Enter the bizarre, steampunk world of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for off-kilter black comedies like The Lobster and The Favourite. Usually flirting with cruelty amidst playful satire, Lanthimos brings his signature style to Poor Things – and the result is a true visual and comedic feast.
Adapted from a novel by Scottish author Alasdair Gray, the film has an irresistibly quirky premise. At its core is innocent protagonist Bella Baxter, brought to vivid life by Emma Stone’s physical comedy and emotional range. Bella exists as the product of rather unorthodox experiments by a prominent surgeon named Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Sheltered in his home under the care of a stern housekeeper, wide-eyed Bella is innocent and childlike, despite having the mature body of a young woman. As she rapidly develops intellectually and discovers her sexuality, hijinks involving the doctor’s charming but nefarious lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) take Bella out into the tough wider world.
What unfolds from there is weird and wonderful – sometimes disturbing, but always utterly unpredictable. Lanthimos walks a tightrope, blending cruelty with compassion just long enough to give you vertigo. And that’s when the film is at its mind-bending best, propelled by outstanding performances and sumptuous visuals in a Victorian fantasy world. So strap yourself in for Poor Things and its misfit characters, including sweet but hapless suitor Max (Ramy Youssef). You’ll emerge exhilarated, with plenty to mull on what it really means to embrace life’s richness as one’s truest self.
A Dark Fairytale Unfolds
At the core of Poor Things is the father-daughter dynamic between prominent surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter and his ward, Bella Baxter. Sheltered in the doctor’s home under his care and that of stern housekeeper Mrs. Prim, Bella exists as an experiment – the product of Dr. Baxter’s ethically-dubious scientific pursuits. While disfigured by his work, the doctor is benevolent towards innocent Bella, who has the mature physique of a young woman but a childlike naiveté.
As Bella rapidly develops intellectually and discovers her own sexuality, hijinks ensue. She delights in “making myself happy” through self-pleasure, eager to introduce the concept to others. Dr. Baxter permits his sweet but hapless medical student Max to propose to Bella, on the condition that they continue to live under his guardianship.
Just when it appears a premature happy ending will descend upon this eccentric makeshift family, the doctor’s scheming lawyer Duncan Wedderburn slinks his way into their lives. Exuding louche charm, the scoundrel sweeps Bella off her feet and out from under the doctor’s wing. Whisking her away on a fanciful voyage of discovery, Duncan intends an adventurous courtship culminating in their wedding.
But feisty Bella has adventures of her own in mind – and a firm sense of logic that conflicts with Duncan’s designs. As they travel from Lisbon to Alexandria and then Paris, Bella immerses herself in fresh experiences. From the beauty of fado music to the harsh realities of poverty and sex work, she encounters life’s richness and brutality with openness. Ever-curious, judgment gives way to a drive to live according to her own uncompromising convictions.
Even as dashing Duncan hopes to mold Bella into his own ideal woman, she grows more radical and defiant. Through sometimes brutal trials, Bella inches towards a sense of empowerment – threatening all that the men who orbit her think they know about being a “proper” woman. With innocence and experience colliding head-on, her travels lay the groundwork for Bella to emerge as her own truest self.
The story darkens, but Bella’s spirit refuses to break. Weaving through the worlds of privilege and poverty, respectability and scandal, she discovers that vibrant living means embracing all of life’s contradictions without sacrificing one’s freedom or dignity.
The Heart and Soul of Poor Things
At the heart of the film lies Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter, a complex heroine whose transformation epitomizes female empowerment. With the innocence of a child and the desires of a grown woman, Bella has an irrepressible zest for life. Her sheltered upbringing leaves her devoid of societal norms; instead, an innate sense of self buoys Bella through eye-opening adventures. Stone’s physical comedy and emotional depth bring Bella to vivid life. We root for this feminist force of nature as she charges into scintillating worlds unknown.
