Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as a teller of bizarre stories weaving dark humor and unexpected scenarios together in the most intriguing possible way. His Oscar-nominated Greek-language breakthrough, Dogtoothwas an exceptional film that led to his English-language hits The Lobster and The Favorite. While he frequently collaborates on original scripts with Efthimis Filippou or brings other fresh ideas from Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis to life, he accomplishes something new and wonderfully successful with Poor Things: adapting someone else’s vision and making it feel entirely like something out of his own brain.
A pregnant woman (Emma Stone) jumps off a bridge and is soon brought back to life by a curious scientist, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), himself permanently disfigured from his father’s many experiments on him, but with the brain of the infant inserted into the mother’s body. As a result, the way Bella learns about the world is unique, which fascinates Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), an eager student hired by Dr. Baxter, who Bella affectionately calls “God,” to track her progress. As God and Max seek to shelter Bella from the harsh world around her, a man with altogether different aims, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), spirits her away from the safe home she’s always known to introduce her to the world.
There is so much going on in Poor Things that it can be difficult to process it all. Early scenes are shot in black and white, and the camera’s shape, orientation, and angle, guided by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, frequently changes to provide a new perspective on the mad science at play within God’s vast estate where Bella roams free and frequently causes chaos . Outside, the world is full of color and weirdness, mysteriously anachronistic with certain futuristic elements splashed across the beautiful skies and landscapes. It’s an astonishing visual journey that is worthwhile enough to behold on its own even without the story elements. The production design by Shona Heath and James Price is particularly noteworthy and eye-popping, and costume designer Holly Waddington is exceptionally creative with the outfits that Bella wears which are at the same time dazzling and grotesque, a fitting analogy for these people who appear scarred and abnormal to those around them yet have their own wonderful outlook on the world.
Audiences should be entirely prepared for a definitive Lanthimos experience, which involves disturbing content that can’t entirely be rationalized by the humorous and twisted way in which it’s presented. This is certainly a comedy, but it involves plot points and moments which are deathly serious and aren’t entirely played as such. It’s closer in nature to The Lobster than Lanthimos’ other works, employing some inexplicable magical ingredients to propel its story but nothing inherently supernatural. It has the wit of The Favorite wrapped up in a much more sinister package, another outstanding script from McNamara, who created the fantastic Hulu series The Great and here adapts Alasdair Gray’s novel. Every wild new twist and turn is welcome and maintains the same engagement level for two hours and twenty minutes, no small feat for a film that asks its audience to travel down a dark and increasingly bizarre rabbit hole.
It’s hard to imagine this film being as good as it is without the presence of Stone. After her previous collaboration with Lanthimos in The Favorite alongside Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, Stone is fully capable of leading her own project as the distinctively singular Bella. The way in which she tracks her progression from someone with a very limited understanding of the world to a much more fully realized individual is particularly fantastic. She’s not the only one worthy of praise from the cast, with Ruffalo delivering an atypically villainous and hilarious turn as the very haughty and self-obsessed Wedderburn. Dafoe is superb as usual, and Youssef very well-suited to his part. The ensemble also includes memorable roles for Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, and Kathryn Hunter. The actors and the technical elements work together in marvelous concert to create an entirely involving cinematic experience that’s difficult to shake and forget.
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Poor Things screens in the Main Slate section at the 61st New York Film Festival and will be released theatrically on December 8th.