Yorgos Lanthimos has made a career out of dissecting various aspects of society, and always using the most bizarre extremes as focal points. That changed, sort of, with The Favourite, which took a certain slice of society and gave the existing bizarre extremes their head. With Poor Things, a Frankenstein-esque set of circumstances begins an entire journey of cultural postmortem that somehow manages to become both calculatingly unsettling in its unending mores destruction, and nearly blase about its own effort to do so.
Somewhere in a mildly fantastical version of Victorian London, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) takes on a new assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who discovers that Baxter has a sort of ward in Bella Baxter (Emma Stone). Though there are several roads of examination throughout the film, Bella is the sci-fi contrivance unleashed upon the world. It is soon revealed that Baxter discovered Bella after she jumped from a bridge, and he brought her back to life by transplanting into her the brain of the baby she was carrying. Thus, a child’s perspective gets the chance to absorb reality as an adult… or whatever.
Bella “grows” as we move with her, at first under the watchful eye of McCandles, who is fascinated by her and keen to expand her vocabulary, and eventually as she travels with the largely buffoonish lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who cannot fathom his failure to shackle her into various gender ideals. By turns, Bella stares blankly at sexuality, class hierarchy, myriad ethical questions nailed in place by society, and even a kind of uber-misogyny which quickly seems not to have had to strain very hard with the hyperbole.
As if attaching to Bella like wings, Lanthimos’ keen eye for visual oddity and splendor delivers a world almost eerily of Bella’s own perspective of wonder (or horror). Cruise ships are bulbous and magical. Ivory towers loom over the poor who wail in hellscape trenches at the bottom of stairways that don’t actually extend far enough to reach them. Skies, flowers, and animals are as much candy floss as anything, and interchanging their bits just doesn’t seem that odd.
Emma Stone, whether she wins awards or not, will probably never manage anything close to the appreciation deserved for a stunning delivery of a character previously unattempted or imagined. From the seemingly simple, childlike “why?” response to the curiosities of “norms” which seem to run directly counter to impulse without reason, to the rapid-fire discourse of someone channeling philosophy with no real experience to view it through. Bella moves through our world of expectations and assumptions, with nothing to go on, and as odd as she is, it’s hard to argue with her. Delivering this, in thousands of small moments, reactions, and emotions, and making it even approach believability is a level of difficulty that is rarely even possible to attempt.
This is not even to speak of the layers of confused, disheveled, inept humanity that dwell in Dr. Baxter, his relationship with Bella, the doe-eyed McCandles, or Duncan and his utterly flappable existence that is papered over with a cheesecloth “man” facade.
There are times when the tidal wave of purple prose seems to run away with Lanthimos, which leaves certain scenes playing on beyond their purpose, but the overall story that encompasses so much while never wholly straying away from simply spinning a yarn of, perhaps, unfettered womanhood, is so refreshing and served up so unapologetically that it hardly matters. It’s a visual feast of dazzling proportions that at times reminds of the sensibility of Tarsem Singh’s 2006 effort, The Fall, and if it stumbles occasionally in the attempt to truly mesmerize, so be it.
Like several of his other efforts (Dogtooth and The Lobster spring to mind), Poor Things uses simply a kind of mad viewpoint as its sci-fi/fantasy foil, taking you out of what makes sense in order to get you finally to focus on the most mundane ideas. Here, the technique becomes all the more jarring because the unsettling juxtaposition of realities doesn’t involve a bizarre take on the after life, or psychotic extremes of the family unit (or comparing existence in worlds wherein superpowers exist,etc.), but instead just the hopelessly wild maneuver of wondering about simply letting women (and people) be.