POOR THINGS

★★★★

THE GLORY OF THE UNHINGED AND THE DELIGHT OF DISCOVERY IN YORGOS LANTHIMOS' LATEST

BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
29th October 2023

With many of the great contemporary directors, we go to their films with certain expectations of what we will get. Over their careers, they have developed strong voices and pursued powerful thematic concerns, so that each new entry in their filmography offers a new variation on their burgeoning voice. With Oscar-nominated Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos though, expectation flies out the window. Though there is connective thematic tissue between his films, for the most part each is wholly unique, taking us into realms of the absurd equal parts dazzling and unsettling. Lanthimos feels special, and it's to his and our great advantage that he has been allowed to embrace his unusual voice with his growing English-language career. This building goodwill climbs to new heights with 'Poor Things', his latest and most ambitious film, one that only a filmmaker as bonkers and passionate as Lanthimos could possibly pull off, leaving us gasping with delight as the credits roll at the end.

When Victorian medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youseff, 'Ramy') is invited to the house of his heavily deformed professor Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, 'The Lighthouse'), he is introduced to Bella (Emma Stone, 'La La Land'), an unusual and seemingly mentally challenged woman in Baxter's care. Tasked with observing Bella's development, Mr McCandles is soon let into the truth of Bella's origins by Dr Baxter - she is the body of a young woman who committed suicide, reanimated with her brain replaced by that of her unborn child. In essence, Bella has the brain of an infant in the body of a fully-grown woman. As Bella's brain begins to age, she yearns to experience more of the world, her adult appearance giving her greater access to adult experiences, especially those of sexual pleasure. Embarking off into the world with Dr Baxter's caddish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, 'Foxcatcher'), Bella finds her values of goodness and empathy heavily challenged by the cruelty of the world, a challenge her quickly-developing mind is determined to match and defeat.

Based on the award-winning 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray and written by 'The Favourite' co-writer Tony McNamara, 'Poor Things' not only sets itself up on a gloriously preposterous premise but then delivers on it again and again. The vision of the late 1800s created by production designers Shona Heath and James Price, along with costume designer Holly Waddington, is like something out of a storybook, bursting with pastel colours and impossible phantasmagorical detail. Lanthimos' films have often placed the absurd within an almost stifling reality to create a sharper juxtaposition, but here the ridiculous premise requires just as ridiculous a world for it to exist in. That the film fully commits to its vision only makes the metaphors at its centre all the more potent and powerful, creating a sense of satire that feels akin to Jonathan Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels' or Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando', where the fantastical speaks to the ills of contemporary society.

Much like those novels, 'Poor Things' is structured as a bildungsroman, charting Bella's journey from innocence to self-realisation. It's important to note that the film never presents Bella as an analogue for very real conditions of impaired intellectual or emotional development, but that of a literal child's brain in a literal adult's body. Her learning is never impaired (in fact, her ability with language, self-awareness and cognitive thinking are incredibly fast), and what this unusual premise offers is a fascinating commentary on the environmental and social pressures that are built into development to adulthood. We've seen young characters question the reasoning behind social behaviours or rituals with a blunt honesty before, but there's something unique and special about how this is explored in 'Poor Things' - Bella does not present as young, and as such she more fully challenges those social expectations. She is radical in that she can stand among adults as an adult and call behaviours into question.

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This includes her relationship with pleasure, the aspect of her development most fully explored. It transitions from the pleasures of power (breaking things, killing things, eating things) to the pleasures of the body. When her sexual appetites are questioned, she responds with genuine bafflement - why should something so enjoyable be frowned upon? The joy is that, despite the best efforts of those around her, Bella never succumbs to shame, instead seeing sexual pleasure as a form of enlightenment and freedom, the power to choose how one wishes to use their own body. This is especially potent when she is pitted against the parade of pompous men who surround her. In fact, it's quite some time into the film before we see any other major female characters apart from Bella - and when they do arrive, they come from the margins of civilised society (the older generation, sex workers, women of radical thinking) who celebrate her open mind and assertiveness. By contrast, she drives the men insane, her insistence on pushing against social expectations that cripple the freedom of women throwing their whole world view and their sense of their own importance into giddy, hysterical chaos. Impotence here is not the inability to get it up, but the fact their ability to get it up is all they have to offer. A lesser narrative would make this the slow destruction of Bella's individuality, but 'Poor Things' prefers to watch as her individuality slaps those in the face who wish to contain her.

One of the key motifs that runs through Lanthimos' films is a sense of entrapment, either physical (as in 'Dogtooth' or 'The Favourite') or emotional (as in 'The Lobster' or 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'). In most cases, the cage his characters are trapped in grows smaller and smaller as the film goes on, until we find them squashed into one another, their faces pushed grotesquely against the bars. Bella is also trapped in a cage, albeit a gilded one, but as the bars of her cage become clearer, so do does the path to escape. 'Poor Things' is a film without despair, even in the moments where we think it's about to rear its ugly head. One of the most wonderful sequences sees Bella faced with a choice we usually see as one of pure desperation, the lowest a person can be reduced to, and instead she sees it as an opportunity to learn, to experience, to gain further autonomy. What eventually shatters the cage is her refusal to see it as a cage. She's Sarah in 'Labyrinth' looking into the eyes of the Goblin King and proclaiming, "You have no power over me." If we look at her as a child coming into their own and asserting their existence as they reach adulthood, this is incredibly powerful. It is equally so if we view it as a woman asserting her autonomy in a patriarchal society where a hierarchy is expected to be adhered to and suffering accepted as a way of life. Perhaps another, better analogy might be that of Alice in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' - she stands in the middle of Victorian society in all its absurdity and cruelty, and calls it out for the bullshit it is.

