‘Poor Things’: Come on Bella Let’s Go Party
The art house crowd gets a 'Barbie' of its very own.
Poor Things, the latest absurdist comedy from director Yorgos Lanthimos, would pair well as a double feature with Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. There are enough differences between the two to merit a discussion of those divergences, even as they are, in many ways, surprisingly similar - not least of all in the journeys of self-discovery undertaken by their respective protagonists.
The doll-come-to-life in Poor Things is Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque work of reanimation by Dr. Godwin Baxter (the always-reliable Willem Dafoe), a disfigured surgeon who she calls “God” (subtle). Like the title character in Barbie, Bella spends time pondering things others - including Godwin’s protégé, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) - tell her she should put out of her head. For reasons I won’t spoil here, Bella’s path soon crosses that of a slimy lawyer and self-professed Lothario, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who offers to whisk her away to Lisbon. And so, just as Barbie left Barbieland, Bella leaves Godwin’s home in London and heads out into the world, where she - again, like Barbie - goes through the various stages of adolescent and post-adolescent development. This includes a lot of what she calls “furious jumping” (sex) and, later, awareness of societal class differences.
Poor Things is Lanthimos’ most visually stylized and outlandish film to date, a hybrid of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam if Tim Burton wasn’t so lazy and Terry Gilliam wasn’t so enamored of his own gaseous emissions. It is the third prestige film this year to mix black and white and color footage, after Oppenheimer and Maestro, as a means of signaling a change in emotional state to the audience - taking a cue from The Wizard of Oz, Bella’s world doesn’t turn to color until she leaves her proverbial Kansas. But the way Lanthimos, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, production designers Shona Heath and James Price, and costume designer Holly Waddington use color also changes by degrees during the course of the narrative. Bella’s world is in black and white when she is at her most simple, and an array of colors of when she is at her most sophisticated.
In-between, however, her costumes, the sets, and the lighting are frequently all one color. She has to earn living in a truly polychromatic through the accrual of knowledge, and at one point, when she threatens to regress, the design of the picture reverts from an array of colors to being dominated by a single color at any given time.
Additionally, the movie uses wide lenses and peephole-style shots indicate to us when we’re experiencing a scene objectively through Bella, as her view of the world is initially incomplete and/or misshapen.
Somewhat paradoxically, Poor Things is also Lanthimos’ most easily-accessible film to date (did I mention that Bella’s creator is literally named God?). “Increasingly straightforward” has, in many ways, been the arc of the Greek filmmaker’s career, and a toddler could probably grasp his general meaning here.
I don’t mean that as a diss, by the way - just an observation. Regardless of Poor Things having all the subtly of a colonoscopy with no anesthesia, the movie’s observations about the way the world treats women are wholly accurate, and Poor Things is spit-take hilarious.
Some of the credit surely belongs to screenwriter Tony McNamara, adapting a novel by Alasdair Gray and reuniting with Lanthimos and Stone after 2018’s The Favourite; a lot of it goes to the performers, who all hit the ball out of the park. This is likely Stone’s best performance to date - Bella goes through so many changes during the course of the film, and each one requires adjustments in her physicality and vocal mannerisms, and she never falters. After a decade of watching Ruffalo play the heroic Dr. Bruce Banner in the Marvel movies, it feels almost revelatory to see him portray some so cretinous and pathetic as Duncan. The fly-paper voiced Kathryn Hunter also makes a big impression as a Parisian madame, and Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley, so good together earlier this year in Sanctuary, provide small-but-droll turns as well. I maintain that Jerrod Carmichael is too understated for his own good, but I’m clearly in the minority of people who hold that opinion.
Where Poor Things really differs from Barbie - other than all the nudity and swearing, I mean - is in the way that the gender of each respective director feels so obvious. Poor Things is sex-positive, anti-slut-shaming, sensitive enough to illustrate how hurt people hurt people (see: Godwin’s backstory), and forgiving of those who seek forgiveness… but it also has the kind of punitive, bad-guys-get-their-just-desserts conclusion that Barbie managed to avoid (another reason Poor Things will likely appeal to mainstream audiences more than any previous Lanthimos film). There’s also an argument to be made that the abundance of graphic sex scenes subjects Stone to the male gaze Gerwig satirized in Barbie.
However - and this may a cop-out - Lanthimos not reigning in his own lascivious voyeurism may also be part of the film’s larger point. Poor Things is a movie about a woman who insists on personhood even as a parade of men claim ownership over her. Perhaps Lanthimos recognizes his own shortcomings as a man, and intends Poor Things as a reminder that lust doesn’t justify enslavement? Or maybe he just really wanted to see Emma Stone naked. I dunno. I’ll defer here to someone with one more X chromosome than I possess.