Poor Things

****1/2

Reviewed by: Levan Tskhovrebadze

Poor Things
"Lanthimos skillfully transforms this lustful carnival into a coming-of-age drama, emphasising the protagonist's mastery of sexuality as a connotation of her mental evolution." | Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Perched on the edge of a bridge, clad in a Victorian mazarine dress, Emma Stone takes a desperate plunge into the River Thames, setting the stage for Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things. The most recent picture from the distinguished auteur of the Greek Weird Wave transcends weird, embracing provocative entertainment. A Golden Lion-winner at the Venice Film Festival, this ceaselessly unfurling, risqué sci-fi drama, a cinematic adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel, marks a bold departure for Lanthimos.

Following the dramatic descent, the screen transitions to black-and-white, unveiling Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a peculiarly face-mutilated surgeon lecturing a class. Taking his devoted student Max McCandles (Ramy Youseff) under his wing, the doctor escorts him to partake in a pivotal experiment within a Frankenstein-like dwelling teeming with mutated entities — duck-headed dogs, bird-goats, and chickens sporting bulldog heads. Among them dwells the protagonist, Vera Baxter (Emma Stone), a mentally-challenged young woman. McCandles, inexplicably enamored, utters, "What a beautiful retard," instantly smitten by her. Dr Baxter, recounting the genesis of Stone's character found pregnant by the river bank, describes the grotesque procedure of implanting a newborn's brain into the mother's body. It's a revelation that, admittedly, induces discomfort.

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The narrative escalates in controversy as Vera embarks on a self-exploration. Fearing for her purity, Dr Baxter orchestrates a union with McCandles to prevent her from profanation. Matrimony documents become entangled with a disreputable and lascivious solicitor, Duncan Wedderburn — played with waggish flair by Mark Ruffalo. Duncan's humorous yet charismatic persona gradually deteriorates as he becomes entwined with Vera, falling deeply in love. Embarrassed by Vera's indiscretions in Lisbon, Duncan whisks her away on a cruise, introducing encounters with the venerable savant characterised by Hanna Schygulla and the young wandering pessimist Harry Astley, portrayed by Jerrod Carmichael. During a port call, the burgeoning thinker exposes Vera to the harsh realities of poverty, child starvation, and aridity, emotionally shattering her.

Desperation leads Vera to give Duncan's money to sailors for the benefit of the destitute. Financially depleted, their odyssey lands them in Paris. Having "seen the world," she acknowledges the demands of existence, embracing prostitution under the guidance of brothel madam Swiney (Kathrin Hunter). Vera's erotic escapades unfold in a manner reminiscent of Joe's maturation in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (2013). Lanthimos skillfully transforms this lustful carnival into a coming-of-age drama, emphasising the protagonist's mastery of sexuality as a connotation of her mental evolution. Despite the episodic nature of these events, the audience witnesses Vera's rapid maturation - joining socialist communities, saving money, and attending classes. Her mental growth unfolds before us, absorbing wisdom along the way. Madam Swiney's words, "We must experience everything ... And when we know the world... The world is ours", emerge as the central motif in Vera's life as she incrementally takes control of her destiny.

Employing fish-eye lenses and introducing Poor Things with cinematic finesse, Lanthimos introduces luminous lighting in hyper-stylised sets courtesy of DoP Robbie Ryan, reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Querelle (1982), particularly during the cruise scenes. The appearance of Fassbinder's muse, Schygulla, gains added significance, and the film's absurdist visual effects, featuring bizarre animals, evoke echoes of David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977). Lanthimos deftly uses the interplay of black-and-white and colorful images, deploying Victorian-costumed characters within fictitious architectural landscapes. The exceptional ensemble cast extract their utmost potential with the help of the director. Stone delivers her most nuanced performance, and Mark Ruffalo finds a lifetime role within this mesmerising cinematic tableau. In Poor Things, Lanthimos, akin to a child in an adult's body who has "seen the world," navigates the complexities of existence with an artistry that is both captivating and thought-provoking.

Reviewed on: 27 Nov 2023
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The story of a young woman who has been brought back to life.

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writer: Tony McNamara, based on the novel by Alasdair Gray

Starring: Cast: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, Hanna Schygulla , Kathrin Hunter

Year: 2023

Runtime: 141 minutes

Country: US, Ireland, UK


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