Another of the film's deep pleasures is the time it gives to its philosophical musings. Like Woolf's Orlando, Bella uses her unusual experiences to consider her moral compass and the nature of right and wrong. This is further guided by the understanding of death and the body she gains from observing Dr Baxter. The body is simply flesh and blood, fallible and breakable, and so if it can fail at any moment, what is the reasoning for making that time more difficult than it needs to be. What truly horrifies Bella more than anything is unnecessary cruelty, particularly through economic, social or political power. She may enjoy inflicting bursts of violence on those around her (one threat of violence in particular had the whole cinema cackling with delight), but this is a bodily expression or experience. That is different from the choice to cause or allow longterm suffering on others.

What seals the deal though is the extraordinary performance from Emma Stone. The fact it may be her best performance yet mostly is made all the more ridiculous with what a high benchmark that already is, but here she grabs the role and the film with both hands and sprints with it.

All of this is expressed first in McNamara's tremendous screenplay, the culmination of the distinct voice he began developing through 'The Favourite' and into his glorious television series 'The Great'. Here, he finds the perfect balance between ornate poetic language, complex political thought, honest emotional expression and expletive-fuelled hysterical insults. There are endless mic drop one-liners throughout 'Poor Things', made all the more memorable by the skill of the cast and Lanthimos' exquisite timing. It's a relief to see that, not only has Lanthimos not relinquished any of his idiosyncrasies with a larger budget and canvas, but instead has doubled down on them. 'Poor Things' is perhaps his strangest film, both in the vision he has for Bella's world and the whiplash tone he employs as we wander through it. In almost every frame, there's something that makes you do a double-take, some bizarre little touch that will have you gasping in delighted surprise, but as with all his work, none of these oddities are there for the sake of it. There's logic behind everything Lanthimos does, and a work as vast as 'Poor Things' is all the better for it.

What seals the deal though is the extraordinary performance from Emma Stone. The fact it may be her best performance yet mostly is made all the more ridiculous with what a high benchmark that already is, but here she grabs the role and the film with both hands and sprints with it. She's hysterically funny, wonderfully strange and yet never insincere. It's Stone that fully sells the idea of Bella as a child rather than being child-like, understanding the weird idiosyncrasies that all children have in their early years, right through to petulant puberty and into early adult confidence. My favourite moment is the first time Bella is allowed to run around outside, when she would be around one and a half/two "years old". Just like a child who has just learned to walk and now has the chance to run for the first time, she thrown her body forward, the centre of gravity in her chest, her feet barely able to keep up with her primal need to move as fast as she can. I've always loved seeing little kids experience this moment for the first time, and it was miraculous seeing Stone recreate that sensation with full sincerity. The same level of detail is there in her grappling with Bella's developing understanding of language, capturing the joy a child feels as they begin to grasp the ability to communicate and the power that comes with gaining command of the language. This results in moments that are deep and profound, but also moments that are spectacularly blunt and outrageously funny, and Stone wields both with the expertise of a world-class fencer. If she wins a second Oscar for this performance, I'll be cheering.

As great as Stone is, the supporting cast is just as sublime. Dafoe brings a stately, homely parental warmth to Dr Baxter, even with his disfigured visage and truly absurd dialogue. Youseff is adorably bumbling as Mr McCandles, and late in the film, Christopher Abbott brings a surprising viciousness right when you least expect it. Jerrod Carmichael ('The Carmichael Show') also brings a refreshing bluntness and clarity as Harry Astley, a U.S. intellectual who is perhaps the only man in the film who respects and nurtures Bella's intellectualism and individuality. The standout of the male supporting cast though is Mark Ruffalo, who delivers an hysterical and completely unhinged performance as Mr Wedderburn. I don't remember ever seeing him this funny or this silly on-screen before, and as Bella's sense of self grows more certain, Mr Wedderburn comes apart more and more at the seams, one advancing to adulthood and the other collapsing into a tantrum-throwing, selfish man-child. Part of the joy of his performance comes from the surprise of it, but it's mostly from the unabashed commitment he gives to it.

I also want to make mention of the other three major female performances in the film apart from Stone's, each wonderful in their subtlety. The great Kathryn Hunter ('The Tragedy of Macbeth') shines as the French brothel madam Swiney, mixing gravitas and motherly love with a sharp edge and true grit. Suzy Bemba is terrific as Toinette, Bella's female companion in the latter half of the film who legitimises her burgeoning philosophical thoughts and helps give them direction. And at the other end of the spectrum is German screen legend Hanna Schygulla ('The Marriage of Maria Braun') as the wonderful older matron Martha von Kurtzroc, who offers advice to Bella from her autumn years and validating her need to embrace experiences.

I had high expectations going into 'Poor Things' from Yorgos Lanthimos' previous work, but the film more than meets them. It's a phantasmagorical marvel, a film that literally squeals with delight at every ridiculous detail and revels in the power of discovery. It maybe languishes in some moments a bit too long, but perhaps this is actually to its advantage. There's so much to devour and delight in here, and Lanthimos doesn't want an ounce of it wasted. Like 'The Favourite', I suspect this is a film that will get richer and richer with every revisit, blossoming into yet another modern classic from one of the most exciting filmmakers we have. Its brain may be unhinged, but the heart of 'Poor Things' is mighty. As we race towards the end of the year, it'll certainly stand as one of its best films.

Looking for more Brisbane International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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