This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
If there's one film on everybody's lips at the 2023 Venice Film Festival it's unquestionably Yorgos Lanthimos' bizarrely brilliant Poor Things which opened to rapturous applause during its world premiere on the Lido. The last time the Greek filmmaker attended the Venice Film Festival was in 2018 when he unveiled his bawdy comedy The Favourite to the world. Renowned for his unorthodox storytelling, Lanthimos has always been something of an acquired taste but The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, was the perfect project to help him cross over into the mainstream. It introduced his peculiar sensibilities to a whole new audience and the film earned a slew of awards including 10 Oscar nominations. Having had a taste of mainstream success many were wondering what Lanthimos would make next. Something safe and accessible for the masses perhaps? Far from it. In fact, Poor Things might be his most ambitious project to date.
With The Favourite screenplay writer Tony McNamara onboard, Lanthimos has opted for an adaptation of the late great Alasdair Grey's novel Poor Things. It's a huge risk to make a science-fiction black comedy about what is essentially a sexy baby story. But in Yorgos we trust!
Set in a world similar but separate to our own — with an off-kilter steampunk aesthetic — the story is centred around Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) who is the creation of eccentric scientist Dr Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe). After the body of a Jane Doe washes up on the shore of the river Thames, Godwin transplants the brain of a foetus into the deceased woman's body and reanimates her back to life. Bella has the mind, motor skills, people skills and language of an infant housed within the body of a fully grown woman. As Bella matures she has an innate desire for adventure, and longs to explore not only the world but also her newly awoken sexuality. She leaves her home in London to explore the big wide world alongside sleazy lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) and discovers all aspects of her body, how the world works and what life has to offer. In a nutshell, it's a coming-of-age story given a quirky Lanthimos spin, but what's surprising is just how accessible this beautifully bonkers film actually is. Though visually different, there are echoes of Greta Gerwig's recent summer smash Barbie in its exploration of what it means to be alive, something all audiences can relate to.
Bella Baxter may actually be Emma Stone's finest performance to date. She is fearless in her willingness to leave it all on the table. Watching Bella's growth and development throughout the film is delightfully rewarding for the viewer. She embodies Bella with the carefree innocence and inquisitiveness of youth and reminds us of the joy of seeing the world through a child's eyes. There's a vicarious pleasure to be had watching Bella discover the sweet pleasures of life such as food and drink, music, dancing, travelling and sex – or what Bella refers to as “furious jumping”.
But the drawback to growing up is also learning about the hardships of life like class disparity, unsatisfactory sex, screaming children in restaurants, social injustice and poverty. Self-proclaimed cynic Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael) shows Bella just how cruel life can be and the emotional fallout for Bella is devastating. As Parisian brothel owner Swiney, Kathryn Hunter reassures Bella (and by extension the audience) that we must experience horror, degradation and sadness in order for us to truly know the world. It's another small yet memorable performance from the actress whose contorted figure in The Tragedy of Macbeth won her plenty of praise. And while it's normal to hit a point in life where we become numb to the harshness, there is light and wisdom awaiting on the other side. Like Bella, you may walk away from Poor Things with a newfound respect for life.
While Emma Stone is the life force of this film there are wonderful turns from the supporting cast, particularly Willem Dafoe as the pseudo father figure God and Mark Ruffalo as the peacocking dandy Duncan. In a film packed with hysterically cutting dialogue, Ruffalo's gesticulations still manage to provide some of its funniest moments. Behind the camera, Hannah Waddington's costume work is divine. This is a world of outrageous silhouettes, poofy sleeves, corsets and ruffles. There's a visible evolution in her costumes throughout which perfectly captures Bella's growth. It fits in seemlessly with the spectacularly detailed world created by production designers Shona Heath and James Price and the score by Jerskin Fendrix is fittingly experimental for a story about a walking science experiment. He utilises janky piano keys, plodding brass notes and wonky strings to enhance the film's strange personality.
There are countless ways a film like Poor Things could've gone wrong but thanks to Lanthimos deft directorial skills, McNamara's hilariously heartfelt screenplay and Emma Stone's immensely committed performance the result is a total triumph and one of the best films of 2023. Like the many amalgamated animal creatures in this film which include swan-dogs, pig-chickens and goat-ducks, Lanthimos fuses together the weird and wonderful with beautiful artistry. His Frankenstein's monster is a Frankenstein's masterpiece.
Poor Things screened at Venice International Film Festival and is set for release in UK cinemas 12 January 2024.