Movie ReviewPoor ThingsDirected by Yorgos Lanthimos
By Brontë H. Lacsamana Reporter
EVERYONE knows of Frankenstein’s monster, brought to life as a tragic freak of nature who must grapple with his existence in a cruel world that shuns him.
Poor Things (2023) is a subversive echo of this tale, this time centered on a female oddball creation that must navigate Victorian-era polite society. Its whimsical narrative is the latest black comedy by Yorgos Lanthimos.
It stars a career-best Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, who is brought to life by eccentric scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by Willem Dafoe. She is childlike and not-quite-right, with the literal brain of a young child in a body of a woman. Bella inevitably comes of age over the course of the film, which sees her develop a keen sense of adventure, undergo a sexual awakening, and feed an insatiable hunger for knowledge.
To the chagrin of Dr. Baxter, whom Bella refers to as “God” (his nickname and a fitting nod to his role as her creator), she chooses to leave home to go on a journey of self-discovery. His assistant Max, played by Ramy Youssef, is sad to see her go as he has fallen in love with her — double the pain since Bella runs off with sleazy lawyer Duncan, played by a hilarious Mark Ruffalo.
The film is an adaptation of a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, whose sexually liberating post-modernist novel was acclaimed for being equal parts funny and insightful. His accompanying illustrations, for he was known in Scotland as an artist as well as a writer, have an awesome steampunk aesthetic.
A strength of the film is that the peculiar tone and vision of the source material shines through and even flourishes in the capable hands of Lanthimos, whose previous films (The Favorite, Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster, Dogtooth) are proof that he is the right director for the job.
He is consistent with his ability to imbue light comedic touches to films with absurd and even unsettling atmospheres, eventually culminating in reveals of cruelty. Visually, he brings back his signature bright, colorful scenes distorted through wide-angle or fish-eye lens.
Poor Things plays with gender politics through Bella’s character in a wildly entertaining way, specifically when Mark Ruffalo as Duncan gradually falls apart and reveals his true pathetic colors. He initially goes along with her growing pains and whims as she gains agency and pursues more knowledge and experiences, but it is telling how he eventually sees her as a monster.
The themes of sexual and intellectual liberation are fun, bold, and too on-the-nose at some points, but it works. For one, Bella’s journey kicks off when she discovers the pleasure that can be derived from intimate touching and later sex, and it continues when she goes on her journey and has intercourse with Duncan day and night. Later on, she willingly forays into sex work.
Though it is true that this sexual liberation goes hand in hand with Bella discovering books, music, good food, and friends that encourage moral and ethical discussion, the sex can be heavy-handed and borderline exploitative. There is also no denying that Poor Things is a tale revolving around a woman’s sexuality but authored by a man and adapted by a man.
Still, Emma Stone’s role as producer and memorable star of this film cannot be overlooked. However, the film turned out, she had a hand in its making. Here, she starts off as some strange doll unsteadily discovering how to use her legs and speak English with the right grammar and vocabulary. When she discovers the joys and pains of life, her innocence gives way to defiance, perceived as scandalous by many in polite society.
It is a unique, thought-provoking piece of entertainment, perfect for the QCinema International Film Festival’s opening film as Filipino cinephiles marveled at the colorful costumes and deliciously gorgeous world design. The crowd, which included the mayor of Quezon City, erupted in laughter at every naive yet well-intentioned (and often ill-received) remark by Stone as the charming, shocking Bella.
Because of the explicit sexual nature of the lead’s character arc — cutting it out or censoring much of it would render the film incomprehensible — this film is not getting a regular theatrical release in the Philippines. This means the final festival screening on Nov. 25 will be the last chance to see it here on the big screen.
It is weirdly empowering and moves at a frenetic pace, but it indulges in both the terrible and wondrous aspects of humanity. For those who want stories of women breaking free from the confines of society but something a little darker than Barbie, this film is for you.