Anyone paying attention to the career of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos might have assumed he was veering away from his weirder efforts—Dogtooth, Killing of a Sacred Deer—after his Oscar-winning “mainstream” outing, The Favourite. Had the surreal-leaning director lost his edge? I mean… no, of course not. Just watch his latest, Poor Things, an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name. The movie is a wickedly funny, supremely subversive look at gender roles and sexuality through the lens of Victorian horror. It’s good shit, is what I’m saying.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the movie has a pseudo Frankenstein vibe. Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a scientist who specializes in vivisection and splicing animal parts together, makes a woman he names Bella (Emma Stone). Though a fully grown adult, she begins the story with the mind of a child. Dr. Baxter aims to observe her and her ability to learn, employing a medical student (Ramy Youssef) to take notes for him. In the most unsubtle of touches, Bella calls Dr. Baxter “God,” and in keeping with that moniker, he’s withholding and fairly patrician.
As Bella learns—quite quickly it should be said—she discovers her own bodily functions and urges, and eventually a cad named Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo in an outrageously funny and sad performance) whisks her away for a sex-fueled trip around the world. But Bella won’t be contained, and does what she wants, unmoored by the trappings of polite society. She reads philosophers and poetry and begins to learn who and what she is, all the while various men in her life seek to control her for their own selfish and rather petty reasons. It’s the Victorian era, let us not forget.
Lanthimos creates a gorgeous, heightened world for Bella to inhabit, period appropriate but never realistic as such. The world needs to look strange and new and vibrant because Bella is seeing everything for the first time. The whole movie has a glorious artifice to it for most of the runtime. Each segment of Bella’s adventures has its own visual style and color scheme. God’s house is drab and cold, while Monte Carlo is bold and colorful like a painting.
Poor Things has a certain amount of cringe to it at the beginning with regard to how men leer at Bella, who has the mind of a child. It’s creepy. But that’s the point. As she begins to learn and question, she decides she needs sexual gratification but not the stigma or ownership men place on it. Duncan may think she’s his plaything but quickly he has to learn he’s actually hers. This does not sit well with him, even though the circumstances have hardly changed. One of the major themes of the movie is how men have traditionally commodified women and sexual conquest of them but always to the detriment of the women in question. Bella refuses to be exploited or controlled.
If I have one complaint about the movie it’s that I think it gilds the lily a bit toward the end. The final vignette, in which a brand new character appears who has ties to the overall plot but had never existed previously, shows up and throws a wrench in Bella’s works. It’s not a bad sequence, but I felt as though it didn’t ultimately change anything other than to provide one last horrible man for Bella to overcome. Far be it from me to say a movie is too long. I just felt like nothing truly new or revelatory came out of this part. Ultimately it just added 20 minutes.
That aside, Poor Things is one of my favorite movies of 2023. The world Lanthimos creates is so vivid and strange while the themes it explores are so universal. Anyone iffy about sex scenes should be aware Poor Things has a lot of them. As the movie is about destigmatizing sexuality, and specifically women’s sexuality, they’re integral to Bella’s journey. The shock wears off. People are both base and enlightened, carnal and intellectual. If you engage with the movie on those levels—and marvel at the weirdness—you’ll probably love it too.
Poor Things opens December 8.