A mashup Victorian melodrama with a sting in the tale, Poor Things’ greatest trick is hiding the seams.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ first film since 2018’s The Favourite, Poor Things is a female Bildungsroman in which a still-developing young woman goes into the world to find herself. The crucial element: that the woman in question, Bella (Emma Stone), is Frankenstein’s Monster.
Well, not quite; though Alasdair Grey’s novel, on which the film is based, clearly draws inspiration from Mary Shelley.
Instead, Poor Things is altogether more complicated a creature. For one, it is her “creator”, the unsentimental Doctor Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who bears the scars. Bella is beautiful, despite her stiff-limbed tottering and childlike affect. She’s also clearly an innocent, which draws men to her, like Baxter’s guileless, genuinely decent assistant (Ramy Youssef) and a sleazy, self-amused cad, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo).
Undergoing a sexual awakening, and no longer willing to be confined to Baxter’s lab, Bella proves herself more than a match for the men, benign or otherwise, who try to exert their will on her.
Alternating between radiant b-&-w cinematography and vibrant, textured color, Poor Things is a glowing, fantastical concoction. A comedy of manners executed with Gillamesque grotesquery and Andersonian exactitude, it’s odd, obscene, energetic, and deeply funny, with a score by Jerskin Fendrix that sounds like an orchestra warming up. For me, it’s a film whose pleasures lay in discovery.
Stone, with that black hair and those dark, expressive eyes, was a revelation; even in the context of an already storied, surprising career. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, particularly Ruffalo, in a camp but studied performance that’s both vain and vanity-free; aided by a vague sense of the uncanny that comes from recognisable American actors affecting British accents, like Dafoe’s Scottish burr.
Poor Things is a film simultaneously more ambitious and more focused than any Lathimos has directed before. Reportedly in development hell since 2009, it’s a complete and fulfilling vision, often fish-eye lensed, that lends itself to adjectives and superlatives. You certainly won’t see anything else like it in the cinema this year, and you should, you really should, see it.