By Jacob Thomas Jones
Yorgos Lanthimos, to those familiar with his work, is one of the most striking voices in cinema. Having risen from Dogtooth all the way to Oscar winner The Favourite, his style of direction and storytelling has been one many other artists have sought not simply to emulate, but to embody. The quirks of his characters, the oft atonal yet spellbinding nature of his composers’ musical scores, the unconventionally enrapturing cinematography – all of these set Lanthimos apart, in a league entirely his own such that anyone seeking to copy his style appears at best unprepared and, at worst, a fool. Each time a film of his releases, one gets the distinct sense that no other artist in the world could pull these things off in exactly the way he does; in truth, he is the very definition of a “visionary filmmaker.”
With Poor Things, his latest release starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, and Kathryn Hunter, Lanthimos seeks once more to introduce his audience to a world entirely unique to the silver screen and to characters whose beings blossom there before our very eyes. Not only does he succeed in this endeavor (and then some), but there may not have been more appropriate material for such an enterprise. Being in the middle of the Poor Things book, I can say without a doubt that the source material could not be more appropriate for a Yorgos Lanthimos project, particularly wherein it concerns our main character, Bella Baxter (as played by Emma Stone). Bella is a curious creation of scientific experimentation, and as such does not behave, speak, or indeed move in the same way a normal person would in this world. As Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) puts it so plainly in the film’s trailer, “her brain and her body are not quite synchronized.”
Stone has always been a rare talent and has amassed an impressive body of work, but she rises to yet another level with her performance here, dare I say a career-best. She not only embodies the idea of a fearless performer, but lives Bella’s journey in every minute. The thing that’s most impressive about her work in this case is not only that she aces the off-beat movements and speech patterns of Bella in the earlier parts of the film, but that as Bella grows as a person and begins to open up to and explore the world around her, Stone’s performance changes in turn, never once falling behind where the story needs the character to be, or feeling too experienced in the early stages to have the sort of naivety the character would logically require.
There’s been quite a lot of hand-wringing regarding the film’s depiction of women’s sexual liberation, or if it indeed can be called that once viewed through a feminist framework, especially considering that early naivety and its proximity to her first sexual experiences. Some have suggested that Bella’s journey is a victim of the male gaze, as exhibited by the absence of menstrual blood in the film or her nudity being near-total in several of her sexual encounters as she comes to discover the world around her, while others have argued that her control in each of these scenes and the fact that she only engages with these things on her own terms – when she wants to – supports the idea that the film is a feminist reading on women’s sexuality as a whole. While I cannot offer a definitive stance in either direction, I lean closer to the latter, though I also am not naïve enough to consider myself a foremost authority on the subject. In either case, Emma Stone’s remarkable turn stands as a testament to her power as an actress; whichever side one finds themselves on, her performance remains unimpeachably impressive.
Stone isn’t the only performer turning in impressive work, however. We’ve all known Mark Ruffalo to be a talented actor, but rarely have we ever borne witness to him being this funny. Much of Poor Things’ humor is abrasive, crass, often transgressive in the way it simply shoots out of the script, and while Emma Stone certainly owns the screen and gets most of the funnier moments to herself, Ruffalo ends up getting a lot of humorous moments to play with as well. The joy of watching his work here is as much in his reactions to the way Bella behaves as in what he says in response. It’s in the way Ruffalo carries himself like a spoiled child as soon as things don’t go his way, but switches almost immediately to desperation as soon as he needs something from Bella, only to then switch back when he realizes he can’t get it the way he wants. Compared to his other works, this seems to me to be his most daring stretch to date.
As to the filmmaking itself, it is a remarkable feat. What Lanthimos and company have accomplished in this respect is nothing short of astonishing (even with some light pacing issues, in my opinion), particularly wherein it concerns the way the film looks. The production and costume designs are fascinating in all their weirdness, enhanced by Robbie Ryan’s immaculate cinematography. The ultra-wide lensing in lesser hands would feel pretentious or ill-used, but with this film, Ryan clearly understands exactly when and where using it will enhance the story of every frame, never deploying it without purpose, nor holding it so tightly that it appears unnatural when released to the screen. The use of color as Bella’s world begins to grow larger is positively striking, the boldness of them and their contrasts growing more and more as they reflect the levels of nuance Bella’s mind is capable of. Of course, the original score by Jerskin Fendrix is brilliantly utilized in all the right places as well, enhancing the strange, melancholic allure of the world just as thoroughly as Bella’s wonder in traversing it, but there are only so many ways to describe the plucks of the strings and blast of organs in certain scenes before simply referring to such music as one of the best scores of the year because it feels the only way to appropriately describe its irregular beauty. Truly, the world of the film is an experience worth having all its own, even if Bella Baxter were not the one to take us through it.
Poor Things will not be for everyone, and in fact, may generally turn a lot of people off to the idea of Yorgos Lanthimos altogether (if one of his previous films hasn’t already), but for movie lovers – and particularly those movie lovers who have a taste for the wonderfully strange – it will surely come as a delightfully weird treat deserving of any number of awards thrown its way. For my own part, although I have little sense of where it would rank in my personal assessment of Lanthimos’ filmography and I am unsure of just how much I like it when compared to other films I’ve seen this year, it is without a doubt among the very best 2023 has had to offer.
I’m giving “Poor Things” a 9.7/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.