Six years on from The Favourite, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos returns with another idiosyncratic, twisted vision.
Nominally set in the Victorian era, this masterful morality tale blends period science fiction with a feminist story of discovery. Or, as one character notes, it’s about “a woman plotting her course to freedom”.
That woman is Bella, played by Emma Stone. The American star has never been more courageous than she is here, in a role that easily could’ve slipped down a cinematic ravine and left her stranded.
Bella’s father figure is a Scottish scientist named Godwin, played by Willem Dafoe, whom she calls ‘God’ for short, for he is her creator. A suicide case, Bella has been reanimated, a child’s brain replacing her own, which accounts for why her motor and language skills are barely functioning.
She walks like Frankenstein’s monster – an impressive feat of physical performance by Stone – and has little experience of the outside world. But when Godwin brings in his student Max (Ramy Youssef) to observe her, she begins to crave self-knowledge.
Adapted by screenwriter Tony McNamara from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, the film has a ball with the playful language, especially when Bella discovers that her body can bring her sexual pleasure; phrases like “tongue play” really trip off the, well, tongue.
Frequently hilarious, Poor Things is ribald and bawdy; at one point Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is alluded to, and it’s fun to imagine what the anarchic Wilde might’ve made of the no-filter Bella’s V sign to polite society.
Visually, Poor Things is ravishing, with Robbie Ryan’s cinematography – in both colour and monochrome – creating a dreamlike atmosphere. At times, it feels like a painting has come alive as you gaze at the inky-blue skies.
True, Lanthimos’ final edit could have been tighter; a protracted jaunt to Europe, when Bella is whisked away to Portugal by a lascivious lawyer, played by Mark Ruffalo, is overlong. But the final segment, where both Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott show up, stitches the film together neatly.
No question, Lanthimos’ latest film adds impressively to his roster of animalistic fables; think Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Here, we have mad experiments in Godwin’s lab where chickens and geese are spliced with dogs.
Read further into it and it’s a film that arrives at a time when women’s rights – of the reproductive kind – have been eroded and their bodies are not their own. This is a stark reminder that revenge might not be so far away.
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