Review: Poor Things

Beautiful, surreal, hilarious, dark, compelling. So very nearly perfect.

Bella Baxter, a creation of a surgeon who creates weird chimera lifeforms, wants to be free of her “father’s” trappings and explore the world. She galivants off with a debauched lawyer, to start a journey of self-discovery.

Poor Things has got a lot of coverage and promotion, uniquely for Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who is more within the independent cinema sphere. Cinema Cocoa reviewed another of his projects: The Lobster, a very bizarre movie. This new film, starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, and Mark Ruffalo, will definitely perplex and possibly gross out audiences unprepared for such avant garde cinema.

An 18-rated film absolutely. In fact, the film had a scene cut for it to even warrant the 18 rating in the United Kingdom. This cut is now the global version as well. The trailers and adverts show a weird, surreal but ornate movie, a period drama via steampunk fantasy. While those things are front and centre, the film is also quite a feminist movie, exuding idealist themes, and features a lot… a lot of sex. Or as Bella puts it: “Furious jumping”.

One of the many beautiful, weird, vistas.

Based off a book of the same name by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things can be described as a weird mix of Terry Gilliam’s visuals, Guillermo Del Toro’s character stories, and the quirkiness of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It may be difficult to discuss the film without giving most of the story away, so a spoiler warning will be coming later. But the short answer is that Poor Things is one of the most unique and compelling pieces of cinema seen in a long time.
The film has a dream-like quality in a great deal of aspects. Bella (Emma Stone) lives in the home of Godwin (Willem Dafoe) a facially disfigured surgeon, who summons one of his students to come and study Bella’s development and condition. The three of them live in luxurious isolation, supported by servants, and the film shows all of this in black and white. But when innocent, unfettered Bella demands to explore the world, and to do so with Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) a womanizing lawyer who lives a life of debauchery, the film explodes into colour.
Vibrant colour, but also surrealist set design and costume design. A twisted, fantastical vision of steampunk Victorian era that increasingly defies the rules of reality as the film continues. It is a beautifully designed movie with an awesome, swelling score full of weird, discordant music motifs.

The acting is very witty and compelling. Emma Stone plays the part of an empty-headed but strangely intelligent being very well. It is clear that throughout the film, she evolves and grows as an individual, from the experiences she has goes through. Willem Dafoe is perfect as the parental mad scientist; you cannot imagine anyone else in that role. But Mark Ruffalo (who initially was not comfortable in taking on the role) delivers some of the funniest lines in the film. There is a sense that everyone was working together and were comfortable with each other (Stone has worked with director Lanthimos before, and has a producer credit)

Of course, it isn’t entirely a comedy. The film is a coming of age story, with Bella going through a sexual awakening, but having a corrupt individual such as Duncan as her “teacher”. The film’s title does a service; not just the thrown away and shunned “monsters” in society, but also Bella herself, an innocent life being put through the wringer that is life. But despite it all, Bella wants to improve what is around her.

Willem Dafoe’s Godwin and Emma Stone’s Bella.

Now, we go into spoilers.

If all of that sounds compelling, Poor Things is recommended for you, and you should go see this film with as little information as possible.

The film’s imperfections are possibly of hand-waving exception, but audiences may focus in on them as huge, fundamental (and actually gross) miscalculations.

Bella is an experiment of Godwin’s, she even calls him “God”. Her body is actually her mother’s, and her brain is the mother’s baby’s. So, she is controlling her own mother’s body unknowingly. Growing into it. Now, this is compelling as a concept because it leads into mysteries to solve and possible liars to be revealed. However, the film is about sexual awakening… and Bella’s age is never explicitly stated.
This seems… like a huge oversight. Even a single line of dialogue could have fixed this, but for a lot of audiences the film may suggest an infant child‘s mind (or at least underaged child) is going on an adventure of sexual discovery. It simply cannot be intended so, but that is an unfortunate perspective to easily take.

The other drawback is the ending, which feels morally grey. After everything Bella has experienced and spoken of, it doesn’t feel like she ended up exactly where she should be.

However, in a film with such fantastical narrative and design, these things can be assumed to not be the case. The film is an ambitious, fun, intense, unique experience still. All of the performances work, even the supporting roles.
Maybe though, if you are sensitive to nudity (you see everything) bad language (they use all the words) and sex (this film is more or less soft-core porn) then don’t go see it. The film may advertise itself as a slightly unusual period drama, but it is certainly more than that.

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