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Poor Things

Emma Stone delivers a career high in Yorgos Lanthimos' latest



Yorgos Lanthimos is a director that has quickly instituted a style of absurdism in his films; donning a mocking and goofy attitude in his narrative, yet having his actors play them straight. This polarizing style has delivered personally thought-provoking films such as The Lobster (2015) and The Favourite (2018).

 

Poor Things (2023) is adapted from a novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray. It follows Bella (Emma Stone) a pregnant woman in 19th century London who committed suicide. Bella was resuscitated by the mad, scarred scientist Godwin (Willem Dafoe) who replaces her brain with that of her unborn child. Bella, thus, has the incongruity of a child’s mind in an adult body.

 

Poor Things is more of a philosophical ponderance than a sci-fi or adventure film. It clearly takes heavy inspiration from Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” and is curiously the best adaptation of the novel for the screen to date. The Creature in Shelly’s novel embarks on a journey of discovering the world’s cruelties and beauties in a short amount of time, such is the case with the character of Bella. I always found the journey that The Creature took more fascinating than the troubles of Dr. Frankenstein, the latter of which the novel entraps itself in, similar to Gray’s source novel. Lanthimos gratefully tweaks this element of the adaptation and focuses his attention on Bella’s exploration instead. This allows the Greek director to pepper Bella’s journey of self-discovery with other philosophical texts, such as Voltaire’s “Candide,” even setting the second act largely in Lisbon and on a ship.

 

The script, from Lanthimos collaborator and The Great (2020-2023) creator, Tony McNamara is pinpoint perfect, not only in its narrative pivot to Bella, but in its exploration of language and the precise use of words and phrases. It’s the type of introspection into our attitudes and customs that alien-visitation films sometimes hint at, yet is fully explored in Poor Things. The journey of Bella’s curiosity becomes somewhat lost in its third act, when Lanthimos and McNamara entrench themselves in a redundant analysis of sex’s role in society. There is also a discordant divergence in the finale that tacks on an unnecessary 20 minutes that remphasize previous points rather than progressing the story or character. This weighs on Poor Things’ 2 hours and 21-minute runtime; their excision would have led to a crisper and perfect film.

 

Lanthimos’ absurdist style stretches this time to his visual aesthetic as well. The set designs, costumes, visual effects, cinematography, and music have the air of an incongruous collage. As Bella becomes more in tune with who she wants to be in the narrative, the visual style changes along with it, the soundtrack, initially discordant strings, starts to resemble a melody, costumes begin to match in color, and camera shots become more stable. This transformation is carefully choreographed to the last detail yet might be unappreciated amidst the visual cornucopia onscreen.

 

Lanthimos and McNamara’s films have always attracted hungry talent, fascinated with playing their absurdism. However, words fall short of the work that Stone delivers in Poor Things. The American actress is tasked with embodying the human experience, from infancy to adolesence and beyond, with only the smallest of increments happening from scene to scene. Stone brings every facet of her being to this performance, from her own body, waddling like a child in her first scenes to her careful delivery of lines. The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well however, it is Mark Ruffalo who stands out, delivering a completely different and deliciously sleazy performance than what we’re used from him. Ruffalo, who plays a conniving womanizer taking advantage of Bella’s naivete, nails Lanthimos’ tone and style in a way no other performer has done. His holding of uncomfortable pauses, subtle comedic flourishes, and delicate flitting of repellence with charisma makes for boundary breaking performance.

 

In the end, Poor Things is a unique watch, bringing Lanthimos’ style to a head narratively as well as visually. The first two acts prove to be a pure philosophy and the closest anyone has gotten to properly adapt Shelly, yet Lanthimos and McNamara falter with redundancies in the third act, unnecessarily lengthening the runtime. That said, the jaw-dropping performances from an unconquerable Stone and an unrecognizable Ruffalo are so spellbinding, you don’t mind staying to watch them a bit longer.

8.6/10

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About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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