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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Rate and Review: ‘Poor Things’ depicts fantasy, feminism and freedom

The bizarre 2023 movie is a new approach to the ‘coming-of-age’ trope

Labeled as a science-fiction, black comedy and coming-of-age story, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2023 film, “Poor Things,” is a lot at once. 

In almost every regard of the film, the director refuses to hold back, constructing a whimsical story set in a distorted version of Victorian-age Europe, highlighting the frivolities of society through a feminist, class-conscious lens. 

The film successfully absorbs the audience into this strange, uncomfortable environment while successfully conveying a story of liberation, two feats that are hard to balance. 

The movie follows Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a high-society woman who, after committing suicide, was resurrected into a Frankenstein-esque human by the eccentric surgeon, Godwin Baxter, played by Willem Dafoe. 

As Bella slowly learns how to move, speak and operate as a human in the surgeon's house, she yearns for the outside world. After finding an out by traveling with Duncan Wedderburn, a lawyer played by Mark Ruffalo, she leaves her cramped quarters to venture into the unknown, bringing us on a fantastical odyssey of growth and women’s sexual liberation.

The film was adapted from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 verbosely titled novel, “Poor Things Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer.” 

While “Poor Things” has the usual Lanthimos flair, it distinguishes itself from his other works by being unapologetically fantastical and vibrant. 

Previous films of his are notable for their absurdist plot lines and the actors’ distinct dispassionate performances. For example, the plot of his dystopian 2015 film, “The Lobster,” revolves around a hotel where singles stay in hopes of finding a romantic relationship within 45 days or else be turned into an animal of their choice. 

In “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” actors speak their minds bluntly and monotonously as a modern-day biblical tragedy unfolds before their eyes. The film has scenes in everyday locations like hospitals and suburban houses, using the familiar to create an uncanny valley effect. 

In “Poor Things,” the distinct weirdness that keeps many from watching a Lanthimos film is turned up to the max, which is in part driven by the actors’ performances. 

Dafoe makes his part, a maimed and calculating surgeon obsessed with the scientific method, a surprisingly sympathetic character. Ruffalo also showcases his comedy chops as Wedderburn, adding a layer of humor to an otherwise dark character.

But unsurprisingly, Emma Stone steals the show. 

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In a role that could have easily been unconvincing or over-acted, Stone gives the performance of a lifetime. As Bella finds her place in a weird, confusing world she puts her all into every second of her character. 

The design, cinematography and musical score of the film all venture into the avant garde, and mostly come back unscathed. 

What I found most interesting about the film was its scene and costume design. Real cities such as England and Lisbon are reimagined as bizarre and colorful landscapes. Dafoe’s character invents unusual medical devices and half-pig, half-chickens to keep as pets around his lavish home.

Costume designer Holly Waddington reimagines Victorian fashion through the eyes of a woman unbound by societal expectations. 

Her outfits begin as childish and discordant, pairing poofy, long-sleeved shirts with short and airy trousers. As she evolves, her outfits become brighter and more adult-like, without losing Bella’s signature style. By the end of the film, her outfits are dark and academic, showing her maturation and newfound intelligence.

“The clothes really needed to change with her,” Waddington said in an interview with the New York Times. 

With all of this in mind, Lanthimos creates a world that we’ve never seen before, allowing the viewer to discover a foreign land at the same time as Bella. 

It may be easy to assume Stone’s character arc is chauvinist due to the literal objectification of her body as a test subject created to be studied by male doctors. 

There’s a trope about this phenomenon called “Born Sexy Yesterday,” a term coined by the YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective in 2017. In this common sci-fi trope, female characters radiate sexuality while holding the intelligence of someone who just entered the world. 

The male characters around them take on the roles of teacher and love interest, reducing the woman to a stereotypical sex object who requires a man to succeed in the world. Think Leeloo in the 1997 film, “The Fifth Element,” or Giselle in 2007’s  “Enchanted.”

While men do attempt to teach the young-minded Bella about how the world works, she quickly develops a mind of her own, much to the frustration of the men around her. As Bella makes her own choices to be more educated and independent, the film subverts the trope into a feminist arc of liberation. 

“Poor Things” is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The movie is rated R for strong and pervasive sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing material, gore and language. If that’s not your thing, I would recommend skipping out.  

While most of the explicit shots drive the plot, others seem to have shocking material just for shock’s sake. They contribute to the disjointed and unrefined behaviors of a new human, sure, but I believe the film could have been fine without some of them. 

With all of this in mind, “Poor Things” is a highly entertaining and weird watch for fans of science fiction and dark comedy. But if you do go see it in theaters, maybe don’t bring your parents. 

Rate: 8/10

Contact Bonny Matejowsky at bmatejowsky@alligator.org. Follow her on X @bonnymatejowsky.


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Bonny Matejowsky

Bonny Matejowsky is a third-year journalism major and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When she’s not writing, you can find her thrifting or watching Twin Peaks.


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