Emma Stone reunites with Yorgos Lanthimos for deliciously strange Frankenstein fairytale Poor Things
There are few directors working today with such clear vision and style as Greek ‘weird wave’ helmer Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster.) His latest, Poor Things, is by far the wackiest and yet most beautiful in a series of films that dig into the darker side of human nature, asking the big existential questions against a backdrop of absurdity.
Dr Godwin Baxter (a prosthetic clad Willem Dafoe) is a brilliant surgeon in a fantastical version of Glasgow. Having been the subject of his father’s own medical experiments, ‘God’ is now an unrepentant body snatcher and radical researcher. He works to reanimate human tissue and has created a gruesome array of animal hybrids. His latest and greatest work is his pseudo daughter Bella (Emma Stone) a young woman ‘learning to be a person again’ after experimental brain surgery.
Though Bella has the body of an adult she has the mind of a child, and a wild and primitive one at that. As we first meet her, she is exploring her small world with caveman like glee. Yet she is rapidly learning, chasing knowledge not only of herself but of the outside world; society, philosophy, ethics and the one thing her father can’t teach her about – human sexuality.
When Bella reaches a sort of maturity, she takes up with philandering flirt Duncan Wedderburn (a delightfully camp Mark Ruffalo) and sets out on a European adventure, seeking to learn as much as possible about humanity and sculpt her newfound sense of self. She is curious and free, ignorant and uncaring of convention or judgement as she throws herself into as many bizarre situations as possible.
It’s a delightful turn from Emma Stone, who completely embodies this primal, uninhibited character. Her wide-eyed innocent curiosity at the world makes her a loveable figure, even when she is doing the most sickening or brutal things. It certainly helps that Tony McNamara’s screenplay is absurdly funny – Bella is frequently running rings around everyone around her and delighting in pointing it out to them.
The production design is simply beautiful, Lanthimos creating a fairytale, steampunk-esque world awash with fantastic colour and light. The costumes and sets gaudy yet glamorous, he creates something akin to what you might see in a Terry Gilliam movie – a far cry from some of his sleeker, more austere earlier works. It’s all captured with stunning creativity from cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Oscar winner for on Lanthimos’ The Favourite) whose wide angles and fish eye lenses immerse you fully in this distinctive world.
Despite all it’s absurdity, Poor Things is thematically a film about what it is to be human. About rejecting societal expectation to discover and embrace those things that are truly important. There’s a little bit of gore yes, and quite a lot of graphic sex (so maybe don’t go with your mum) yet it’s central messaging is genuinely quite wholesome as we watch this character come into her own. Bella’s journey to embracing autonomy and understanding womanhood is reminiscent of another big release of the year – people aren’t calling it Frankenstein Barbie for nothing.
Not a moment of Poor Things near 2hr30 run time is wasted with something to either delight or disgust packed into every single frame. A demented, gruesome, sexy fable with a stunning lead turn from sure to be Oscar nominated Stone, there’s so much to unpack and enjoy here. One of the best films of the year, Poor Things is a masterclass in film making from true visionary Yorgos Lanthimos.
Poor Things is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is out in UK cinemas on 12th January 2024.
See other reviews from The London Film Festival 2023 here