Sometimes, the most shocking of films can yield the most sincere takes on life and living. That pretty much sums up Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, adapted to the screen by Tony McNamara, and based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, with producer Emma Stone also starring in the lead role. It is best to enter Poor Things with as little knowledge as possible, as I did. Letting the retrofuturistic and fantastical version of early 1900s Europe overtake you with whimsy and shock is the only way to view the film. But, if you need to know about this erotic sci-fi fantasy before heading to the theater, you can keep reading against your better judgment.
Poor Things is a story about the fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox surgeon and scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe)—or God for short. Under God’s protection, Bella is sequestered in their home and tended to by their maid and the young assistant that God has hired from the college, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef).
First, her words are stunted; her concepts of time, life, and others are, too, a child by all accounts in a woman’s body. But Bella is hungry for the world beyond her home and is denied by her caretakers. In an attempt to explore, she runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and debauched lawyer, on a whirlwind and excessive adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times that have been burned into everyone—even those who claim to have no need for propriety—Bella grows into a woman who wants freedom and choice more than anything else.
Like much of Yorgos Lanthimos‘s work, Poor Things views sexuality under the lens of control and how it is shaped by the people we form connections with and tether ourselves to. It’s about finding agency and freedom and the way in which we constantly grow in our own self-actualization. Despite its Frankenstienian premise, the film’s narrative is straightforward. The only difference is that it is wrapped in moments that will make you audibly say, “What the f**k” over and over. Starting first from near repulsion, shifting into intrigue, and until you finally whisper those words floored by what you’ve seen.
The Europe that Lanthimos has created is beautiful, fantastical, and exaggerated in all of the right ways. Sex in Poor Things is a means of adventure both externally and internally for Bella. As we watch her journey, her growing intelligence of the world, and her awakening personality, it’s fantastic to see how each new emotion she learns is compared to sex. In doing so, we see the intimate ways that anger, grief, sadness, love, and sadness envelop us and how the physical actions of those emotions aren’t always so unique.
Stone’s Bella stumbles through the world at first, wide-eyed and excited to experience pleasure and joy—but not love just yet. We see her grow in her desires and in her steadfast dedication to her own independence and agency. She minces no words and questions everything laid out in front of her. Stone’s performance as a woman is driven by her wants and needs instead of by what the men in her life want. She defies her maker, God. She defies her betrothed, Max. She defies her lover, Duncan. She defies and defies again, and each moment is filled with absurdity and sincerity in equal measure.
Sex is a form of dialogue in Poor Things. It’s how Bella expresses herself, takes hold of her adventure through a fantastical Europe, and ultimately decides on the life she wants to lead. She explores the world with her body, and while some moments can range from shocking to upsetting, Bella ultimately grows and is never restrained by her sexuality but liberated by it. At the same time, she also experiences everything else the world has to offer.
Some of the film’s most gripping moments are in the film’s third act, which is marked by Bella discovering dark emotions. Anger, sadness, helplessness, she feels them all, and the sharp changes in her view of the world follow suit. She captures the reasons for pain in that it leads her to another side of herself. This is Stone’s greatest role because of how different Bella is from the first act to the last, growing, building, and becoming someone new after every experience.
That said, Poor Things and Bella’s journey in the film is held up by the powerful ensemble around her and what she learns from them. God is quintessential Willem Dafoe. Sharp, dark, and yet deeply caring, God is a character moved by his intelligence, shaped by his trauma, and seen echoed in his greatest achievement, Bella. For Max, his kindness and respect reach out to Bella first and foremost, viewing her as a woman and human who deserves autonomy and choice. And then there is Duncan. Mark Ruffalo’s best role in which finds a use for the horrible accent he sported in All The Light We Cannot See to great effect. More a child than Bella, Duncan is constant comedy even when his aggression becomes intimidating.
Duncan’s immaturity and need for control are pillars of the film, primarily in how Bella orbits around him first, and then he revolves around her when she gains power through exploring the world. He is pathetic and hilarious, and the way in which Bella switches from viewing him as a vital lover to just an annoying man is fantastically propelled by Duncan’s penchant for temper tantrums. In fact, Bella grows in the film, and the men around her either remain stagnant or finally move forward when impacted by Bella’s needs and exploration.
Outside of the film’s narrative and acting, it has the most beautiful costume and set design that simultaneously feels, at times, otherworldly and wholly grounded. The ability to live in this uncanny moment of recognizable but twisted ever so slightly is a perfect version of fantastic. The shift from black and white to vibrant technicolor and the refinement of Bella’s dresses and style also match her arc from start to finish and capture how the world comes alive when you experience it more and more.
Poor Things, despite its absurdist, sensual, raunchy, and irreverent take on sex, is deeply sincere. Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest isn’t about physical intimacy so much as it is about building who you are through experience, both physical and emotional. Each experience, the dark and cruel or the bright and joyful, all of it contributes to who we are, and only by embracing it all, even the traumatic, can we claim agency in a world that would deny it to us.
Poor Things is playing nationwide on December 8, 2023.
Poor Things, despite its absurdist, sensual, raunchy, and irreverent take on sex, is deeply sincere. Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest isn’t about physical intimacy so much as it is about building who you are through physical and emotional experience.