The past decade in cinema has been an intriguing journey through the rise and fall of the franchise film. Ushered in by a series of dominant Marvel movies, theaters were swamped with adaptations, prequels, and sequels. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and a series of box office bombs from major studios have caused a seismic shift in entertainment. This can be credited in part to A24, a dominant distributor which has introduced a bevy of high-quality, unique arthouse films to a mainstream audience.
Their influence in theaters has grown steadily, encapsulated by a series of smash hit showings like Lady Bird, Hereditary, Moonlight, and The Whale. But 2022 was an all-time high for the company, landing the year’s Best Picture with its showstopper Everything Everywhere All at Once. The pioneering film resonated with audiences and grossed an impressive $144 million worldwide at the box office. It’s a sign that what once may have been considered too bizarre for the average viewer may now be accessible to the open mind.
This year, arthouse cinema seems to be here to stay. Evidenced by Oppenheimer’s summer box office domination (though it certainly isn't "indie"), audiences are salivating for something fresh and meticulously made. And what better to replace a few failed superhero sequels and Disney remakes than independent films? Moviegoers are now more intrigued than ever by artful storytelling, even from the industry’s weird uncle in the corner. And Poor Things, acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest opus, is exactly that.
Unabashedly bizarre and unflinchingly genuine, Poor Things is a glorious romp through the world of the Greek weird wave. While some films lack direction, style, or heart, this showstopper leads with all three in spades. I love it when a film is authentically that of its creators; every frame, every minute detail is dripping with Lanthimos’s signature vision. Watching this film felt like being dropped into a demented Willy Wonka at times, and while such gleeful peculiarity may turn some off, every moment spoke to me as a carefully plotted creative decision. This kind of deliberate filmmaking is what produces masterful work, whether it be as grounded as Oppenheimer or as deliciously absurd as Poor Things. Both are distinct approaches to the same end: a movie made with passion.
In its opening scene, Poor Things thrusts the audience into a Gothic fantasyland, shot in black and white with a frequent fisheye lens. It’s reminiscent of Old Hollywood, as if Lanthimos wants us to feel transported into 1922’s Nosferatu. Languid strings and melodramatic camerawork are ripped straight from a much older playbook, and yet it feels undeniably pioneering at the same time. Perhaps it’s the array of bizarre visual gags that frolic onscreen, from a horse attached to a gas-powered carriage to a group of dog-duck hybrids that wander about the gardens. There is a dated dreamfulness about Lanthimos’ work in this first act, foreshadowing the Wizard of Oz-like burst of color to come.
This is a movie grounded in the mythos of Frankenstein; the idea of a corpse resurrected in a twisted experiment is universally familiar. Yet instead of the monster emerging grotesque and hideous, Dr. Frankenstein himself is the ugly duckling. Willem Dafoe plays a disfigured mad scientist with a patchwork face, in desperate pursuit of scientific advancement. His “monster”, on the other hand, is portrayed by the gorgeous Emma Stone, outfitted in luscious black hair and sumptuous clothes. This intriguing reversal of the “ugly monster, handsome scientist” trope has fascinating ramifications for the plot, and for what Lanthimos is trying to say apart from his fanciful camerawork.
In the original Frankenstein, the creature must contend with revulsion from the rest of the world as its resuscitated brain develops; in Poor Things, the beautiful Bella Baxter is seen as a trophy rather than an outcast. She is isolated and ostracized in a completely different way- the men in her life wish to cage her like an exotic bird, to possess her physical beauty and her eccentric mind. Bella’s creator, like the original tale, attempts to hide her away from the world, but only in an effort to preserve her naivety as a perfect research specimen. Everything about her character and how she is treated speaks to a perceived womanly innocence, which colors her interactions with nearly every other person in the film. Her “father” attempts to hide her away, her lover tries to take advantage of her naivety, and her eventual husband quite literally tries to hold her hostage. While their intentions vary, they all commodify her purity as a "newborn" woman. None of them behaves as if she is a full-fledged human being.