Motivating Bella’s odyssey is Willem Dafoe’s eccentric Dr. Godwin Baxter, whose brilliant yet twisted experiments birthed his beloved ward. While disfigured by his controversial scientific pursuits, Godwin’s paternal compassion towards Bella reveals his humanity. Dafoe brings warmth to offset Godwin’s simmering inner demons, painting a portrait of a complex man haunted by existential questions. His dangerous scientific proclivities hint at a desperate quest for meaning.
Sweeping in to upend Bella’s sheltered life is Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn. Exuding louche charm as a roguishly handsome scoundrel, Ruffalo is clearly having a ball. Duncan may be a schemer looking to mold Bella into hisideal woman, but damn if Ruffalo doesn’t make villainy seem like a good bit of fun. Teasing at his lusty intent with the arch of an eyebrow, he cuts a romantically dangerous figure – promising adventures that allure Bella despite his transparent flaws.
Beyond this central trio lies a strong supporting cast. Sweet but hapless medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) offers youthful passion as Bella’s initial suitor prior to Duncan’s machinations. As Godwin’s stern housekeeper Mrs. Prim, Vicki Pepperdine mines humor from even the smallest reactionary gaze. Together with other colorful figures, the ensemble brings Lanthimos’ madcap world to life in all its bizarre glory.
In the end, though, our eyes perpetually return to Stone’s Bella. Anchoring a film populated by eccentrics and weirdos, her performance is a tour de force unveiling the inspiring metamorphosis of a woman marching to her own drummer – propriety be damned. She is the beating heart in a movie that enthralls us with questions about life’s essential meaning – and our own role in crafting it.
Navigating the Path to Self-Determination
At its heart, Poor Things is a tale of female empowerment and bodily autonomy. Through Bella’s eyes, we explore coming-of-age themes from a feminist lens. Raised in a sheltered environment outside societal norms, Bella retains a childlike innocence even as her womanly form awakens sexually. Unbound by shame or judgement, she champions self-pleasure and desire free from restraint. As Bella ventures into society’s murky moral terrain, her liberation becomes increasingly hard-won – but all the more inspiring.
Initially protected by kindly Dr. Baxter’s paternalism, Bella’s independence blossoms once she connects with the outside world. After the sheltered innocence of childhood comes a fall from grace; temptation arrives in the earthy form of the scoundrel Duncan Wedderburn, who whisks Bella away on adventures both sensual and shocking. Through exposure to life’s underbelly, including sex work, Bella gains worldly wisdom about society’s hypocrisies – and just how far women must go to assert control over their destinies.
Here the film echoes feminist arguments surrounding consent, exploitation and agency. Does Bella’s unbridled and sometimes dangerous sexuality reflect her freedom – or society’s oppression? Lanthimos leaves the question tantalizingly open, but makes clear that Bella bows to no one. For better or worse, her insistence on self-ownership flouts all conventions for proper womanly submission.
Beyond its feminist themes lies a deeper existential inquiry. Can one truly live, love and find purpose while navigating life’s randomness and suffering? Bella confronts the cruelty of fate through vivid episodes revealing the darkness lurking beneath society’s gilded surface. Tragedy shadows even the most vibrant lives; Dr. Baxter’s backstory evokes empathy for how one rationalizes injustice. Yet resilience and hope spring eternal through unity with fellow wayfarers. In forging connections, we find the courage to reject cynicism’s numbing embrace.
What resonates through Poor Things is a call to live authentically and fully. Confronting life’s absurdity need not condemn us to despair; meaning blossoms when we live freely by our own compass, unconstrained by petty conventions or fears. Through Bella’s unpredictable odyssey, the film celebrates the profound bliss discoverable in simply being present. By listening to one’s own unfiltered hopes rather than internalizing outside voices, self-acceptance becomes possible.
A Lavish Victorian Fantasy Brought to Life
Beyond its unconventional narrative, Poor Things dazzles through sumptuous production design transporting us into a retrofuturistic dreamscape. Drawing on steampunk inspiration, the film’s Victorian fantasy world bridges past and future via dashes of the strange and wondrous. Sets, costumes and cinematography blend to create an eclectic style both jarring and hypnotic.
