As part of our coverage of the 80th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest, Poor Things. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.
Like a guardian angel watching from above, an early scene from Yorgos Lanthimos’ eighth film, Poor Things, gives us a tender moment between creator and creation, establishing an emotional core that burns bright until the film’s very last frame. Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter, a woman who has become an experiment, is held in bed by Willem Dafoe’s Godwin Baxter, a brilliant yet eccentric scientist and her loving guardian. We see the doting yet unconventional father figure and his child from above, framing their affection seemingly from the heavens as he reads her a bedtime story—and when she starts asking questions afterward like children tend to do, he is honest with her, particularly about what happened to her parents. He tells her of their biggest dream before they died: to make discoveries about the world, and further still, that aspiration is what this life is truly about.
Poor Things, the odyssey of a woman (Stone) who is brought back to life by science and has to redevelop into an adult from mental infancy, spends the rest of the film proving that Baxter’s sentiment is the truest and most pure thing we human beings have—and what a powerful sentiment it is. Bella is desperate to learn as much as she can, and we feel that primal urge, which melts into frustration and anger that shapes her fiery personality, in the way Lanthimos establishes the film’s visual language. The skilled director, responsible for other peculiar gems like The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite, introduces us to the Baxters’ world through their lavish late-1800s home, yet employing one pointed choice: the home exists in black and white.
We see Bella’s trappings from the beginning, a place she must stay at the behest of her guardian, as a mostly enriching and altogether doting environment—albeit quite strange at the same time, filled with wonderfully weird fusions of animal species and other experiments roaming freely. But it’s limiting and stifling, too. Lanthimos uses stunning fish-eye lens shots to establish how the practice of science can lean into the bizarre and make the audience feel as trapped in a bubble as Bella feels. It’s a home full of love and care, yet it has nothing on the greater world she has yet to discover.
Bella’s universe becomes magically colorful as it opens and expands with knowledge, beauty, intrigue, and the full scope of the real world. It’s a smart touch that harkens back to Dr. Baxter’s pivotal words to Bella while also highlighting how the world of the film is somewhat adjacent to our own in a science-fiction context. Shona Heath and James Price’s production design fully immerses the audience into the wonderful cities Bella visits, crafting a world where the late 1800s feel like they’ve had a baby with modern sensibilities mixed with groundwork in science. Their work is intricate, full of rich beauty, and undeniably Oscar-worthy—much like the film’s wonderful costumes.
Holly Waddington’s costume design—particularly for Bella, as she cycles through so many throughout the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time—plays skillfully with period tropes and modernity. It works in tandem with the production design, further building out the film’s unique world and helping cement it both in its period and in the realm of science fiction. The costumes and production design—as well as the haunting, pulsing, and grandiose score by the beloved indie band Black Country, New Road member Jerskin Fendrix—are the lifeblood of Lanthimos’ world-building efforts. Without their strength, the film would not be quite the astonishing achievement it unequivocally is. Like Heath and Price, there is an Oscar nomination in Waddington’s future.
As if the film couldn’t get any stronger, there’s the acting. Stone is utterly riveting as Bella, a role she was undoubtedly born to play. Similarly to how Bella herself goes on a journey of the self within the film, this feels like the film Stone has been working toward her entire career, the kind that takes advantage of her innate comedic expertise while also letting her lean into her underappreciated dramatic skills. Her physical performance in this film is unmatched in recent memory, and she gives herself fully to the concept of mental and physical development in a way that is not only extremely effective but endlessly exciting to watch.
Further still, her performance shifts as Bella’s mind reaches its apex, and it is just as fun to take in as it was to watch her evolve and mature. Stone is having a total blast in this role—it’s impossible to miss that point, particularly during a bombastic dance sequence that will have audiences grinning—but she also portrays Bella as overflowing with sharp and entrancing intelligence as the film progresses. It’s the kind of intelligence that negates shame, the notion of which is Bella’s most consistent ideal. Throughout the film, she creates a covenant with her own personal power, disregarding the rules of polite society in increasingly chaotic ways that continue to surprise and delight all the way to the movie’s end. The overall effectiveness of her character arc is the bedrock of the film’s messages of unbridled curiosity and liberation. There is no doubt that this is the best performance of Stone’s career thus far.
Stone is supported by a top-notch supporting cast, with nearly everyone in the bunch turning out strong performances brimming with nuance. While Bella is the film’s beating heart and soul, the rest of the outstanding cast is the film’s other vital organs. The film needs all of their performances to work, and the overall performance chemistry meets that moment in spades. Ramy Youssef is sweet, sensitive, and perfectly cast as Max McCandless, an aspiring scientist who gets roped up in the lives of the Baxters in a way that completely changes his own. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Mark Ruffalo in a role where he is truly playing a character, and Poor Things treats its audience to a riotous and absurd tour-de-force performance from him as Dr. Baxter’s lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Christopher Abbott also shines bright, but for being a slimy and cruel General with whom Bella has a complicated past. It’s fun to see both of these men play so against type, and it proves that, if given the chance, actors often have more inside them than what we’ve come to expect.
Finally, the film is nurtured and built up by the foundation of The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara’s hilarious, frank, and beautifully progressive script. There is a beautiful kinship between the film’s textual core and Lanthimos’ visual concoctions, one that feels seamless and wholly natural. McNamara’s words are so in line with Lanthimos’ creative power and Stone’s anchoring performance that it’s almost hard to believe that the film wasn’t simply born out of some sci-fi experiment itself, fully formed and ready to teach us the crucialities of life, love, and agency.
Poor Things is Yorgos Lanthimos’ most ambitious and captivating swing yet, one that pays off in dividends as a beautiful chorus of instruments swells over the film’s final moments, showing us what we’ve hoped for from the start: Bella in her final form, one that is self-assured, worldly, and uncompromising. She is beautiful, bold, and brash. And as a woman living at a time where polite society reigns, she is finally free. The world may be full of poor things, that’s true, but our darling Bella? She’s definitely not one of them.
Poor Things is currently scheduled for release on December 8, 2023. Watch the film’s trailer here.