Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos | Cast: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo, Margaret Qualley, Christopher Abbott, Ramy Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter | Fantasy Drama 141′
Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest offering, won’t be to everyone’s taste. In fact, despite its artful, fish-eye lensed wizardry, strange camera angles, kaleidoscopic images and gobbledegook dialogue, it may irritate the hell out you after the initial fascination.
Unfolding in black and white – until the heroine finally comes into her own in the second hour – Poor Things feels rather pleased with itself, as if the maverick Greek director is being perverse for the sake of perversity. It’s also doused in profanities, including ample use of the c-word that detracts from some of the clever writing – always a negative in my view.
This eighth feature is based on a literary award-winning work by the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray (1934-2019) and is adapted here for the screen by Tony McNamara who also scripted Lanthimos’ big success The Favourite. But Poor Things is far and away a less enjoyable film although it eventually comes into its own as a surreal female empowerment story with Sci-fi undertones.
Emma Stone is screen dynamite as the main character Bella Baxter, a young woman who undergoes a life-changing evolution after she brought is back to life, after attempting suicide, by the radical scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe with a Scots accent) who inhabits an Alice Wonderland style household with echoes of Dali and Magritte.
In Baxter’s weird Victorian home, Bella starts off mentally-challenged after the doc gives her the brain of own unborn child who has died in the accident, when Bella jumped from Tower Bridge. From then on she questions the Victorian world around her, and herein lies the humour: Bella is an adult child without inhibitions, constantly verbally and sexually challenging grown-up society and all its idiosyncrasies.
Bella’s state of grace makes her refreshingly honest and naive to the point of ridicule. And this candour is the key to her complete emancipation that comes about through total disregard for her gender and the social restraints of the era. Bella escapes from Dr Baxter’s household with the caddish Duncan Wedderburn (a superb Mark Ruffalo), and their peripatetic odyssey involves much debauchery, Bella having scant regard for her sexual probity as she experiments wildly with all sorts of men in a Parisian whorehouse. The two lovers enjoy unbridled graphic sex scenes with Bella burbling on in her strange speech patterns, like a female version of Robert Peston, only more so.
The whirlwind romance transports them all over Europe from Lisbon to Paris and finally London in sequences that reminded me of Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo. Freed from the prejudices of her era, Bella gains considerable agency and finally becomes a liberated woman of today. A brilliant premise and a visual knockout, but far, far too long for its own good at over 2 hours. MT
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 | GOLDEN LION WINNER 2023