POOR THINGS Review: Both Hideous Creation and Beautiful Monster, Ghastly and Glorious

Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo star in a new film by Yorgos Lanthimos.

Editor, Asia; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)
POOR THINGS Review: Both Hideous Creation and Beautiful Monster, Ghastly and Glorious
Equal parts Frankenstein and My Fair Lady, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Golden Lion winner Poor Things is a visually ravishing, disgracefully funny tale of sexual awakening and female empowerment.
Adapted from the prize-winning novel by Alisdair Gray, this riotous romp stars Emma Stone as a young society woman in Victorian London, who is resurrected from the dead by Willem Dafoe’s eccentric scientist following a suicide attempt, who then embarks on a hedonistic adventure of self discovery.
From its opening shot, of a vibrantly blue-dressed figure launching herself head first into the Thames, Poor Things dazzles with its perpetually evolving palette of lush colours, vintage monochrome, fantastical Munchausen-esque sets and wildly eclectic lensing. Not to be eclipsed by such an audacious aesthetic, the performances themselves are every bit as ludicrously over-the-top and gleefully macabre. Imagine what might go down if Margot Robbie’s Barbie stumbled into Udo Keir’s laboratory and you are some way to grasping the tone of this delightfully carnivalesque experience. 
Bella (Stone) is the triumphant success story of Dr. Godwin Baxter’s questionable career. Unaware of her origins or previous life, she was hauled from the river as a lifeless corpse, and brought back to life in the most heinous and unspeakable manner by Baxter (Dafoe), whom she refers to as “God”.
Surrounded by hideous, unnatural creations from God’s dalliances into vivisection, Bella is as naive and unspoilt as a newborn babe. As she steadily masters language, movement and other basic faculties, the doctor recruits his eager student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to observe her progress. 
Over time the pair develops a fondness for one another, despite Max knowing precisely from whence this young waif came, and at God’s suggestion, the couple agree to marry. The doctor also insists that Max sign a pre-nuptial agreement, vowing to remain with Bella within the confines of Baxter’s home. He hires lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) to draw up the contract, but the unconscionable cad is instantly bewitched by Bella and convinces her to elope with him to Europe. 
And so begin Bella’s adventures into the great unknown, as well as her unquenchable hunger for the pleasures of “tongue play” and “furious jumping”. Wedderburn, the self-confessed “world’s greatest fuck” is initially bewitched by his acquisition, and revels in sharing with Bella the delights of Lisbon. Soon he discovers, however, that he is ill-equipped to sate Bella’s boundless appetites, and as she ventures further afield, his previously unassailable masculinity comes tumbling down.
Adapted by Tony McNamara, who also penned The Favourite, Cruella and The Great for Hulu, Poor Things delivers an intoxicating stream of ear-burningly vitriolic dialogue that is as frank and bawdy as it is uproariously funny. Bella’s unique perspective on the world around her, and her perceived place in it as a young woman of status and respectability, is repeatedly upended in the most inappropriate of settings as she barrels forward in her unerring search for answers, purpose and pleasure. 
Drawing voraciously from the writing of Shelley and Flaubert, the endlessly quotable screenplay savagely skewers the flailing patriarchy, while addressing questions of female agency with an unwavering frankness and unquestionable adroitness. While not thematic dissimilar to Greta Gerwig’s box office behemoth, Poor Things is able to tackle these issues without breaking its stride or letting its need to pontificate obstruct its desire to tell a ghoulishly entertaining tale. 
Stone’s performance veers from monosyllabic automaton to insatiable sexual pioneer, features plentiful sequences of full frontal nudity, and provides this unclassifiable beast of a film with its hungry, untamed heart, as Bella must contend with being infantilised, groomed, and then fought over by so many misogynistic suitors, all of whom claim their love grants them ownership over her.
Willem Dafoe, whose Baxter is himself a carved-up victim of repeated surgical abuse and disfigurement, brings an unexpected compassion to his lonely Moreau-esque mad scientist. Youssef ensures that Max is more than merely a fresh-faced, honourable young man, while Ruffalo is having the time of his life as the foppish cad who is only ever a hair’s breadth away from going full-blown Austin Powers. 
Jerskin Fendrix’s delightfully discordant score and the gothic opulence of Zsuzsa Mihalek’s production design are just two of the wonderful toys Lanthimos uses to magic us into his triumphantly absurd land of broken dreams and disenchantment. What rises from this cauldron of influences is an unwieldy beast to be sure, sewn together from the dismembered limbs of Swift, Voltaire, and Austen, and yet Poor Things emerges as both hideous creation and beautiful monster, ghastly and glorious in equal measure, as it lurches forward to grab you, uninvited, in your hairy business.
Review originally published during the Busan International Film Festival in October 2023. The film opens Friday, November 8, in select movie theaters. Visit the official site for more information.
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Emma StoneYorgos Lanthimos

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