter is just as alluring here as in her scene-stealing role of the three weird sisters in 2021’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Madame Swiney introduces Bella to another layer of reality and society. We descend with Bella from her sheltered life in Godwin’s castle atop a hill to the cities and lands of vice with Duncan and finally in the ominous arms of Madame Swiney. This final fall is what launches Bella into complete independence, and is where she truly begins to discover herself (as one does in Paris). The twists and turns are delivered tenfold from this point on as Bella’s origins, motivations, and destiny are put into question.
Lanthimos’ popular 2015 film, “The Lobster,” introduced new viewers to his quirks, dark humor, and tendency to let things linger. Lanthimos doubled down on the tragedy and doom in 2017’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a psychological thriller and breakout performance for the bone-chilling Barry Keoghan. In 2018’s “The Favourite,” Yorgos finally has a little fun, this time with three powerhouse performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone–all nominated for best actress in their respective categories, with Colman winning. “Poor Things” continues the trend of Lanthimos turning the camera towards complex female characters and exploring all that lies within them, and it pays off. Emma Stone is a force to be reckoned with as Bella Baxter.
In a career-cementing film, “Poor Things” is another example of Lanthimos’ filmmaking mastery. You won’t find another film this year with this much textural vibrancy, character depth, and just plain old-fashioned, frolicking good fun. Plus, with the sheer number of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, the palpable on-screen chemistry, awe-inspiring imagery, and Willem Dafoe basically playing himself–oh, and sex, lots of sex–it’s a good time for all.
“Poor Things” is playing now at the Varsity Cinema.
— Kasey Dunifer