Poor Things (Ireland/United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

December 04, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Poor Things Poster

Is Poor Things a fantasy with comedic elements? Or perhaps, considering its Frankenstein underpinnings, a horror movie? Or maybe a drama that promotes feminist ideals and libertine philosophies? In reality, it may be all of those things…and more. Most importantly, it is a breath of fresh air, a truly original motion picture that breezes into theater auditoriums and blows away the stale stench of stagnancy that has characterized far too many of 2023’s releases. What more can one reasonably expect from Greek-born Yorgos Lanthimos, a filmmaker who refuses to play by the rules and can add this to an eclectic filmography that includes such titles as The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Favourite?

Poor Things might be considered a “return to form” for Lanthimos, whose previous effort, The Favourite, was as close to conventional as the director might ever come. Poor Things transpires in a bizarre alternate reality where a Frankenstein-like medical scientist named Dr. Godwin Baxter (a.k.a. “God,” played by Willem Dafoe), whose face looks more like Boris Karloff (with its patchwork of scars) than Colin Clive, has discovered the secret of animating dead bodies. The year in which the events transpire is allegedly 1800 but Lanthimos has taken liberties with many things and his re-imagining of various settings – Lisbon, London, Paris, a cruise ship, etc. – are hyper-stylized. This isn’t about historical recreation, it’s about artistic license and it works wonderfully to emphasize the unreality of the story.

Dr. Baxter’s prize experiment is Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), his “daughter.” The original Bella committed suicide while pregnant. Baxter was able to remove the brain of the unborn infant and implant it in the mother. When the movie opens, he is in the process of teaching the woman-child the basics of mobility and language. To assist him, he recruits a young medical student, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who makes a meticulous log of Bella’s progress while falling in love with her. Once she is sufficiently independent to speak for herself, she agrees to Max’s proposal of marriage, but there is a condition. She wants to see (and experience) the world. All-too-willing to help her in this adventure is the cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who plans to use her for sex then dump her in some foreign country. Things don’t go exactly as planned, however. Bella proves to be sexually insatiable, wearing out poor Duncan, and he falls head-over-heels for her while she views him as little more than a means to provide her with carnal pleasure. As they travel around Europe, Duncan becomes increasingly desperate while Bella gradually loses interest in him as she explores her sexuality in increasingly extreme fashions.

Poor Things is darkly funny and deliciously raunchy. It is as anti-Puritanical as one can imagine a film being. It bucks the current motion picture trend of keeping nudity off-screen. This isn’t gratuitous nakedness – Bella’s character development is all about her discovering sex and she never has any shame about her body or exploring new avenues of pleasure. It goes without saying that Stone will earn an Oscar nomination (at the least) for this performance. It’s easily the most challenging role of her career and arguably a better example of her skills than the one for which she previously won a little gold man (that would be La La Land). Mark Ruffalo is the perfect comedic foil for her. Willem Dafoe once again plays a warped, twisted individual, although this time there’s a soft, mushy center at the heart of his monstrosity. Other notable supporting cast members include Kathryn Hunter as the madame at the Paris brothel where Bella finds employment, Christopher Abbott as a dark figure from Bella’s past, and Margaret Qualley as Bella’s “younger sister,” Felicity.

Visually, Poor Things is a feast, with Lanthimos constantly engaging viewers with its imagery. The early scenes, which transpire within the cloistered confines of Baxter’s demesne, are presented in black-and-white, unsubtly recalling the gothic look of the classic Universal monster movies. Once Bella has moved into the outside world, the palette becomes rich with a variety of hues. Costumes and set design feed into the aesthetic. And, as has been his trademark, the director frequently employs fish-eye lenses to give certain scenes a warped appearance.

The comedy is bold, sometimes macabre, and often in a Monty Python-esque vein. There are serious aspects to the storyline and Poor Things isn’t shy about making a point about the importance of a woman having control over her body. There’s also a pro-libertine, pro-atheist aspect.

The best thing about Poor Things isn’t the impeccable attention to detail, the well-realized screenplay, or the strong performances. It’s that this movie, more than almost every other 2023 title, challenges the kind of by-the-numbers approach that has dominated multiplex fare (with the only apparent counterpoint being self-important, pretentious “art films” whose entertainment value is virtually nonexistent). Poor Things offers an opportunity for cinematic discovery. It’s brave, unconventional, and unique and easily one of the year’s best.

Poor Things (Ireland/United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:21
U.S. Release Date: 2023-12-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: Fantasy/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1