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Release Date: 12/22/23 [Cinemas]
Genre: Romance. SciFi.

Studio: Searchlight Pictures. 

"The incredible tale about the fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter, a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter." 


Poor Things is the kind of movie only a twisted cinephile could make and, possibly, love. It’s weird. It’s gripping. It’s horny. It’s constantly playful and imaginative. In short, it’s a masterpiece. 


Yorgos Lanthimos is already well established as a gifted director of surrealistic and darkly funny social commentary from movies like The Favourite and The Lobster. But he and writer Tony McNamara (reuniting here from The Favourite) have outdone themselves. 


In the opening scene, a woman jumps off a bridge in London, effectively ending her life. In the next, rendered in the grainy black and white of old Hammer horror movies, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) looks broken and disoriented, stabbing at a piano with fingers that might as well be pinball flippers. 


We meet a horrific, Frankenstein-like man named Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (an outstanding Willem Dafoe), but here he’s both the monster and the doctor. And Bella is his creation, made both from the body of the mother who committed suicide and the brain of her baby that drove her to take her own life.


“She’s an experiment,” God says, the irony quite intentional, and Bella is basically allowed to grow up as an extremely spoiled child who is never told no. 


In the beginning Bella is violent. She likes to stab and squash and kill things, and God treats her like an experiment to be studied and analyzed. Enter Max (Ramy Youssef), a student hired to watch over and take notes on Bella. As she progresses and becomes more verbal and intelligent (and horny), Max falls in love with Bella and plans to marry her. Only, she’s still growing and evolving, and instead she runs off to see the world with a man she just met.


In the second act, Bella and Duncan (Mark Ruffalo, who appears to be cosplaying as Pedro Pascal) are in Lisbon, and the movie is now in color. Bella tries sex, travel, and oysters, but where God and Max were scientific and curious, Duncan is manipulative and opportunistic. 


Lisbon, the setting, is surrealistic and sugarcoated, vaguely reminiscent of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Some of the backgrounds look like technicolor matte paintings. Adding to the out-of-body, otherworldly experience of the film, the time periods are completely indeterminate and fluid, at once both retro and futuristic. Meanwhile, Bella’s experiences are becoming darker and more nuanced. 


In Paris, the madame of a brothel tells Bella that, “We must experience everything — not just the good, but degradation, horror, sadness. This makes us whole … makes us people of substance — not flighty, untouched children. Then we can know the world; and when we know the world, the world is ours.” It might as well be the theme of the film. 


The writing is outstanding, but it’s also hard to undersell just how incredible this movie looks. Robbie Ryan (yet another from The Favourite) has turned in what’s easily the most interesting cinematography of the year. Every camera movement coaxes the storytelling to absurd or dreamy or harrowing new levels. There’s also an irreplaceable score by Jerskin Fendrix that, by the flick of a violin bow, can make a small scene of a woman walking out of frame feel downright apocalyptic. 


Virtually every part of Poor Things just works. Every actor, every shot, every word, and sound and second are placed just right, and there’s a tension and intrigue that keeps building and building throughout.  


But beyond the impeccable crafting of the entire crew, it’s Stone’s portrayal of Bella that pushes Poor Things over the top. Where others (namely Ruffalo) may be acting for affect rather than effect (see also Wes Anderson), or they are otherwise self-aware, Stone absolutely disappears into this role. She’s fearless. At first, she moves like a reanimated child, but then she ages and evolves complex thoughts and emotions before your eyes, and that growth is as natural as the backgrounds are unnatural. The juxtaposition of the art direction and her acting are, in a word, ineffable. 


Poor Things is a playful, darkly funny, gross, horny, love letter to weirdness. It’s like Walt Disney and Roald Dahl on an acid-fueled roadtrip with Hunter Thompson and Franz Kafka. It’s a near perfect sum of its parts. And it’s one of the strangest and best films of the year.


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