While the film is overall an oddball comedy, its heart lies in a resonant, inspired depiction of the feminine experience. How exactly does a grown woman with the brain of an infant navigate the world? Bella’s conventional beauty does not permit her the grace of a normal life- she must experience the unique growing pains of girlhood while grappling with the notion of her very existence itself. It’s a distorted, surrealist coming-of-age story, nestled in a nostalgic Gothic framework. Barbie, narrated by Vincent Price. And its joyous, unabashed presentation, both deeply artful and hilariously shameless, reinvigorated my love for the experience of cinema in itself.
From an audiovisual perspective, Poor Things is an obvious masterpiece. Lanthimos painstakingly crafts a warped playground of his own, presenting a cacophonous blend of film noir and dreamy impressionism. I simply couldn’t wipe the giddy smile off my face throughout the entire spectacle- a mishmash of vibrant swirls of color, whimsical Edwardian-style costuming, and steampunk technology. The result is a nearly Seussian fever dream, an ever-absurd stroll through a wonderland of Lanthimos’ making. And making it all the more surreal is a disconcerting soundscape of wobbly strings and organs. Every feeling, from childlike curiosity to perplexed sadness, is captured in its otherworldly score.
Aside from the film’s technical merits, Poor Things is yet another effortless portrayal by Lanthimos of a human in search of their humanity. In previous works such as The Lobster and The Favourite, his leading voice is that of the socially inept and the emotionally stoic, attempting to feel their way through the world. This story is no exception; as a result of her bizarre rebirth, Bella's clinical manner of thought sets her apart from the outside world. While her treatment of life as a continuous science experiment is played for laughs, there is something inherently relatable about it. That's the magic of Lanthimos as a storyteller- through the weeds of whimsy and wackiness, there is tender, soft soil to land on. Through an uninhibited childish lens, Poor Things tackles human sexuality and societal norms, neither of which ever feels too heavy-handed. There’s an unending sense of optimism in this strange story, preserving a lightness through its series of disturbing plot points.
As art-heavy as the film may be, there's substance to its style in its exceptional acting. Emma Stone delivers the performance of a lifetime as Bella Baxter, a grown woman with the transplanted brain of an infant. From her very first moment on screen, she embeds herself in the character through impeccable physical theatre. Stone feels through the world as a newborn donkey would, uncoordinated and rash. But the inanity never feels put-on or mocking; Bella is genuinely explored for all she's worth, and played with tremendous heart. Her committed, sincere portrayal ages remarkably through the film; as Bella matures mentally and broadens her understanding, Stone simmers to a subtler, more nuanced performance. Still, she never loses touch with her character's heart: a persisting curiosity and recklessness, unfazed by social niceties.
Her costars are equally strong- Stone acts against the great Willem Dafoe, renowned veteran of weird. He's a perfect fit for Poor Things, easily personifying another bizarre role to new heights. While far from the loudest character in the film, Defoe’s eccentricities color his mad scientist into a rounded, deeply understandable human being. His performance, while as eccentric as ever, is measured and believable in its emotional moments.
The true scene-stealer, perhaps the “Ken” to Stone’s Shelley-esque “Barbie”, is the utterly hammed-up Mark Ruffalo. He devours every second of screen time as Duncan Wedderburn, a foppish playboy with ill intent. Ruffalo's hilarious melodrama is a fantastic foil to Stone's matter of fact delivery, and his attempts to lure her into his lustful paws are larger than life. He feels exactly as if he belongs in each whimsical set, which he promptly chews to bits and regurgitates.
Although it isn’t the first "weird movie" or "art film" ever made, Poor Things remains innovative in its unflinching integrity. It's a step in the right direction for a struggling industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This closes out a year of promise; months earlier, Christopher Nolan's passion project Oppenheimer became one of the first films in a while to break through a franchise-dominated box office. The success of these films, including the globally revered Everything Everywhere All at Once, may be a reflection of changing audience tastes in media. Perhaps modern moviegoers have grown tired of dispassionate, artless schlock from massive production houses. Is quality film entering another golden age, where independent creators can flourish? I certainly hope so, and I want nothing more than to see another movie like Poor Things soon.
Edited by Victoria Muzio
Photo: theatrical release poster, copyright Searchlight Pictures
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