If one were to describe Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film, Poor Things (2023) in one word it would be weird. Of course, weird has many different connotations but in this case, I associate it with wacky, peculiar and fun. Lanthimos offers a brilliant insight into the alternative and vibrantly coloured world of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the subject of a mad scientist’s experiment about the creation of life. Bella’s very existence and story can be seen as a metaphor for the experience of a woman growing up in the patriarchy and if one were to simplify her journey it could be summarised as a journey of pleasure and pain. But Bella’s life is not simple, neither is it fundamentally shaped by her excursions into a man’s world. Rather, it is carved by her own wonder and yearning to live to the fullest.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography sees the first quarter of the film in black and white. This is Bella’s life before she is able to see the world and learn of all the marvels that will change the course of her very being. As soon as she begins exploring, the viewer is thrust into a beautiful palette of pastel pinks, warm yellows and ocean blues. The aesthetics of the film in general are well thought out, ingrained in the psyche of the protagonist. The black and white is akin to her being a blank slate, having not truly lived yet. As it moves to colour, the film crystallises Bella’s senses being overwhelmed as she travels the globe. When we see her interactions with Blessington, the colours become dull and more akin to our real world, leaving the distinctive fantasy the rest of the movie created. The mise-en-scène is further animated with the jaw-dropping costume design, inspired by Victorian patterns yet mixed with a modern campy twist. One need only look at Emma Stone’s long, dark hair or puffy dress to see the character’s otherworldly qualities, accentuated in every stylistic choice. Overall, the visuals were nothing less than awe-inspiring and unique, with each frame almost like a carefully crafted painting, arresting the viewer to the screen.
Perhaps the most captivating aspect of the film was its dedication to being as sexually provocative and foul-mouthed as possible. Bella indulges in all kinds of sexual exploits and Emma Stone doesn’t shy away from expressing it to the fullest. Lanthimos’ direction during sex scenes doesn’t cater to the male gaze and the camera prioritises showing Bella’s pleasure rather than the pleasure of the men she has sex with. This refreshing representation of female pleasure during intimacy challenges gender stereotypes in and out of Hollywood. As a woman, the depiction of sex and masturbation was masterful, idiosyncratic, and exciting, giving rarely addressed aspects of female desire time on the silver screen. The audience at the London Film Festival erupted with laughter as she picked up various foods to stimulate herself with. In many ways, this was a freeing portrait of a girl’s first exposure to the world of sex, shown in a pleasing, light-hearted fashion.
When it comes to pain, this too is delicately portrayed in the movie. In Mary Shelley’s iconic gothic novel, Frankenstein’s monster learns about the horrors of humanity and the world, himself slowly filling with rage and pain. Bella similarly experiences pain, whether witnessing grinding poverty or encountering sexism. However, she deals with it differently from the creature. Instead of hate consuming her, she sees these instances as ways to truly experience what it means to be alive. She shows kindness and hopes to make a change. Bella is hopeful and loving, and it is these qualities which separate her from some of her real “human” counterparts, namely Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). She is keen to find her place in the world, her desires, her pleasure and her pain. Lanthimos beautifully weaves this message together from Alasdair Gray’s original novel.
Nevertheless, the film does have some drawbacks. The film comes to a point, particularly in the second act, where it repeatedly drills its morals home whilst the viewer just wants the plot to move forward. Despite this, I wouldn’t say these sections are boring since we still have the astonishing mise-en-scène and cinematography to marvel at, as well as the wonderfully eccentric performances of the ensemble cast.
Talking about the cast, they pour their heart and soul into delivering bizarrely entertaining performances. Willem Dafoe and Ramy Youssef’s comedic timing is perfect. The two skillfully bounce off of each other to create some of the film’s most hilarious scenes. Mark Ruffalo lets loose as Duncan Wedderburn and every time he’s on screen the audience can’t help but burst out in laughter from his farcical display. Of course, the star of the show is Emma Stone who portrays the journey of a toddler growing up to become a woman with so much care and emotion that you can’t help but identify with her every step of the way. Bella Baxter becomes this sympathetic figure you root for, relate with, and deeply understand, largely due to Stone’s obvious affection for the character herself.
Poor Things is a must-watch if you are looking for a whimsically thought-provoking story and an incomparable feat of filmmaking. It is a wild ride that stands out as distinctively Lanthimos-esque and it’s sure to stay with you in many ways.
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Editor-in-Chief