4 Stars

Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos’s adoration for surrealist aesthetics and edgy material is apparent once again in Poor Things, this time showing a fascination for silent movie aesthetics and highly stylized artificial settings with racy themes on sexuality, desire, and feminism, which is very much in the vein of vintage Ken Russell, Terry Gilliam, and Guy Maddin. By far the most ambitious and grandiose piece by Lanthimos yet, this wickedly funny, at times gleeful Victoria-era fantastical tale is initially amusing, but, as it progresses, it becomes more eccentric as it breaks beyond Lanthimos’s often cynical approaches and peculiarities.

Arguably Lanthimos’s most commanding film, and while this film will certainly ruffle some feathers with its exploration of desire, sexual liberation, and equality, Poor Things has a more shimmer of hope in the third act than some of Lanthimos previous films, which often end on an austere and ambiguous note. While this one certainly gallops on some provocations about human sexuality, Lanthimos always maintains buoyancy in the pacing and visual inventiveness of the film.

Poor Things (2023) - IMDb Courtesy Searchlight

Based on the 1992 novel by Scottish author Alasdair Gray and adapted by Lanthimos regular writing collaborator Tony McNamara (The Favourite), the story takes place in London, England, chosen as the place of mad science, which could be billed as the 19th century Victoria era feminist Frankenstein, but the tone becomes very otherworldly with its wonderland setting.

It’s a film that has a lot of moments, scenes, and sequences involving fornication, where the sex is also consensual and mirthful but never erotic or sexy. Yet it’s Emma Stone’s fearless performance of Bella Baxter, which is both amusing and oddly charming, that enriches the film’s exuberance and spontaneous spirit. It’s a film where her character arc begins aloof at first and pivots itself into an episodic saga of self-discovery and sexual liberation, which Bella refers to as “furious jumping” in this racy odyssey to her awakening and consciousness.

New Trailer for Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe's Frankenstein-Inspired Film POOR THINGS — GeekTyrant Courtesy Searchlight

In this decorous dramatic fantasy, we are first introduced to Bella being sheltered from the outside world by her creator, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a mad scientist with heavy scars around his face who, after being subjected to failed tests that went away from his own scientist father, ends up becoming like a father figure to Bella. It’s been realized that Bella jumped off a bridge, and Dr. Baxter found Bella pregnant and dead on the riverbank. After reanimating Bella’s corpse with the brain of the dead fetus, he brings Bella back to life, though she now has the consciousness of a newborn that quickly evolves and catches up with Bella’s anatomy.

Perplexed and equally fascinated, a pupil of Dr. Baxter named Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef) ends up studying Bella and forms an attachment with her. Meanwhile, Bella ends up having sexual urges, yet Max doesn’t want to exploit or take advantage of the situation. It doesn’t stop Dr. Baxter’s attorney, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who notices her libido and acts on the opportunity to satisfy his physical needs. Duncan persuades Bella to go on a trip throughout Europe that begins in Lisbon, goes to Alexandra, and ends in Paris. We observe Bella’s evolution and growth in the wryest ways. We see her talk like a child with broken sentences in which she listens and speaks in literal terms to eventually philosophizing about the world’s inequalities. As the film progresses, so does Bella, and it’s remarkable how it unfolds. We see the social norms and mores at play, and Bella eventually learns about the world and humankind through the places she sees and people she encounters.

Poor Things' review: Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo deliver a horny-as-hell spin on 'Frankenstein' | Mashable Courtesy Searchlight

Actually, one of the most memorable exchanges in the film is her encounter with Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael), a libertine on a ship with an elderly woman who reveals to Bella an impoverished underworld, where Bella notices people and children suffering in a pit with no resources. It gives her an unsettled and unpleasant feeling and seems like the subsequent chance for her to change things after she robs Duncan’s gambling money to give to the poor, where the dock workers of the ship claim they will give the civilization the currency, which is apparent that they won’t. After getting kicked off the ship, they end up in a wintry Paris, where Bella turns to the world’s oldest profession in a brothel for food and shelter.

It is a decision where Bella finds the most growth, not just in her autonomy but in her consciousness as well. It’s also the part of the narrative where Bella finds her own freedom and discovers much about herself. Duncan is every bit as infant as Bella was in her early stages of the story, and she begins to make plans to continue her own liberation in her life. Ruffalo’s performance is quite At the brothel, she makes friends, finds out what sexually works and doesn’t work for her, and she finds herself yearning for a deeper purpose. She discovers more impulses and becomes more invincible to the social norms that have been bestowed upon the world. She also builds up a friendship with the brothel’s Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) in which Stone and Swiney hold some reflective and oddly comforting scenes.

Poor Things Courtesy Searchlight

Stylistically, Lanthimos’s film accomplishes his most assured goal of creating a seamless, artificial world that is benefited by Robbie Ryan’s astonishing cinematography, which consists of fish-eye lenses, irises, candid angles, and other well-designed shots that switch from black and white to color. Not surprising, the film’s production design and wardrobe have a lot of leeway with its otherworldly setting, which has elements of surrealism, period drama, and sci-fi. Even the wardrobe by Holly Waddington plays out like a secondary character in the film that holds many textures of Bella’s various stages in her body and psyche.

This is the first indication to Lanthimos’s cinema inspiration: it’s a postmodern update of German Expressionism that also draws on inspirations from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and makes sublime use of its artifice and hermetic settings. Lanthimos utilizes these settings by isolating Bella’s emotional entrapment in a world where she yearns to be free while simultaneously examining a cruel world that consists of class warfare, moral divisiveness, and patriarchy. The third act with Bella’s ex-husband (Christopher Abbott), where we learn about her past, presents itself as terrifying as we get glimpses of the throngs of their past. Abbot and Stone’s scenes together are brilliant, and you find yourself even more emotionally invested with Bella’s well-being.

Somehow, even without the rich style, it all feels like a revelatory film about breaking free from a world of control and possession. This is the same approach Lanthimos has taken before with Dogtooth and The Lobster, which is charged with dense themes and an uncanny vision where our lives aren’t our own; we serve at the mercy of customs, mores, and conventions. The surrealist mood of Lanthimos Poor Things is greatly benefited by the performance of Stone, an actress of immense skill and serious fearlessness. Stone, who had a supporting but memorable role in The Favorite, creates a remarkably layered performance that comes with many variations for Bella, and yet she layers the connections with such banter, wit, and precision that she seems just as astounded as we do as we see her character progress throughout the course of the film. Lanthimos and Stone prove once again that they make great collaborators. You can sense a trust between them that keeps the evocative material from ever feeling exploitative or in bad taste. Yes, the risqué material will certainly drive some way, but it makes for an oddly enchanting and mesmerizing experience.

Poor Things opens in limited theaters Friday, December 8th, it will open wide on Friday, December 22nd.