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Film Review: Poor Things
by Pat Frickey

Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland, UK, USA 2023

It’s wicked. Expect to be outraged, appalled, shame-facedly fascinated, and ultimately amused by POOR THINGS, based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray. Set in Victorian London, the unorthodox Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) has the unfortunate appearance of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster. He occasionally belches bubbles while carrying out anatomical experiments. He creates a pig merged with a chicken, a dog with a goose head, and oh yes, his own human creature Bella (Emma Stone) who he loves like a daughter. She is not a monster but a lovely young lady, rather rough around the edges, and certainly not shackled to the social mores of polite Victorian society.

The moviegoer first encounters toddler-Bella embedded in a young lady’s body. She smashes plates just for fun and screams uncontrollably when her “father” who she calls God, leaves home to give lectures at the university. Yet Bella is rapidly maturing, her vocabulary is increasing daily, her movements less awkward, and she pokes scalpels into the eyes of her very own cadaver more precisely. Godwin hires one of his students, decent, shy Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to monitor her progress; this gentle soul has been obliquely handpicked to unabashedly fall in love with her. Before long adolescent-Bella discovers the unadulterated pleasure of self-stimulation leaving no nearby lying fruit or vegetable unscathed. “Bella discover happy when she want!” she exclaims unashamedly. Her awkwardness is diminishing, her rebelliousness is increasing, and her desire to go out into the world is unstoppable. Godwin and Max have to let her go when the sleezy cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) whisks her away to Lisbon so the couple can get on with the “furious jumping” they both so enjoy. But Duncan can’t curb her spirit. After spitting out food she doesn’t like while dining in polite company, she bristles when Duncan demands: “You will confine yourself to three phrases—'how marvelous,’ ‘delighted,’ and ‘how do they make the pastry so crisp’, yes? Well, no! Emancipated-Bella breaks from Duncan in Paris and gleefully discovers she can earn a living with the oldest profession in the world.

A dream-like vision POOR THINGS is a cross between Salvador Dali and (a somewhat deranged) Wes Anderson—very surreal, very stylized. Director Yorgos Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan conjure a madly alternative world that the production designers Shona Heath and James Price have meticulously constructed. Godwin’s grotesque laboratory and opulent home which are so chock-a-block with authentic-looking and imagined Victorian delights, they at times resemble the pages in a children’s I Spy book. The first thirty minutes of the movie are black and white, perhaps to reflect Bella’s infantile perspective and/or to mimic monster movies of old. Once Bella breaks free from Godwin and Max the rest of the movie springs to life in vibrant colors, though not necessarily the colors we experience in our lives; the film’s color palette is hauntingly askew. Jerskin Fendrix’s magnificent score, often discordant and jarring, is perfectly interwoven into the soul of the film. Costume designer Holly Waddington, who has had a lot of experience with period costumes, lets her imagination run wild dressing Bella in clothing with gloriously haphazard Victorian flair. Nothing quite matches, everything is a zany marvel, and every outfit she wears is outrageously fun. (The costumes from POOR THINGS were featured at an exhibition at the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles in December, followed by an exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London ending in mid-January.)

POOR THINGS is a breathtaking film. All the actors are superb, making it almost impossible to choose a favorite. It’s not unusual to see moviegoers file out of the theater in silence, dazed after watching this epic two-hour-and twenty-one-minute film. Black humor has never been so lavishly seductive.