“Must be quite the woman to warrant such binding…”
When we meet Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), she isn’t quite herself. After gaining consciousness and experiencing an existential crisis, she embarks on an odyssey – accompanied by a male companion – to discover what the “real” world is like and what it means for her newfound independence as a woman.
No, this isn’t another journey to Barbieland – it’s Yorgos Lanthimos’ epic vision of “Poor Things.”
Back to Bella – she’s technically not herself at all, with her original brain being replaced with that of an infant. The procedure was carried out by Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a Frankenstein-type scientist with a fatherly affection for Bella. When a young student of Godwin’s named Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) comes under Godwin’s wing, he falls hopelessly in love with her. Unfortunately for Max, it’s just as she starts to develop a mind of her own. Any single stage of Bella’s development would be considered one of the year’s most interesting characters, but Stone manages to effortlessly inhabit each one and seamlessly transition between them all.
The foundation for her performance is laid well by the screenplay, which takes its time building up the absurdist, steampunk world and allowing Bella to grow into it. The craft at every level – shot design, art direction, costuming – is incredibly expressionistic, but what we can see and hear in the film’s preliminary chapter is limited, just as Bella is limited. With the exception of seeing the school where Godwin teaches, we’re confined to his home, observing his daily routine and watching how he cares for Bella as she learns to read, eat, walk and talk. It’s an endearing situation on its face, but the film does not shy away from the dark edge to Bella’s predicament, being at the mercy of two men and with nowhere to go.
Bella yearns after every mode of liberation – physical, sexual, financial – and the catalyst for her exploration of these arrives in the form of Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). Ruffalo is the film’s not-so-secret weapon, leaving no comedic stone unturned as the endlessly arrogant and entitled ladies man. Watching the power dynamic swirl between Bella and Duncan keeps the picture moving along at a delightful tempo, with Stone and Ruffalo taking turns stealing scenes.
As the story spreads its wings, so does the visual storytelling, with the black-and-white photography giving way to a vibrant outside world of garish yellows and pinks, greens and reds. The outrageous, anachronistic costume designs and baroque sets are given ample room to breathe under the wide-eyed lenses of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, continuing the delightful collaboration that started with Lanthimos on “The Favourite.” Taking place across several European cities, “Poor Things” is a certified adventure flick as much as it is a coming-of-age, comedic Frankenstein riff.
Lanthimos doesn’t rest on his narrative laurels, simply reveling in the debauchery or keeping audiences at a cold distance, as he’s been wont to do. The back half of Bella’s journey takes a darker – or at least more realistic – turn. When all someone knows of the world is great sex and delicious pastries, it could be easy to romanticize the human experience, but “Poor Things” ends up giving Bella a broader view of what it means to be human – jealousy, cruelty, love and loss.
Although the first half of the film might be the most pure fun moviegoing of 2023, its the latter chapters of the story that elevates the entire picture and rounds it out as Lanthimos’ new artistic benchmark and one of the best of the year across the board.
“Poor Things” releases in theaters December 8, 2023.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."