Production designer Shona Heath conjures a parallel universe where regal baroque architecture melds with mad scientist lab equipment. Dr. Baxter’s intricate townhouse overflows with baroque trim, detailed scrollwork, and design nods to early bioscience. Golden frames accentuate anatomy drawings and entomology specimens, suggesting the obsessive focus of its resident scientist playing god.
The home’s stuffy opulence contrasts the gritty worlds Bella encounters when she escapes into the outside world. Shadowy, tilted cityscapes filmed through a distorted lens enhance the disorientation of an innocent let loose. By turns, the screen pops with saturated colors in a romance-by-travelogue across cosmopolitan Europe and the Middle East.
Bella may start out dressed like a toddler in ruffled cotton frocks, but her style evolves in keeping with her adventures. Costume designer Holly Waddington has a blast concocting showstopping confections reflecting Bella’s irrepressible personality. In audacious hats and lavish dresses evoking turn-of-the-century Sarah Bernhardt, Bella makes bourgeois convention entirely her own. The film’s clothing forms a character arc all its own; through sartorial experimentation, our heroine steps into confident ownership of her multifaceted self.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s lensing captures and heightens this madcap world’s eccentric extravagance. Tilted camera angles echo the characters’ off-kilter perspectives, while nearly monochromatic environments suggest the stifling mores Bella rebels against. Fisheye lenses warp and accentuate large barren spaces to underscore themes of loneliness and alienation. As Bella embraces life’s full technicolor potential, the camera blooms right alongside her worldview.
By interweaving visual influences from past eras and fantastical imagination, the film’s style reflects its central themes. Conformist Victorian rigidity collides with dazzlingly new points of view, throwing into relief the importance of forging one’s own path. Just like the sympathetic creatures Dr. Baxter engineers, Bella herself represents an utterly novel creation proudly escaping the staid archetypes that seek to contain her.
Acting Riches Anchored by Emma Stone’s Tour de Force
At the heart of Poor Things lies Emma Stone’s knockout turn as the irrepressible Bella Baxter. Stone has always exuded clever wit, but here she unleashes her improvisatory physical genius to delirious effect. With gangly limb movements suggesting a fawn freshly finding its feet, Stone mines considerable humor from Bella’s innocent discoveries – while nimbly pivoting to convey wisdom beyond her years. Whether conveying guileless joy or righteous fury at injustice, Stone’s emotional depth and comedic timing leave us captivated.
Matching Stone scene for scene is Willem Dafoe as benevolent Dr. Godwin Baxter. Endearingly offbeat with a tender fatherly affection for Bella, Dafoe brings welcome warmth to offset the insidious strokes hinting at Godwin’s hidden depths. With sinister backstory dripping out bit by bit, the actor keeps us guessing about the doctor’s complex motivations and the secrets lurking behind his scarred façade. Dafoe’s soulful performance lingers movingly even amidst the madcap antics encircling him.
For pure moxie and magnetism though, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s saucy Duncan Wedderburn who threatens to steal the show right out from under Stone and Dafoe. His raffish ladies’ man makes scandalous seem downright appealing. Indeed, turning wickedness into a roguish charm offensive has rarely seemed so enjoyable. Adding a straw boater hat to his dapper period wear, Ruffalo cuts a dashing figure – equal parts ridiculous and captivating.
The ensemble’s uniformly superb support includes Ramy Youssef’s sweet but hapless Max as Bella’s erstwhile love interest, and Vicki Pepperdine’s stern housekeeper Mrs. Prim. Together with other zany figures, the cast breaths spirited life into Lanthimo’s weird world without missing a fabulously deranged beat.
But in the end, Poor Things belongs to Emma Stone, whose Bella Baxter represents a career-high tour de force. She reminds us that self-invention should be a daring and delightful process of embracing one’s complex truths, propriety be damned.
Lanthimos Spins Magic from the Macabre
In Poor Things, director Yorgos Lanthimos reaffirms his status as a master satirist strolling along the razor’s edge between comedy and cruelty – and leaving us spellbound by his daredevil balancing act. True to form, Lanthimos concocts a world seductively sinister in its funhouse warped vision of Victorian propriety. He has a magician’s ability to blindsight an audience, fashioning the perverse into prestige by weaponizing our own discomfort against us.
