After THE FAVOURITE gave Yorgos Lanthimos success, acclaim and a game lead actress on a bigger budget than his earlier films, the director aimed those resources at a project he’d been trying to do since 2009: an adaptation of the 1992 novel Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer by Alasdair Gray. While I’ve read that the novel is set in a realistic Victorian London, Lanthimos has turned it into a colorful (and sometimes black-and-white) gothic cartoon world, with shades of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, maybe a little BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, while retaining his cock-eyed view, dark humor and fascination with chaotic people upending social mores. POOR THINGS was nominated for Oscars for best picture, director, adapted screenplay, actress, supporting actor, makeup, music, costume design, cinematography, editing and production design this morning because they heard I was posting my review today and wanted to try to capitalize on that. I’ll allow it.
Emma Stone (MARMADUKE) stars as Bella Baxter, a Frankensteinian creation made by transplanting the brain of an infant into the body of her dead mother. It will be a very upsetting experience if you think of this character as a literal child, but in this fantastical world she makes more sense as a metaphor for an unhappy woman reborn with no past, no expectations, and no self consciousness. She has no idea what anybody expects of her because she has no past and lives among various wobbly animal hybrids in a German expressionist castle, forbidden to go outside by her maker, who she calls God (short for Godwin), played by Willem Dafoe (SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL).
God is a second generation envelope-pushing surgeon and medical school professor whose disfigured face looks like a Mike Mignola drawing* and whose various ailments require him to be hooked up to strange machines and do repulsive things like burp out a large bubble after each meal. Dafoe makes him seem kinda lovable despite being a literal monster and demonstrable madman; he also seems to have no clue that the experiments he occasionally mentions his father performing on him during his childhood constitute horrific abuse. He hires admiring student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef, DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT) to assist with Bella, and Max maintains deference for God’s alleged scientific brilliance in between wincing at increasingly shocking happenings around the Baxter estate.
I also feel for God’s maid Mrs. Prim (Vicki Pepperdine, MAGIC MIKE’S LAST DANCE), who stands around with an “oh jesus, what now?” frown on her face as Bella pees on the floor or repeatedly stabs a cadaver in the face or smashes specimen jars or what have you.
The latter tantrum happens after Bella storms in on an experiment, and whatever she interrupts involves frantically trying to put out a fire on the hair of a naked corpse. Nobody acknowledges or questions it at all, so you gotta assume that type of shit happens all the time around here.
Max is one of the few men in the movie who’s not a total bastard, and the person who shows the most empathy toward Bella, but he still sucks because he harbors a crush on this woman-child he’s helping raise and unethically agrees to marry her after God suggests it. If she’s willing, of course. And after making sure God didn’t create her to be his mistress. He kinda thought that was what was going on.
Bella actually likes the idea and agrees to the engagement, but then Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, THE DENTIST), a sleazy lawyer hired to look over the prenup for God, convinces her to run off with him on a debaucherous journey of hedonism and sexual experimentation. Bella, who recently figured out how to masturbate and was excited to show everybody else how to do it, not only has zero shame about sex of any kind (with strangers, for money, etc.), but has no idea anybody else would judge her for it. So she just does what she wants.
This is a very funny movie, with Stone doing the heavy lifting in an extremely physical performance as a character with no self consciousness whatsoever. At first she speaks with adorably bizarre sentence structures and she does an incredible job of always walking off balance and without any attempt at grace or femininity. And there’s a scene where she hears music in public and gets to really demonstrate the concept of “dance like no one is watching.” With practice she gets walking and talking down pretty reasonably, and maybe it’s even funnier when she’s still crude and free of all constraints but talks in a facsimile of a witty upper class intellectual.
Men are always trying to confine Bella. When Duncan realizes he can’t stop her from running off and having sex with whoever she chooses, he brings her on a luxury cruise ship. Then he starts worry about her mind. She makes new friends Martha Von Kurtzroc (Hanna Schygulla, THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, THE DELTA FORCE) and Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT) and they start loaning her books, so Duncan throws those in the water. Seems like something Gaston would do, but nobody said this was gonna be subtle about its themes. I like the part where Bella can see people starving and dying in Alexandria so she tries to go down to help them, but the path is collapsed. A physical barrier between the rich and the poor, in case some day some rich person comes along who actually cares.
She loses all of Duncan’s gambling winnings trying to give them to the poor, so they end up broke in Paris and she somewhat accidentally gets a job at a brothel, where she befriends an inked up madame named Swiney (Kathryn Hunter, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH) and a prostitute named Toinette (Suzy Bemba, KANDISHA) who teaches her about socialism. (I’ve read that the book has more about that. It doesn’t register much here.)
Eventually she returns to God and Max, who are already raising another creation, Felicity (a dead-eyed Margaret Qualley, THE NICE GUYS), who underlines that Bella is a unique person because the other version they made of her is not the same at all. There’s also a threat out there of being spotted by people who knew Bella before she was Bella, which will bring her into the clutches of a motherfucker named General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott, POSSESSOR). But this is kind of a fairy tale. It’s got some darkness, but it’s gonna end with a smile, I promise.
Lanthimos and his FAVOURITE cinematographer Robbie Ryan continue their love of weird fish eye lenses and shit, which really works here as Bella’s off-balance view of the world. Production designers Shona Heath (who had only worked on shorts) and James Price (art director of PADDINGTON 2 and JUDY) go further than previous Lanthimos movies in creating an alternate universe visually. Another VIP is costume designer Holly Waddington (LADY MACBETH, The Great), who gives Bella some really crazy dresses in styles that evolve along with her. One of them weirdly reminded me of the armor at the beginning of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. And I guess this is the first time Lanthimos has used an original score, but it’s an unorthodox, atonal one by English pop musician Jerskin Fendrix. Maybe too quirky for the easily annoyed, but I think it works.
The screenplay is by Tony McNamara, the Australian playwright and TV writer who was nominated for an Oscar for THE FAVOURITE, an Emmy for The Great (which he created) and hopefully free Disneyland tickets for CRUELLA. The author of the book, Alasdair Gray, died in 2018, but since Lanthimos has been trying to do this for so long he actually got to go meet with him and get a tour of places in Glasgow that inspired the story.
I’m not sure if they’re half serious or totally joking, but I’ve seen a few people comparing this to FRANKENHOOKER. Having not seen that since the VHS days I don’t remember it well enough to know if there are more parallels than just a resuscitated corpse doing sex work, but personally I see it as a good thing, not a gotcha, if today’s awards contenders have something in common with yesterday’s Frank Henenlotter joints. This is, by the way, the director who made his cinematographer watch the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen, ANGST, as reference for their period costume movie THE FAVOURITE.
I’m not sure, but I think this might be one of those movies that suffers a little bit from its Oscar nominations, in that it causes people to go in assuming it’s supposed to be Real Fuckin Important and that it’s a failure and fraud if it’s not. If you’re looking for something deep I don’t really think POOR THINGS is your top choice. I think it’s About Some Stuff, but I mostly enjoy it on the level of a slightly dark comedy in a cool looking fairy tale world. That actually sounds like back-in-the-day Tim Burton, and it’s not the same as that (it’s hornier, for example), but it might be the best comparison I have. If nothing else this is Stone acting at a new level of complexity without losing the silliness and charm that propelled her from teen comedies to Oscar-winning A-lister in less than a decade. I liked it.
*according to IMDb, prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier’s first seven movies were WAXWORK, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II, NIGHTBREED, HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING, WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME, HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH and CANDYMAN. A real one.