Film review: ‘POOR THINGS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Like David Lynch in the 1990s and 2000s, Yorgos Lanthimos has brought dark humour and surreal artistry at least a little closer to mainstream cinema.  He’s skewered relationships and social conformity in The Lobster,  elitist power structures in The Favourite and the suburban family in The Killing Of a Sacred Deer. Now, he turns his darkly comic gaze to sexism and the patriarchy in Poor Things, a film that, among other works invokes Pygmalion, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Australian film Bad Boy Bubby.

Set sometime in the 19th century, this very strange film stars Emma Stone as Bella, a pregnant woman who, after her death, is reanimated by the brilliant, disfigured scientist and surgeon Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). As Bella was brain dead when found, Baxter has implanted her unborn child’s brain in her which at first gives her the intellect of an infant.  Desperate to see the world, Bella escapes Baxter’s London home with a creepy caddish lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) whose affection for her, like that of most men she encounters, is matched by the desire to control and imprison her.  Bella’s experiences, however, gives her a new perspective on her place in the world.

This film is, above anything, a triumph of production design.  With its steampunk meets chocolate box aesthetic, it looks astonishing.  Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite, The Old Oak) mix startling black and white to capture London with vivid, saturated colour to depict the rest of the world and craft stunning compositions that recall the meticulous style of Stanley Kubrick.  The film’s deliberately artificial vision of London, Paris and Lisbon is also reminiscent of Jean Pierre Jeunet.  Particularly impressive are the backdrops to the inter titles marking the film’s different chapters; these contain some of the most amazing images in cinema this year.

The film seems to exist in a bizarre alternate reality where everyone talks in strange impulsive outbursts or in Bella’s case, in blunt curious observations.  It often comes across as a weird comedy reminiscent of films like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil although it’s also quite sexually explicit and contains some confronting body horror.

Emma Stone reminds us of what an amazing performer she is, convincingly conjuring this unique character and depicting Bella at different stages of intellectual development.  Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo are also terrific – despite their slightly wobbly accents – with Dafoe a riotous twist on the classic mad scientist archetype and Ruffalo hilariously vein as the temperamental, tantrum-throwing Wedderburn.

At times it feels as if this film is an exercise in pisstaking weirdness but amid all the absurdity, the film at least to some extent, explores the status of women.  At first rendered completely naive by Baxter’s brain transplant, Bella begins to mature, learn, develop solidarity with other women and define herself as an intelligent adult as she travels through the world. Her loss of malleable childlike innocence infuriates Wedderburn and other men who feel it’s their God given right to take ownership of her.

The film’s oddness will leave some viewers cold and its near two-and-a-half-hour length will test the patience of some but its acidly witty observations about gender power struggles and its stunning visuals will be very rewarding for most cinemagoers.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Drama/ Science Fiction/ Fantasy.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Yorgos Lanthimos.

Release date: 18th Jan 2024.

Running time: 141 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm on 88.3 Southern FM.


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