Poor Things is very entertaining but is it really OK to laugh, asks Dan Slevin.
It’s rare to find a film that is as self-consciously challenging and at the same time as entertaining as Poor Things, the latest from Greek provocateur Jorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, 2019 Oscar-winner The Favourite). Based on the award winning 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, the film is beautiful, witty, imaginative, wonderfully performed and impressively mounted but at the same time highly disturbing. Of all the films I’ve seen so far this summer, Poor Things is the one that I have had most reason to ponder.
Set in a kind of steampunk art nouveau version of Victorian London, an experimental surgeon named Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) retrieves the corpse of a young woman who has hurled herself into the Thames in despair. He discovers she was pregnant and decides to reanimate the corpse with the brain of the infant in place of the deceased. He names her Bella (Emma Stone) and gives her his own surname – he effectively becomes her father.
As Bella gets closer to adulthood, the combination of an adolescent brain and an adult woman’s body cause feelings to emerge that no one appears to want to (or be able to) control. Godwin – and his assistant McCandless (Ramy Youssef) – treat Bella as an experiment that is to be recorded but not intervened with. Bella herself is simply a force of nature.
As her sexual awakening spirals helplessly, Godwin agrees to both betrothing her to McCandless and letting her see the world with scoundrel lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) who in turn eventually finds himself unable to contain any aspect of her.
Her intellectual growth is alluded to – she meets an older woman on a steamship (Hanna Schygulla) who gives her books to read and she has a political awakening in a Paris brothel – the film is more interested in her sexual freedom and the way in which this freedom both entices and repulses the men around her. In that sense, Poor Things is quite old-fashioned.
It is also only half of the novel, which alternated chapters narrated by McCandless focusing on Bella’s romantic adventures with her own refutation of his patriarchal perspective. In Poor Things we get hints of Bella becoming a complete and formidable woman but not really enough.
I’ve seen the question asked, is Poor Things feminist empowerment fantasy or male wish-fulfilment fantasy and I’m afraid the answer has to be, “Yes”.
Poor Things is rated R18 for body horror, sex scenes, nudity & offensive language and is playing in select cinemas across New Zealand.