Presented on September 1st at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and winner of the prestigious Golden Lion, Poor Things is the latest feature by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. A master of postmodern and surrealist cinema, Lanthimos has established himself on an international level as a representative of the Greek Weird Wave Movement. Poor Things marks his second feature film screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival, following the achievement of the 2018 Grand Jury Prize awarded to his Oscar-nominated movie The Favourite.
The film, based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Scottish writer Alasdair Gray and scripted by Tony McNamara, unfolds, combining grotesque and black comedy elements mixed with science fantasy and coming-of-age components. Lanthimos’s weird tale opens in a steampunk, retrofuturistic London in which scientist and doctor Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) has just succeeded with the feat of bringing a physiologically dead body back to life. Thus, he becomes the father of the Frankestainian creature played by Emma Stone (in her second collaboration with the director and also active in the producer role), namely the “daughter” Bella Baxter. Unlike the book, Lanthimos’ film develops solely from the point of view of the woman, Bella, offering a coming-of-age tale in the form of a bizarre odyssey.
Probably the most complex character ever played by Emma Stone, both physically and interpretively, Bella is also one of the most peculiar characters brought to the screen in recent years. Having been reanimated in an adult body but subservient to the brain of a fetus, Bella represents the potential of a physically developed human being restored to the zero state, that is, freed from the limitations of societal norms, prejudice, fear, and decency. Not only highly emancipatory from the female perspective, Bella’s characterization opposes modern society’s standards and structures in almost every regard. Indeed, what is especially striking is how her eccentricities render what would commonly be considered an unusual or grotesque source of fascination.
Willem Dafoe, made almost unrecognizable by the makeup at the hands of Claire Campbell, excels in his role on par with Emma Stone. His character, Dr. Baxter, is a genius and strangely gentle scientist with a mutilated face who has been subjected to scientific experiments since childhood. His deformity goes so far that he has equipped himself with an entire artificial digestive system that helps him expel acid in the form of bubbles from his mouth. Nicknamed God by Bella, he raises her in the company of a nanny, Mrs. Prim (played by Vicki Pepperdine), alongside a series of bizarre hybrid animals of his own creation.
The parent and daughter pair is joined by equally eccentric secondary characters, including Ramy Youssef as Dr. Baxter’s assistant and Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer and seducer Duncan Wedderburn. Central is the role of Wedderburn, who will be the first to spur Bella to embark on the Gulliver’s journey on which the film is structured. In a not-so-secret secret getaway, the two will travel from London first to Lisbon, then cruise on to Alexandria before debarking in Paris.
Lanthimos’ distorted filmmaking, rich in recurring elements such as wide-angles and extreme close-ups, follows Bella’s journey in a hybrid play somewhere between the surreal and the comic. All are staged with unabashed eccentricity, ignoring the limitations generally expected in a production with expansive commercial ambitions. A clear culmination of his previous filmography, Poor Things may be Lanthimos’ most technically and functionally mature film.
Similarly, the incredible work of the cinematographer (Robbie Ryan), costume designer (Holly Waddington), and set designer (Shona Heath & James Price) cooperate in achieving a visual and aesthetic sophistication heretofore unattained in his previous works. In particular, the set design proves exceptionally flexible in handling visual references ranging from postmodernism, art nouveau, and the Belle Epoque. Equally beautiful is the cinematography, which mimics Bella’s maturing process, opening the film in black and white and then reaching a gradual arrival to hyper-saturated colors by its closure.
Absolutely deserved winner of the 2023 Venice Film Festival, Poor Things is an interesting reflection on what it means to live and be human in an increasingly limiting and, at least apparently, complex world. The themes of carnality and autonomy in disposing of one’s body, thus pronounced, are only the first pillars in Bella’s journey, which resolves into a broader discourse on femininity, self-determination, and ego formation. Though recognizing themselves as such, the “poor” creatures inhabiting the movie form a mosaic in which each one’s deformity is shamelessly enhanced.
And, in an unprecedented fashion, the clash with an immobile and, at the same time, bestial society is no longer a source of despondency to be nihilistically surrendered to but of positivism for which all experimentation appears possible regardless of all feasibility and logic. Considering how the original book came out in the 1990s, it is curious how much more relevant the message the film sets out to bring is today. Albeit Poor Things is not entirely without flaws, including the slight underdevelopment of some themes introduced and then not effectively unraveled.
Yorgos Lanthimos continues to prove himself as one of the most capable filmmakers of recent years. This is by innovating thematically and mastering an increasingly unique, utterly distinctive mise-en-scène.
Poor Things is produced by Film4 Productions, Element Pictures, TSG Entertainment, and Searchlight Pictures, and it is scheduled for cinematic release in the United States on December 8, 2023, and in the United Kingdom on January 12, 2024.