June Butler explores the riches of Poor Things.

If I had the choice of watching a final movie before giving up the ghost, it would have to be Poor Things. It ranks among my all-time personal favourites and is one of the wittiest and funniest films to hit cinema screens in years. I thought it would be impossible to top the wry humour of The Favourite (2018), but Lanthimos has romped home with his latest film. Not one scene is out of place. The script is genius as are the sets, and casting is pitch perfect. Emma Stone as the titular heroine Bella Baxter shines without respite. Mark Ruffalo, playing the dissolute dandy Duncan Wedderburn, hired as a lawyer to oversee Bella’s proposed nuptials, simply transcends to another realm – this is Ruffalo’s defining moment and he joyously embraces it with commitment and unabashed fervour. 

Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is an eccentric physician whose terrifyingly unorthodox approach to surgically recreating life brings with it some serious moral questions – issues which remain unanswered for the duration and form an essential component of the narrative. He gives public anatomy lessons where a flippant approach to the reconstruction of cadavers has garnered him some questionable acolytes. One such disciple, Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef), is enlisted by Godwin Baxter to oversee a personal project as that of minder and supervisor to his young protégé, Bella. Equipped with the mind of a toddler but the body of a beautiful young woman, it soon becomes evident that Bella’s physiognomy and mental capacity are the results of Godwin Baxter’s tinkering as Max is tasked with monitoring the young girl’s abilities and supplying Godwin with a report on her developmental progress. The three pass hours together inside a mansion with a strangely overpowering atmosphere, a gothic presence juxtaposed between menace and frivolity. It is this gorgeous dichotomy that makes for such a richly hued and beautiful film. Godwin Baxter, the mysterious and monstrously scarred puppet-master, is Svengali to the blandly timid Max, who in turn is both mesmerised and repelled by Bella’s antics as she starts to evolve and become more vocal. 

Piqued with increasing curiosity, Max starts to snoop and discovers a macabre secret – Bella was once a married woman. She became pregnant and committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. After Bella was declared deceased, Dr Baxter removed the brain of her unborn foetus and replaced Bella’s adult brain with that of her child. Horrified but undeterred, Max continues to liaise with Godwin when Baxter makes an astonishing offer – he proposes that Max marry Bella. Max is nonplussed and makes the comment that he thought Godwin Baxter was raising Bella to be his mistress and therefore unavailable. Baxter angrily refutes the claim but suggests a legally binding agreement be drawn up stating Bella will never leave the house she grew up in. Max agrees to the deal and Duncan Wedderburn, an effetely pompous legal expert enters the fray. 

The play on interactions between Godwin/Bella and Max is fascinating – Godwin Baxter sees Bella as a project, a diabolical testament to his genius. There is an attempt to monetise Bella’s thought processes and fashion her into the perfect being – free from irritating cardinal traits such as curiosity and the ability to marvel at life itself. Bella, however, has different ideas and after insisting on being taken to a nearby park, her thirst for adventure begins to take flight. Max is largely ineffective, but his character provides a calming balance between the arch-personalities of Godwin and Bella who are change-resistant and need to be offset against each other. Max is an apt foil linking and separating the two. 

When Duncan Wedderburn arrives at the Baxter residence to draw up the marital contract, an already fragile status quo inside the household reaches breaking point and shatters. Wedderburn is intrigued by what he sees as an excessively binding legal document and goes in search of its subject. Locating Bella in a bedroom, he smooth talks her with oily flattery and tries to entice the young girl into absconding with him on a transcontinental adventure. Elated, Bella swiftly agrees and as is the way of young children, tells-all to Godwin Baxter who caves and gives permission for Bella to leave.  

Poor Things is divided into various chapters with each section designed to observe Bella’s increased intellectual growth. From basic sentences to a far greater and more nuanced proficiency in the command of language, Bella’s verbal acumen augments at an ever-accelerated pace, quickly gaining traction to eventually master the art of abstract reasoning and humour – elements of human behaviour that only come about with age and maturity. Early scenes commence with a grey colour palette – I initially thought the film was going to be screened entirely in black and white. As Bella embarks on her journey of maturation, bit-by-bit pastel tints enter the frame and with the passage of time, pigments become vivid, more alive, exploding into a cacophony of depth and colour. Young children see the world through a lens, almost like a fisheye. Life for toddlers is immensely narcissistic. They are utterly and completely egocentric, fail to engage with empathy, choosing instead to live in the moment without regard for those around them. Even though she is now engaged to Max, Bella selects to drug her hapless fiancé and elope with Wedderburn on a hedonistic fast-track to doing what she wants and doing it now. Self-reflection and finding the ability to walk in the shoes of another, is a lesson yet to be learned. The moments of comedy in the script from Bella’s hilarious missteps through etiquette are worth it. I would rewatch the film just for these scenes alone. 

From early scenes, an opulent set design creates an atmospheric sense that allows for Bella’s evolution. The dour facades of Victorian England (albeit with a steampunk creative twist), give way to high-Baroque with its swirling motifs and intricate, delicate carvings, as Bella and Duncan sail from country-to-country a-board a ship that looks like it should really have sunk before arriving at the first port. The Baroque movement was known for its rendering of emotion – coiled, swooping lines capturing movement, tension, and above all romance. If ever there was a style most signifying the apogee of love that enfolds every sensual lived moment, it would be this one. There are features of Art Nouveau throughout the interior décor – sinuous vines on leaves that twirl and spin. Nothing is linear, the curvature of furniture and room layout, with funnelled, uneven surfaces, would be enough to make architect Antoni Gaudi sit up and take notice. Poor Things is an Auto Sensory Meridian Response on steroids and hopped up on sugar. Yorgos Lanthimos has directed a clever, compelling, and exceedingly engaging work of art. It just does not get any better. 




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  2. I absolutely loved this movie. I’ve never understood humanity’s odd social mores and often question them. I think that’s a big part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much. The set design is so whimsical and it completely adds to Bella’s outlook on a world that is so odd, colorful, beautiful and frightening all at once.

    There is indeed a lot of sex and Emma’s and Mark’s willingness to engage in a lot of furious jumping is something that some people may find offensive. I think there is a truthfulness to this film’s embracing of sex and its grip on our psyches. It doesn’t shy away from a critical stage that all of us go through, whether some of us want to admit it or not. I find its honesty refreshing and it was done in a way that was funny and honest rather than lurid.

    Bella’s attitude of being an explorer in a strange land is really how all of us enter the world and I think some of us retain that sense of oddity and wonder even as we age. The world is a strange, wonderful, hilarious and awful place all at once and this film does a great job reminding us of this. I had no expectations at all when I watched this film and I was so pleasantly surprised by its uniqueness. I was also very glad it had a happy ending.

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