Lanthimos excels at using opposites to illuminate deeper connections. In juxtaposing innocence and corruption, his films expose how easily one morphs into the other based on a cruel whim of fate. By revealing depravity’s roots in patterns of abuse and dehumanization, Lanthimos complicates easy finger-pointing. Therein lies his gift: spinning gold from life’s agonies through painfully funny explorations of darkness.
This makes Lanthimos a difficult filmmaker to pin down. His ability to shift tones and see humanity through warped funhouse mirrors is endlessly unpredictable. Beneath Poor Things’ many layers of formal and tonal overkill lies an emotional intricacy advanced by his daring. The cruelty accompanying Satire serves a purpose; without descending into pessimism, Lanthimos uses cold splashes of reality to remind us why retaining imagination and wonder against all odds can feel so vital.
Somehow fusing avant-garde sensibilities with mainstream entertainment, Lanthimos draws us into unfamiliar terrain before skillfully circling back to fundamentally recognizable human experiences. In forcing viewers to examine their own reflexive biases and emotional triggers, his films foster self-reflection laying bare life’s thorniest contradictions. By turns horrifying and hilarious, visceral and philosophical, Poor Things embodies the sublime disorientation of gazing over the abyss – and discovering ourselves in the process.
Letting One’s True Freak Flag Fly
What stays with you long after Poor Things’ madcap finale is the film’s audacious and profound case for radically embracing self-acceptance. Its skewering of societal hypocrisy reminds why conforming to mass expectations flattens the human spirit; liberation lies in recognizing life’s complexity rather than hiding behind simplistic judgements. Unafraid to stare down soul-sucking cynicism, Lanthimos celebrates resilient souls who nurture wonder against the odds. The greatest adventures often await just on the other side of society’s arbitrary boundaries.
Reveling in irreverent humor and stark absurdity, Poor Things distills life’s chaos into bright nuggets of hard-won insight. Lanthimos wields outlandishness to expose confining social conditioning and celebrate the ripple effect when rare individuals shatter rigid codes. The world may be random and ruthless, but integrity and fulfillment are still possible when we relinquish fears poisoning unbridled self-expression.
Echoing its heroine’s refusal to be compressed into convenient archetypes, the film itself shape-shifts wildly across genres and tones. The dizzying ride can prove divisive, just like nonconformists who move through life according to their own unorthodox rhythms. But that amplifies Poor Things’ exhilaration and poignancy as a tribute to the irrepressible human spirit – in all its freaky, deviant glory.
When the credits roll, we emerge dazzled, dizzy, and wondering whether to laugh or cry at the bittersweet uncertainty of it all. But Lanthimos might argue that ambivalent response holds the deep beauty of fully engaging with life rather than retreating into simplicity. Let Poor Things pull you gleefully down the rabbit hole, and the everyday world may never look quite the same once you resurface.
Embrace the strange; the strange may set you free.
In the end, Poor Things stands as that rarest of gems: a film that sparkles with defiant originality rather than playing it safe. Its twisted charm and emotional depth linger, leaving us to marvel at the magic conjured from life’s raging chaos. Sink into its lavish sensuality and cutting wit, and everyday existence may never look quite the same. Yorgos Lanthimos continues to stake his claim as one of cinema’s most exciting contemporary visionaries.
- Emma Stone delivers a tremendous, multilayered lead performance
- Imaginative worldbuilding and visual design creating a fantastical alternate Victorian setting
- Whip-smart screenplay blending black comedy, emotion, and thought-provoking themes
- Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo provide excellent support with colorful character turns
- Tonally adventurous storytelling with unpredictable plotting
- Ambitious themes related to identity, empowerment, social constraints, morality
- The bizarre humor and erratic story beats may prove divisive for some audiences
- Uneven pacing during the extensive world travels segment
- Ambiguous ending may frustrate viewers craving resolution
- The darker moments and cruelty could be off-putting for more sensitive fans