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Poor Things review: An absolute masterpiece

'Poor Things' is far from monstrous, even though it stitches together several disparate influences, cinematic and literary, in an unholy mix

Emma Stone is magnificent as the creature, Bella.

By Raja Sen

LAST PUBLISHED 29.03.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

God is a monster. His full name is Godwin Baxter, and while he is a mad doctor—disfigured by his own mad father before him—everyone calls him God, and his word is, fittingly, incontrovertible. This is but one way in which Poor Things—the Oscar-winning film by Yorgos Lanthimos, streaming now on Disney+ Hotstar—understands Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein, of course, was the name of the doctor—as pedants (myself included) are quick to correct—not the monster, yet a Frankenstein costume comes with bolts in the side of the head, not a lab-coat. Lanthimos’s film makes it clear that there is little difference. Frankenstein is his own monster.

Poor Things, on the other hand, is far from monstrous, even though it stitches together several disparate influences, cinematic and literary, in an unholy mix, like a creature that is part-pig part-chicken. This may be an adaptation of a 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, and yet Lanthimos manages to cast a truly unique enchantment, a film that is more dreamy than it is grotesque, a film that plays out like a fable both horrific and optimistic. It is not simply Frankenstein, but also Belle De Jour. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an absolute miracle. In the most conventional (and magical) sense, this is a fairy tale.

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And what a fairy! Emma Stone is magnificent as the creature, Bella, all bafflement and bravado. God, you see, has been upto his usual sleight-of-gland, and this grown woman has the brain of a baby planted inside her head. There are telltale scars on the base of her skull, and her behaviour is disarmingly naive and frighteningly, even shockingly, forthright. Bella walks, at first, like a wind-up doll, gradually realising that she’s the one doing the winding. She has been schooled in reason but doesn’t know the world, or its people. As her first lover tells her, “You don’t know what bananas are, you’ve never heard of chess, and yet you know what ‘empirically’ means!"

Speaking of which, Bella takes lovers. Several lovers. The film charts her radical sexual awakening, taking her from actual apples to bad apples, with many an exotic fruit along the way. The idea of men taking advantage of a woman who literally has the brain of a child is rightfully sickening, but Lanthimos shows us Poor Things through the eye of Bella, and the film switches from black-and-white to colour right after she first has sex. Her world opens up and, as she begins to demand pleasure, she starts questioning the world more insistently. The aforementioned lover No.1, initially besotted with Bella’s childish enthusiasm, explodes into tantrums far more infantile than she can muster.

This is a world of men and men are its babies, from God himself who feebly considers the idea of laying with his creation, to the cynic on a ship who drily tells Bella about pointlessness, only to be informed that he is but “a broken boy". The men in this film want to control, to impose, to draw boundaries that may not apply to themselves. Poor Things is about the masculine ideal of power, and how reductive—and plain silly—it looks through the eyes of one who hasn’t yet been conditioned to it.

Stone is spectacular in the part, and as she grapples with male instruction and hypocrisy, we can palpably see the gears turn in her head as she draws connections and defies their logic. She becomes smarter, more assured, more herself, before our very eyes. She starts out unable to say more than a syllable and ends up speaking in French and studying medicine. Her delivery of lines is so beautifully honed that Bella’s arguments appear freshly made up. It’s a fearless performance, naked in every sense of the word, a profound expression of self-awareness and defiance and overwhelmingly free will.

Lanthimos’s world is entirely his own. The start is forbidding and austere, black and white German Expressionism that, seen through Bella’s newly liberated gaze, turns into the colour of a pop-up-book. All is surreal in a Terry Gilliam sort of way, but a lot more jaw-dropping, with creatures and objects, faces and fetishes, all fused together in wild combinations, set in cities that are steampunk versions of themselves, impossibly vivid and futuristic. Lisbon, Alexandria, Paris. For us—as for Bella—everything looks fascinating.

The film argues against being judgemental. In a Parisian brothel, Bella asks that she choose the men she would sleep with, and then, seeing a facially disfigured man, it’s easy to assume she would not choose him. However—unlike us—she doesn’t judge by looking at him, and enjoys herself with him. Those who think Poor Things condones the sexualisation of minors are missing the point altogether. The film says the opposite, but goes beyond sexual liberation: it says Bella has no obligation to anyone—not even our expectations of right and wrong.

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Willem Dafoe plays Godwin Baxter and delivers such heartbreaking pathos that you understand God’s appeal even when censuring his actions. Mark Ruffalo is staggeringly funny as Duncan Wedderburn, a pompous windbag and lothario who takes Bella away from God’s mansion-shaped cage. Imagine, if you will, Eve leaving the Garden of Eden to go cavort with the sexy snake while Adam stayed back with God. (Adam, in this case, is God’s apprentice Max McCandles, a mousy Ramy Youssef) who seems well-meaning but furthers the subjugation of Bella.) Poor Things, despite its potent powers, is a comedy, one where Dafoe references a popular Green Goblin meme (in which he says "I'm something of a scientist," and in this film, playing a scientist, says "I’m something of a romantic") and where Ruffalo slams his head on a bar counter with superlative slapstick grace. Twice.

The writing is immaculate. Lanthimos is reunited with Australian playwright Tony Macnamara—who wrote The Favourite, and my beloved series The Great—and the results are madcap perfection. Bella describes Duncan as “able to elicit exceptional sensations through my whole body and leave me yelping happily", but also wishes “to dash his body, form, cadaver into the sea". Duncan describes Bella’s as “the devil wrapped in an alluring body and a brain that picks people apart". The film is a riot where sex is called “furious jumping". What could possibly be better?

Poor Things is a masterpiece—a masterpiece which points out that even the master doesn’t know better. How to build a woman? Let her be.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the most thrilling directors in cinema, and one of his most essential films, Dogtooth, is streaming now on Mubi. The film is about a couple who shut their grown children away from the world at large, and it is nightmarish, thought-provoking and brilliant.

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.

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