Poor Things is an esoteric film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite). This visually stunning and thought-provoking movie is based on a book of the same name, written by Alasdair Gray, and stars Emma Stone (La La Land), Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Ramy Youssef (Wish), Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), Kathryn Hunter (The Tragedy of Macbeth), and Jerrod Carmichael (The Disaster Artist).
The story revolves around Bella Baxter (Stone), a distraught woman who jumped off a bridge but is brought back to life by Dr. Godwin Baxter (Dafoe) in an unorthodox way (think Frankenstein). In the process, he swaps out her brain with one of an infant. When she awakens, Bella relearns the world around her, with the mind of a child but the body of a woman. Bella is eager to experience whatever she can, but because Baxter keeps her sheltered, she doesn’t know much of the outside world. That is, until she meets Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo) who sweeps her off her feet and takes her on a whirlwind adventure while also being the impetus for her sexual awakening. What will become of Bella?
Lanthimos and Stone (who also produced) take us on our own marvelous journey in this wild arthouse film. The settings and locations are reminiscent of older movies filmed on soundstages and with establishing shots consisting of stop motion animation. While the rather fantastical elements of Poor Things are done digitally, it does have a nostalgic feel, somewhat similar to Wes Anderson’s style. But while Anderson’s style is more whimsical and scripted to make the audience think and laugh, Poor Things is fanciful and created to make the audience think, laugh, and feel uncomfortable.
All four of the main leads (Stone, Ruffalo, Dafoe, and Youssef) are excellent in their roles. Stone shines as Bella. Her eyes are wonderous, curious, and innocent throughout most of the film. The audience sees Bella grow emotionally, and intellectually through Stone’s subtle changes in her facial expressions and movements. Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn also goes through a transformation, going from charismatic playboy to near-Nicolas Cage-level outbursts because of what Bella does to him. Ruffalo does this masterfully as his performance is both sad and comically endearing.
Dafoe and Youssef play off of each other well and have interesting and lovable characters. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t delve into their backgrounds much. While Dafoe’s Godwin Baxter can be left somewhat mysterious as a mad scientist, Max McCandles (Youssef) isn’t made to be complex or mysterious. Yes, he is a stoic and sweet character, but the audience doesn’t know anything outside of that. Why does he love Bella? What does he do in her absence?
Poor Things isn’t for the faint of heart. There are explicit sex scenes and graphic operation sequences (though not medically correct) in Baxter’s laboratory and at the university. All of this isn’t taken lightly in the movie. Through Bella, the audience grapples with the ideas around women’s sexuality, the loss of identity, and independence. A problematic plot point the audience might find too disturbing is what Bella does (sexually) before her mind fully develops and matures. This topic is not addressed in the movie.
All in all, if moviegoers are okay with the sexually explicit scenes and gore, the film is an interesting take on the Frankenstein story, feminism, and is filled with excellent performances. There are plenty of scenes which will make the audience think as well as laugh. The fantastical settings are a treat to view in theaters, although those who may feel too bashful to watch explicit scenes next to strangers might be more comfortable viewing it at home.