Poor Things (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) 

By: Adam Freed

Acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos has given life to his masterpiece.  Poor Things (releasing on December 8) is a stunningly beautiful, hilariously brilliant and daringly inventive work of art that needs to be seen and felt in order to be believed.  Parallel to the questionable decisions of Lanthimos’ scientist turned father figure character Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by a monstrous and breathtaking Willem Dafoe, the Greek director has blessed the world with an absurdist experiment of the mind and body that has every reason to fail, yet should become the new standard for artistic cinematic vision.  Lanthimos’ previous works The Lobster (2015) , The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), and The Favourite (2018), all found purchase in the hearts and minds of artistically inclined audiences, yet despite their success do not wield a vision or weaponized depth of character to this extent.   Poor Things is not a complex story, but presents itself with an elaborate emotionality of immense complexity.

The product of Dr. Baxter’s divine madness is his prized experiment Bella. Born into a black and white world, painstakingly tactile and reminiscent of the greatest works of MC Escher, Bella Baxter begins life anew in the body of a grown woman with the brain of a child.  Every detail of the Baxter home is created with such intricate visual precision that Poor Things should feel as welcome at the holiday cineplex as it would hanging on the walls of the Louvre.  The evidence of Lanthimos’ visual brilliance is that unlike the priceless offerings displayed in  Paris, this film seems to master all artistic forms simultaneously.  Still frames of Poor Things warrant study as they unveil a diversity of artistic mediums including oils, watercolor, plaster, wood, glass and chiseled marble. Every finite detail of the Baxter “childhood” home is impressively tactile.  To be held in even higher regard is the exquisite glory of the film’s costumes designed by Holly Waddington.  The intricacy and detail of which seem to be pulled from centuries past and yet with each quilted fabric, stitch, and fold surpass the previously worn standard of excellence.    

Waddington’s extraordinary quilted artwork reaches its greatest nobility when worn by producer and star Emma Stone, in what is a new high water performance in her already mythical career. Stone’s Bella Baxter is exquisitely nuanced as she plays a character of confounding juvenile ignorance and yet soars to the level of evolutionary dynamism.   It is with the keenness of this dynamic evolution that audiences will witness the full extent of the emotional arc a young woman must bear. Bella Baxter may begin as a freak of nature, void of all self awareness,  but she becomes the standard of what young women may aspire to emulate for generations to come.  Although initially portrayed in black-and-white, Bella‘s knowledge of the world expands into vivid color as the expansive nature of her grasp grows in kind. Most notable of Bella’s transitional traits is that of empathy, which hardens her, yet deems her capable of pondering beyond her inner desires.

Adding to the film’s absurd hilarity are Bella’s dueling love interests played by Ramy Youssef and Mark Ruffalo who present the yin and the yang of what a man should represent in the 21st-century, despite Bella’s early 20th century London existence.  Baxter’s unquenchable thirst for academic and carnal knowledge is satiated only through her ample opportunity to gain equal experience in both endeavors.  The extent to which she earns this wisdom presents the film’s only real grounds for prudish critique as Bella engages in numerous gratuitous sexual experiences throughout the film.  Equally enlightening though is the curious regard Bella holds for the older women she encounters, who present aging and educational pursuits with an aspirational grace.   With his absurd comedic and emotional experiment, Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos has created a piece of art that will stand the test of time and will grow in appreciation with the exploration of its infinite details.  

Target Score:  10/10 -  Yorgos Lanthimos has flirted with prior greatness but now leaves no room for debate.  Poor Things is a film lover's fantasy as it explores various artistic realms, themes drenched in humanity and evolutionary character building with such mastery that a single viewing cannot possibly do it justice. 

Poor Things was reviewed in conjunction with Movie Archer's coverage of the 59th Annual Chicago International Film Festival.