Poor Things

(Yorgos Lanthimos, USA/UK/Ireland, 2023)

BY JOSÉ TEODORO | December 8, 2023

A philosophically infused coming-of-age tale and Victorian-era fantastical travelogue with overt nods to both Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things is marked by flamboyance, plottiness, and general abundance—all characteristics that seem irreconcilable with his 2009 Greek Weird Wave breakthrough Dogtooth, a discreet (i.e., uncredited) homage to Arturo Ripstein’s 1972 film The Castle of Purity whose incisive humor, bracing violence, and perplexing mise-en-scène were heightened by a memorably bold aesthetic severity. Yet this new film, an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer by Tony McNamara (co-scenarist of Lanthimos’s 2018 The Favourite), is every bit a thematic extension of what may be read as the director’s core preoccupation with role-play and civilization, deprivation and exposure.

Quasi-adopted daughter and sequestered science project to the reclusive and eccentric British surgical genius Godwin Baxter, or God for short (Willem Dafoe), Bella Baxter (Poor Things co-producer and The Favourite co-star Emma Stone) possesses the body of an adult yet acts like a small child. She refers to herself in the third person, walks as though unable to bend her joints, is prone to bratty fits, stabs cadavers for amusement, and commits toad-murder for no apparent motive other than a sudden awareness of the toad’s existence—the character seems designed to embody the casual sadism underlying several Lanthimos films. When God invites his medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) to become his research assistant, granting him access to the otherwise cloistered Bella, the earnest young protégé assumes she must be afflicted with a rare mental disorder. Only gradually does Max, like the rest of us, apprehend the startling truth of this oddly alluring woman’s condition.

Despite her grotesque unruliness, Max wants to marry Bella, who seems to acquiesce largely out of ignorance. Max’s maneuvers are intercepted, however, by one Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer and charmingly sleazy lothario who introduces Bella to the pleasures of the flesh and whisks her away on a hedonistic holiday that starts in Lisbon before moving onto more distant lands, though all of them look basically the same as rendered through The Favourite DP Robbie Ryan’s giddy deployment of convex lenses, a dense frosting of digital effects, and the children’s-book production designs of Shona Heath and James Price. Poor Things is Lanthimos at his most baroque by a very wide margin, embracing a relentlessly fanciful and fantastical aesthetic more in keeping with Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton than, say, Michael Haneke or Ulrich Seidl. There is a sameness—no doubt intentional—to this 141-minute film’s constant parade of eye candy. Some will find it delightful. I found it exhausting. Though every possible accolade should be showered upon costume designer Holly Waddington (Lady Macbeth), who robes Bella in a wildly playful array of outsized upperwear and bizarrely mismatching short pants that mirror the character’s intellectual and moral progress in a series of varying color schemes and silhouettes. Along with Stone’s delicately graded, highly disciplined, comedically graceful performance, Bella’s outfits are the most distinctive, thoughtful, furiously creative aspects of the film.

While Poor Things begins as something adjacent to horror—there’s no shortage of shock and disgust in the first act—as Bella’s odyssey chugs along, incorporating lessons in psychology, social ethics, and gender politics, the film’s tone becomes less audacious and more expository, even polemical. The peculiar paradox of Poor Things is that the more it delivers ostensibly perverse ideas and images, the more cutesy and domesticated it becomes. The film will find great success and Lanthimos will find only more opportunities to direct. But after the string of increasingly big-budget affairs that he’s helmed since parting ways with the Greek film industry, I’d welcome a poorer realization of his vision. 🩸


is a freelance critic and playwright.

X: @chiminomatic

How to see Poor Things

The film opens in select theaters on December 8 and wider on December 22.
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