Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Poor Things (2023)

Welcome to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  Well, I did it, I actually managed to see all ten Best Picture nominees before the awards, for the first time ever.  WOO HOO!

And I picked a helluva movie to finish up with.  Yorgos Lanthimos's latest bizzaro cinematic feast is called Poor Things and stars Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe.  Based on a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, the film is part Frankenstein adaptation, part feminist hero's journey.  It's also demented, grotesque, often hilariously funny, and one of the best and most original films of the year.  

Dafoe, buried under hideous scar makeup, plays Dr. Godwin Baxter, a surgeon who conducts insane and illegal experiments, the latest of which involves reanimating the body of a pregnant woman who threw herself off a bridge, by putting the unborn baby's brain in the woman's head.  Thus is the origin story of the film's protagonist Bella, who when we first meet her is just learning crude motor skills and speech patterns.  Baxter brings in a medical student, Max, to essentially help raise this child-woman, and he unexpectedly falls in love with her.  Max asks to marry her and Godwin agrees, but insists that Bella never be allowed to leave the Baxter home, as he doesn't think she could survive in the outside world.  But Bella begins experiencing an intellectual and sexual awakening and decides to run off with Godwin's lawyer Duncan, and the pair travel around Europe, an adventure which opens Bella to all sorts of life experiences as her brain matures.
I've really already divulged too much; this film works best if you know very little about it; its unexpected twists and turns are a big part of its considerable charm.  But there's a lot more to love about Poor Things.

Emma Stone delivers the performance of her career, fearlessly conveying every phase of Bella's development, from clumsy, barely articulate child to sophisticated, sexually empowered firebrand.  Mark Ruffalo is absolutely hysterical here, initially coming off as a suave, cultured man of the world who proves a prodigious lover, but later revealing himself to be an insecure, resentful buffoon once it's clear Bella's outgrown him.  Dafoe is both creepy and nurturing as Bella's adoptive father, and they have some genuinely tender moments together once she becomes self-aware.

The story is very much a parable about female empowerment, about a protagonist who comes of age in an environment where men are making all her decisions for her.  But from the start she rallies against this power structure, climbing up to the roof even as her handlers warn her it's not safe for her up there.  As she matures and encounters more new ideas she becomes fascinated, exploring every avenue available to her.  Bella's ongoing impulse to seek out knowledge and experience continues throughout the film, and things come full circle when she's ultimately confronted with her previous life.    

The cinematography by Robbie Ryan (who also worked on Yorgos's previous film The Favourite), is subjective and off-putting, making use of wide-angle and fisheye lenses to convey characters' warped sense of perception, and Ryan's frame is gorgeously bokeh-saturated, placing our focus squarely on the center of the image.  Much like Greig Fraser's work on The Batman, Ryan's "dirty" frame brings to mind shallow focus cinematography of the 1930s and 40s, and it lends this film a visual richness.  Bella's "childhood" is photographed in drab black and white, but once she and Duncan run off to Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris, things shift to impossibly vibrant color, with fantastical sets that reflect Bella's childlike perception of these new and exciting locales.

Yorgos Lanthimos has always been an unapologetic filmmaker, going to uncomfortable places with gleeful abandon, and Poor Things is almost a culmination of genres for him.  Like The Lobster it's full of absurdist humor, like The Killing of a Sacred Deer it's full of disturbing imagery, and like The Favourite it explores the nuances and complexities of sexuality.  Of the four Lanthimos films I've seen thus far, Poor Things is my favorite.  This movie is a gem.

I give Poor Things **** out of ****.

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